Born in 1951, composer, multi-instrumentalist, and political activist Lindsay Cooper has been a fixture on the new music scene in both Great Britain and Europe since she first appeared with Henry Cow in 1974. Regarded originally as part of the of the Canterbury Scene, a place and period in which prog rock and modern British jazz spawned groups such as Soft Machine, Henry Cow, Hatfield and the North, National Health, Matching Mole, and many others, Cooper's restlessness and talents soon far outstripped her geographical musical origins.
Cooper began playing piano at age 11 in her native Hornsey, a suburb of North London and switched to bassoon a few years later. From 1965-1968 she played in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and studied classical music exclusively. She later became a member of the Royal Academy of Music in London and relocated to New York for one year. It was in the United States that she first encountered recording projects outside the realm of classical music, doing spot work for film soundtracks.
Upon returning to the U.K., Cooper decided to leave classical music at the age of 20, and in 1971 joined a Canterbury band called Comus. Her stay in the band was brief (only a year), but it afforded her a look and listen to everything else that was happening at the time, and the experience changed her life. During this period she also began playing both oboe and flute. Cooper began doing session work for other musicians and more film work. She was one of the noted performers on Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells and Hergest Ridge albums in 1973 and 1974, respectively. During a theater project, Cooper first met the musicians in Henry Cow and after Geoff Leigh left the band, she replaced him in 1974.
Cooper's musical restless was the perfect balance for the members of Henry Cow that included Fred Frith, John Greaves, Dagmar Krause, Peter Blegvad, Tim Hodgkinson, and Chris Cutler. And while it is true that Cooper only recorded one album with the band, Unrest in 1974, she remained involved with the band and its recording projects. She recorded both Slapp Happy albums with them and played on Steve Hillage's Fish Rising album. She also reunited briefly with Comus, recording one album with them called To Keep From Crying, played with Egg on their Civil Surface recording and contributed to Hatfied and the North's The Rotter's Club disc.
By 1975 Cooper had helped to found and become the musical director for the City, a theatrical rock band and first encountered the personages of Lol Coxhill, Evan Parker, and Derek Bailey. She began to improvise and play with them later that year.
Cooper was virtually everywhere and anywhere there was art music to be made in the 1970s and in 1977 (a year rife with musical change all over the West), she co-founded the Feminist Improvising Group with Maggie Nichols, Sally Potter, Georgie Born, and pianist Irene Schweizer. During the same year, in order to broaden her contribution to the group, Cooper began playing soprano saxophone, a decision that was to change her life as both a composer and a conceptual artist. At this time she also gave up playing the flute.
1978 saw the breakup of Henry Cow. On their final recording, the illustrious Western Front, one side of the album was devoted solely to Cooper's compositions. This was no mean feat for a woman coming out of the rock world in the late '70s. (But then, Henry Cow wasn't an ordinary rock band, were they?) She joined National Health for a short time but left when her friend Dave Stewart exited to form his own group. She recorded her first solo album, Rags, in 1980, which featured her first collaboration with Phil Minton along with Born, Potter, Chris Cutler, and Fred Frith. She also recorded a stunning duet with bassist and vocalist Jöelle Léandre in early 1982.
Cooper, Bron, Nichols, Potter, and Schweizer kept the Feminist Improvising Group alive through 1982, and during this time, Cooper also recorded and performed with Mike Westbrook, Maarten Altena, David Thomas' Pedestrians, and in that same year, she founded her own group, the Lindsay Cooper Film Music Orchestra. With this band she wrote and performed many film and TV scores, the most notable of which, at the time, was for Sally Potter's debut feature film, The Gold Diggers. From 1983 to 1986, Cooper recorded two of her signature albums, Music for Small Screen, a collection of television pieces, and Music for Other Occasions with Alfred 23 Harth, Kate Westbrook, Krause, Nichols, and others.
Cooper did not, however, limit her activities to her own band. As the decade progressed she also joined Chris Cutler, Dagmar Krause, and Zeena Parkins in the group News From Babel. The band issued two albums: Work Resumed on the Tower in 1984 and Letters Home in 1986. Cooper wrote the music for both albums and Cutler wrote lyrics for Krause.
Lindsay Cooper is perhaps best known for her 1987 song cycle Oh Moscow. Featuring herself, Minton, Potter, Hugh Hopper, Marilyn Mazur, Harth, and Elvira Plenar, it was recorded in 1989 at the famed festival in Quebec, FIMAV.
In 1991 Cooper was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She declined to tell anyone and went on performing all over the world and issued her collection of dance pieces, Schrodinger's Cat, another collection of dance works called An Angel on the Bridge, and premiered "Songs for Bassoon and Orchestra" in Bologna. She also performed the debut of her "Concerto for Sopranino Saxophone and Strings" at the British Conservatory. A two-CD collection called Songs From the Bridge, which included these and other works; it was issued in 1998. Cooper's last major work was the haunting and harrowing Sahara Dust, in collaboration with Australian singer/writer/director Robyn Archer. Sahara Dust is a meditation on the Gulf War. A studio recording for the venerable Intakt label, Cooper enlisted Minton, Plenar, Robyn Schulkovsky, Dean Brodrick, and Paul Jayasina for the recording session. Arguably, it, and not Oh Moscow, is Cooper's masterwork, given it's haunting theme of the world being reduced to Sahara dust (rain bearing particles of sand from the Middle East) little by little as people watch the conflict from their television screens; they come to realize that this is not a distant situation with far flung consequences, but one on which the idea of community and collective survival depends. The interplay between Minton's voice singing and ringing out the poetry with the hypnotic winds, reeds, piano, and electronics is almost unbearable in its import. Yet it is so seductive the listener cannot help but to draw nearer the sound.
In 1998 Cooper's battle with MS had become such a rigor that she was forced to disclose it to the musical community. She has been largely inactive since that time as all of her energy and resources -- as a musician she had no health insurance proper and public assistance is hardly adequate -- had been spent dealing with her disease. Active or not, Cooper remains a hugely respected and influential figure throughout Europe. Her works are regularly performed and in some visionary conservatories, even taught.