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Life and work of musician Lindsay Cooper honored in tribute concert

Although Lindsay died in 2013 from Multiple Sclerosis her genre crossing music lives on. (Wikimedia Commons)
Although Lindsay died in 2013 from Multiple Sclerosis her genre crossing music lives on. (Wikimedia Commons)

Renowned feminist musician Lindsay Cooper passed away in 2013, but her legacy is far from forgotten.  Mills will hosted a tribute concert in her honor, on Saturday Dec 5 showcasing some of Cooper’s most famous work as performed by an ensemble of her former collaborators, graduates of the Mills College music department and current music students.

Cooper gained recognition in the 1970’s and 80’s as a brilliant multi-instrumentalist specializing in bassoon, oboe, and saxophone, playing in the avant rock band Henry Cow and the experimentalist ensemble The Feminist Improvisation Group, all while paving the way for female musicians in the rock and experimental music scenes.

Henry Cow was largely an experimental and improvisational group, leaving behind a repertoire that is still considered to be transcendent. Music critic Myles Boisen once wrote in a biography on the website AllMusic that Henry Cow’s “spontaneity, intricate structures, philosophy, and humor…[have] endured and transcended the ‘progressive’ tag.”

Cooper’s former Henry Cow bandmate and Mills faculty member, Fred Frith, remembers Cooper as a “very charming, very enthusiastic, very motivated” person who mastered “half a dozen” instruments after joining Henry Cow as a saxophonist. Frith also credits Cooper with garnering Henry Cow’s first substantial following of women rock fans.

“In 1974, the idea of a woman being in a rock band was already sufficiently odd…we noticed after [Lindsay] joined the band that suddenly, there were women in the audience,” Frith said. “Eventually, we were three men and three women in the band by the end of the 70’s, which was pretty unheard of.”

This gender equilibrium was something that Frith tried to replicate while putting together the ensemble for Cooper’s tribute concert.

“I wanted to make sure that the group had at least as many women as men in it, as a reflection of what Lindsay represents and what she has achieved. We have some of the best women musicians in the Bay Area playing [in the concert], some of whom are graduates of Mills,” Frith said

The tribute concert will feature nearly all of Cooper’s contributions to Henry Cow, in addition to music she composed for a 1983 film entitled “The Gold Diggers,” directed by Sally Potter. According to Frith, “The Gold Diggers” is “still the only film ever made with an entirely female cast and crew.” Music student Rachel Austin, who is performing in the concert, describes the music as “[ranging] from sublimely transcendent to rough and punky.”

“The show is going to be a celebration of the life of Lindsay Cooper, so come prepared for a rock show and ready to dance and shout when necessary. If you’re into outstanding music and supporting the works of women in male-dominated fields, come to this show!” Austin wrote in an email.

The experimental, genre-bending nature of Cooper’s music is part of its cross-generational appeal, and part of the reason modern audiences are still drawn to it. Frith attributes these qualities to Cooper’s extraordinary skill set and knowledge that he says modern musicians need today in order to survive in the industry.

“In a way, the definition of a twenty-first century musician is someone who can read music fluently, can improvise, is equally comfortable in a lot of different genres, and is open to all kinds of experimentation,” Frith said. “Lindsay was an absolute pioneer. Many of the musical models that you see now, she was the one who was there before everybody else.”