20 years of Rock In Opposition
Interview with Chris Cutler (1998)
Valdir Montanari: This year marks the 20th anniversary of that memorable concert in the New London Theatre, which I suppose was the first step into the Rock In Opposition (RIO) movement. How do you see that date today, and the past period?
Chris Cutler: It was long ago and it feels like long ago. Rock In Opposition, as a formal organization, lasted about 2 years before it stopped. The idea of RIO has been kept alive in some places, though there has been no specific structure for 20 years. However, ReR/Recommended, which was part of the same impulse as RIO, continues to this day with the practical work of finding and distributing music outside the recognised genres - and outside the formal music industry structures.
RIO came at the end of a period where all kinds of music seemed to be both connected and accessible; one felt that one still could have an overview of the various available musics and genres and see how they were related to one another or to the history of music in general. There was a transparency that has vanished now into countless specialist subcultural niches. RIO also came at the end of a traceable and linear development in what had begun as rock, and had slowly introduced elements from jazz, contemporary music, electronics, improvisation and ethnic music, enormously enriching the aesthetic and communicative language of electric music. But around 1967/8, there was a great fragmentation - not only in music, but across all cultural disciplines - after which the centre seemed to dissolve, leaving a multiplicity of diversifying specialist networks which, as time elapsed, connected with one another less and less. Where all recorded music had previously lived under one roof and under a kind of patronage - as diverse products of a single record company, for instance - by the late '70's survival increasingly depended on separation and independence, on the identification of specialised listeners, and therefore increasingly on the growth of networks of mutual support amongst the like-minded. Although this meant that the big companies could no longer control what music would be available and what would not, equally it removed the music that it did not release from the support and visibility of the industry's mass distribution and promotion networks. We slowly learned that to consolidate our position we would have to set up our own distribution and information networks. And though our coming together for mutual support focused in RIO, the structure that survived and grew was ReR, because RIO was more turning point in thinking than an enduring workhorse.
VM: What was the origin or the idea of the RIO movement?
CC: Henry Cow had been traveling throughout Europe since the early '70's and we had met many interesting musicians in different countries. However, the power of American and British record companies meant that only their bands and styles were visible and somehow defined what was 'authentic'. A French or Polish band would have no distribution and therefore would not be 'taken seriously' - even in France or Poland. It was also a question of self confidence and validation by acceptance in the mass market. We knew that important things were happening in our field that no one else knew about (since the music had no distribution - the only way to know it existed was to meet the groups and hear them. as a permanently touring band this was precisely Henry Cow's luck). It was to introduce some of this music to a wider public that we eventually organized the festival in London. We wanted to say "there is plenty happening and you can't depend on the music press or the record companies to find it. Now you have to start to look in places that are not so obvious". At the time we didn't intend to start an organization, just run a concert, but immediately afterwards the organization just fell into place. It was inevitable.
VM: What do you think RIO brought of positive or negative results to you and to contemporary music?
CC: From RIO came a clear presentation of the idea of an approach to music that was both innovative and outside the commercial structures, of a way of working that was not restricted to artificially limited genres and marketing categories. It also recognised the international nature of our musical community and offered a working example of independence, co-operation and mutual support to the world in general (this was hardly unique to us, of course, but in our field it was we who brought that idea and it's realisation to a concrete form). ReR continued this work by actively searching out, distributing and releasing alternative music from all over the world, and through the 'newspaper' work of the Quarterly and the theoretical work of the sourcebooks. It was we who initially kept the channels of information open, since it required full time work, which no one in RIO was in a position to undertake. So I guess the main positive effects of RIO were to set an example and to encourage others to follow us - to show that it could be done - to say "don't complain how bad is everything and wait for someone else to do the work, just get on and do it yourself". I can't think of any negative results.
VM: Do you think the movement has a due recognition from the whole humanity?
CC: No. But what is due? Why should the whole humanity be interested in a specialist musical subculture? It isn't even interested in mainstream Art. That's not a criticism. We all think what we do or are interested in ought to interest everyone else too. But I for instance have no interest in sports, which would baffle a sports fan. In fact we all specialize - and that's a strength, not a weakness, of human societies.
VM: How do you see RIO today?
CC: As a moment in an unfolding story.
VM: Are you planning any special event to this 20th anniversary? Do you think about any concert, any reunion of musicians?
CC: Not especially. I thought I would be nice to do something and I wrote to all the old members of RIO. Daniel Denis replied, to say he'd write again, but he hasn't yet and Gigou Chenevier sent a very supportive letter, some photographs, memorabilia and a short memoir. That's all. I am not the one to insist.
VM: Do you see RIO as a good step to the globalization of contemporary music?
CC: I see ReR that way. The music is global anyway - because of the mobility and permanence of records, cassettes, CDs. But a structure like ReR makes the information flow faster and directs and selects it - which is critical in the digital age when there is far too much information for anyone to sift through without some help and recommendations.
VM: How do you see Rock Music today, in the whole context? Do you still consider yourself as a rock musician?
CC: Sometimes. The field has widened so much, it may not be useful to put everything under the heading of 'rock' anymore, though rock was the birthplace for a lot of it. My work with Peter Blegvad, The (EC)Nudes, Pere Ubu - that's rock - to me - but p53, the Hyperion ensemble , Lutz Glandien, all the duos with Fred Frith, Zeena Parkins, Keith Rowe, Michiyu Yagi, Rene Lussier, Uchihashi Kasuhisa... - what are they? So I may think of myself of being at heart a rock musician (that's my first approach to music) but I guess I don't play so much rock any more. I don't even play a conventional kit a lot of the time.
M: How is your relationship with the other musicians of Henry Cow? How do you feel the possibility to an eventual reunion to a concert or a record?
CC: I still work regularly with Fred Frith (we have a duo and I work in his quintet Tense Serenity; he played recently in my 'Timescales' project and on my new song CD with Stevan Tickmayer). I work also with Tim Hodgkinson (I played on his last CD, we make occasional duo concerts, we both work with Iancu Dumitrescu and Ana Maria Avram). With John Greaves I work in the Peter Blegvad Trio still. And until recently I worked quite a lot with Dagmar Krause (on Art Bears, News From Babel, Duck and Cover, Domestic Stories) and I see her fairly often. I worked a lot with Lindsay Cooper (on News From Babel, 'Music For Films' , 'Oh Moscow' and several CDs), but I am sorry to report that she is now not able to make concerts any more, because of illness, though I hope to make another CD with her in the next years. However, I can say that collectively we have no plans for any reunion. Perhaps because we don't want to look back, because we are all busy with new projects (sometimes groups that reform do so because they are not so busy any more and there is money on the table for them in their name and their old material). Who wants to live from nostalgia? Sometimes it can be fun to get together in a light hearted way, and remember. But not to reconstruct, as if nothing of value had happened since.
VM: How is your relationship with the other musicians of the RIO movement today? How do you feel the possibility to an eventual reunion to a concert or a record?
CC: We mostly grew apart over time. I still keep in touch with Lars Hollmer, Franco Fabbri and Gigou Chenevier, and sometimes I see Marc Hollander and Michel Berckmanns. Ferdinand Richard still runs the MIMI festival, but that is the only contact I have with him. I see no likelihood of any reunion. Most of the groups, indeed, no longer exist. Though Stormy Six and Samla Mammas Manna both did reunion concerts recently and Univers Zero still perform now and then. But things moved on a long way in 20 years. What was experimental then is not any more. I am more interested in what is happening now.
VM: Was the concert of the New London Theatre recorded? If so, is there any plan to publish the tapes?
C: Yes it was. I have no idea where the tapes are or who recorded it!
VM: Please tell us a little about that concert. Who was the first to play? Was there any formal presentation of the groups, talking about the country of origin and other things?
CC: Henry Cow played first (we were already known in England and we wanted to get ourselves out of the way). I think there was some kind of short presentation, but I can't really remember any more. Sorry. There was a lot of background and explanation in the program and in our promotional materials. Also there was a whole issue of IMPETUS devoted to the RIO groups.
VM: How did you know the non British artists? Was it easy to make the reunion to play in one day?
CC: We met them all on our travels. Yes, it was easy; they all drove to London. Europe is small. The world is small. Travel just takes some time and some money.
VM: How was the reaction of the press to the concert? Was there any article at Melody Maker, for example?
CC: There was quite a lot of press before the concert, I am not sure about afterwards. I will see if I have any records still..
VM: Why were there only European groups in the concert? Did you think to bring any non European group or artist to play in that concert?
CC: There were only Europeans because these were people we knew and had met as we moved about, and because travel inside Europe is economically practical - while transcontinental travel is still expensive. And we had to start somewhere; Europe is our immediate neighborhood. We weren't ready to be too ambitious with our first festival, especially since we had to find the money ourselves and we knew attendance would be modest. Recommended, on the other hand, immediately took music from everywhere in the world. Objects travel more cheaply and easily than people.
VM: Was there any other concert with the five groups in other country? If not, was there at least a small concert with two or three groups of the first reunion?
CC: There was only one concert with all 5 groups, but there were a few extra concerts for individual groups. And then there were other festivals for all groups in Italy, Sweden, Belgium.
VM: How do you see groups like Motor Totemist Guild, 5uu's, U Totem, Miriodor and Thinking Plague? Can we consider them as new branches of the RIO movement?
CC: If RIO had continued and expanded it's membership then yes, such groups would have been welcome. For me, the program of ReR/Recommended is, in a sense, a virtual RIO in terms of the music it represents and the activity of collection, selection, recommendation, distribution and promotion it pursues. The difference is that RIO was a real collective and Recommended is - so far as it's programmer is concerned - only one person. RIO was a dynamic organization, while ReR is a kind of ethical and ideologically driven service (to be open about it) or business (to be hard).
VM: I feel in your personal choices a special taste to the German group Faust. Is it true? Did you try to put Faust in the RIO project? Did you try to put any other German group in the RIO project?
CC: No, I do not have a special taste for Faust, though I like them and I think that their first two LP's are classics - very radical and original. They occupy an important place in the history both of the RIO/Recommended kind of rock-aesthetic expansion and in the development of the creative possibilities of recording technology. I even think a case could be made to link Henry Cow, Magma and Faust as three of the really pivotal bands of the 70's in our field. Henry Cow toured with Faust in 1973, but by the time of RIO they had long since broken up. I don't think we knew any contemporary German groups then, except perhaps Embryo? We had to restrict ourselves to a maximum of 5 groups for the festival and we chose the ones we knew best and thought most interesting and diverse.
VM: Once you recommended me to give a listen to the North American group Van Dyke Parks. I tried, but I didn't feel what they had of so special. What do you see in that group?
CC: Van Dyke Parks is just one person - a composer, pianist, singer. What I like about him is his musical imagination and his extraordinary gift as an arranger. He has a large musical vision and works on integrated projects, each one different musically, textually and in the territory it explores from each of the others. He is outside fashion, outside a 'genre'; a true original. Moreover he works in the field of songs, with a unique approach to lyric writing which I find very refreshing. He's also a great singer - what can I say ? For me 'Jump' is one of the great records of all time. But of course we are talking about personal taste here, not objective facts! Why should anyone like everything I like ?
VM: How do you see British groups such as King Crimson, Van der Graaf, Gentle Giant and Jethro Tull to the progressive music?
CC: Personally, I have to say that I never had much time for King Crimson. I disliked their first album and, apart from a track here and there, didn't find much I cared for on later albums either. To make things harder, they were contemporaries of Henry Cow and we were often pointlessly compared with them (especially Fred Frith who got foolishly compared/confused with Robert Fripp). But we never saw the connection really; they were working in a much narrower musical field than we were. And when they began to make big statements about their originality for improvising (around Jaimie Muir/Larks Tongues time) we found that frankly rather pathetic. But that was their way - after all Fripp claimed to have invented 'frippertronics', which is either a mark of ignorance on his part or outrageous arrogance, since every guitarist 'invented' that obvious procedure. I was not a fan of the other groups you list either, or Yes or Genesis for that matter, the quintessential 'progressive' groups. I don't think we had much in common with any of them. We certainly didn't learn anything from them. I, for instance, would have to go back to early Zappa, Beefheart, Barrett's Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, AMM, Sun Ra, Coltrane, Coleman, Stockhausen, Schoenberg and so on for influences. And for contemporary bands in the 70's, Magma, Faust, Samla Mammas Manna.
VM: I am sure that you know groups such as Magma (France) and Area (Italy). At the age of the RIO first concert they were still in their golden age. Did you think they could be playing in the concert?
CC: We knew both bands of course (Magma had been very supportive to us in the early 70's and we had done many concerts together; we played with Area too, in Italy), but both bands were pretty solidly established already, with LP's on Major labels, so we didn't really think of them when we put the RIO festival together; we wanted to introduce people who were really unknown..
VM: As a drummer and percussionist, how do you see the other percussionists and drummers of the progressive music? Do you like Daniel Denis, Bill Bruford, Christian Vander and John Marshall? Are you a personal friend of any of them? Is there any other name you would like to consider here?
CC: I am not exactly a personal friend of any of these drummers, though I have known Christian Vander and Daniel Denis casually for a long time. I think Daniel is a true original and a great musician. I have enormous respect for his playing and to his approach to playing. Vander was my last inspiration as a drummer (after that I think no single drummer has greatly affected the way I thought about music). I hesitate to use the word genius, but Vander has to come close. He has made music that will endure and amaze for a long time to come, and he managed to unite Stravinsky, Orff, Coltrane and James Brown in a form of Rock that was both powerful and intelligent, complex and basic: a unique musical personality. Other drummers who influenced me were Robert Wyatt, John French, Zappa/Black/Tripp, Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell, Tony Meehan, Kiyohiko Semba, Elvin Jones, Manu Katche, Kenny Buttrey and - generically - Motown. And I loved John Hiseman's playing on Jack Bruce's 'Songs for a Tailor', as well as that of many other players on specific pieces or songs where they honed perfect parts that make the music breathe. Gigou Chenevier, Michael Maxymenko, Dave Kerman and Charles Hayward made a great contribution to the vocabulary too, I think. I suppose what I respond to is the combination of imagination (thinking the not-obvious thing) and technique (making it sound obvious or necessary). Bill Bruford and John Marshall are perfectly good players, but they said nothing new to me. However, it must be admitted that I do take an eccentric approach to my instrument. And not one much noted by other drummers in general. Certainly not by those in 'the business' or I would have been interviewed or written about at least once in some drum or instrumentalist publication, and that has never happened.
VM: How do you see the Japanese musicians of progressive music today?
CC: In the last years, some of the most interesting music that I have heard performed in the stretched-post-rock area has been Japanese. It is a rich time for Japan now, I think. They have a wide musicianship, highly eclectic taste, deep familiarity with technology and a great musical imagination coupled with a willingness to put strange things together. There are many fine improvisers too. One could say something similar about the Czech Republic, or Montreal, or Bologna at the moment as well - where there are many interesting and original groups in one geographical location. Who can say why? (Well, actually of course one could try to explain it, but it would be complicated and take a very long time!)
VM: Thank you.