Chris Cutler

Emblematic drumer of the meeting of rock, improvisation & contemporary music, Chris Cutler, often associated with Fred Frith, answers a few questions of Patrice Boyer. A very fine & rare interview.

Chris, I read your biography on your website and I'm very impressed by the number of collaborations with musicians as well European as American.  How do you manage all these projects?

There are not so many musicians in our area of work and over time we all get to know one another. There are certain festivals and venues – all in different parts of the world – where we tend to meet and these become, in a way, extraterritorial zones. These, and recordings, which are also non-geographical, form our ‘community’, so it’s inevitable that we end up working together. If I am making a record, I will ask the people I need, not the ones who live in my town. It’s the same with a performing project. We all have to fly to somewhere for the concert anyway, so if one comes from Tokyo and another from Paris, what’s the difference ? Of course it’s a little more complex and expensive to work this way, but – if I need Jon Rose I need Jon Rose, not anyone else. And that’s how it works.

You had an important historical role for innovating musics, first of all as a founder member of Henry Cow, then Art Bears, and in parallel by selting the network « Rock in Opposition »  (Art Zoyd, Art Bears, Univers Zero, Zamla Mammas Manna, Stormy Six, Von Zamla, This Heat, The Work... and others one which played in Charleville-Mézières), and the label RecommendedRecords. What do you think about the "revival" of this music, which results the reformation of emblematic groups from the 70'/80' (Magma, Univers Zero, Hatfield and the North, Zamla...)  guests in France at the time of an annual Festival ("Les Tritonnales").

There are two kinds of revivals going on, I think. One is, as you describe, groups from the ‘60s and ‘70s reforming, mostly to play their old music. My feeling about this is, OK why not - although it is not something that I would ever want to do. And I know I can say the same for the other members of Henry Cow, we have all continued to explore the possibilities of music; none of us returned to our past. Therefore, in my case, Cassiber, p53, Twice Around the Earth, Domestic Stories, the solo electronic project, and so on. It’s the needs and possibilities of the present that interest me, rather than the old repertoire. But I accept that this issue is not that simple, I can only state my own feelings.

The second revival is the current popularity of ‘prog’ and what Americans call ‘RIO’ music which is populated not so much by old, reformed bands but new ones, especially in the USA. Again, why not - so long as no one thinks that this is in any way innovative or ‘progressive’. As a copy of music that is already 40 years old, it’s really a form of nostalgia. Such revivals do not address the problems of their own time but adopt the ideas and solutions of the past, solutions indeed to problems that no longer exist.In a way I see parallels with world music. Rather than solve or own problems of cultural discourse we try to colonise other people’s solutions – making them meaningless in the process.

A kind of white wire in your career, it is your complicity with Fred Frith. Do you always have the faculty to astonish each others ?

I don’t know about astonish, but surprise, certainly. We have worked together, on and off, for 35 years now –  as a duo for more than 30. So when we meet to play – a few times at least each year – of course much has happened to us both in the meantime, and we have a lot to say, musically, that’s new. And because we also share, very broadly, a quite sophisticated common language – created and learned together in the intense years of Henry Cow – there is a deep grammar that makes the new vocabulary each brings more surprising in its complex relation to the past.

There's two years ago, we produced a concert which was a kind of tribute to Robert Wyatt (I know  he don't like this word), with musicians with whom you often played (John Greaves and Karen Mantler, and others from French jazz & innovating musics : Dominique Pifarély, Sylvain Kassap, Jacques Mahieux). Could you tell us what is Robert Wyatt for you ?

 Robert was one of the last drummers whose style influenced mine. Exceptionally musical, he was both  tuneful and loose - a rare combination for a rock drummer. He was a master of percussion melody, and always surprising, seeming to belong somewhere between Motown, and the best of Rock, but with a flexibility usually associated with Jazz. And as a composer and singer; Moon in June was a model of how to expand the song form without making it collapse. I think one of Robert’s great gifts is a very complex form of simplicity. I admire his political consistency.

In your work we can find two different ways : improvised instrumental music (which made you meet an impressing number of musicians all around the world) and the"rock'n'roll" songs.  I know your interest for the texts (Art Bears, and your collaboration with David Thomas, Peter Blegvad), with bridges between these two words. Could you tell us more about it

 I have always tried to work with all the different kinds of music making that interest me, both as a performer and as a composer. Improvisation is indispensable because it is so direct – it demands a state of receptivity and reflex that is unique - first there is nothing, and out of nothing comes something. It is a creative discipline that sharpens every faculty and invokes new ideas and techniques, since it taps a very deep part of being, below consciousness and very much related to physical memory (muscular sequences and organic reflex). Composed music on the other hand, places intellect ahead of response, allowing the calculator and critic in us to plan and orchestrate resources  free of the constraints of unfolding time. It also frees musical possibility from both the body and from habit, underwriting the emergence of structural forms that could never emerge out of individual or collective practice. Rock or dance music, on the other hand, operates somewhere between soma and psyche, celebrating the body but organising itself through discipline and a special kind of structural and semantic order. Songs are another form altogether, since they are neither music nor text but a hybrid with many subtle and productive possible inter-relationships. It’s why I have returned again and again to song form throughout my working life. Work with words calls for a particular sensibility that links semantics and phonetics and to fuse this with the complex language of musical discourse calls for highly specific synaesthetictechniques. You cannot conflate these different ways of music making; they are all like different languages. And they inform and nourish one another. In the global village, being a cultural polyglot seems natural.

Which are the French musicians with whom you regularly worked?

A few only. I have worked with Jean Marc Montera and Helene Breschand - in various combinations, and we are all in the European Improvisers Ensemble together. I have also done several projects with Xavier Garcia, including the larger ‘Virtual and Reel Meeting projects, which are still current.

The way you play drums is very original, with a part which come from rock and another part from contemporary percussion. I don¹t hear a lot of jazz. Which are the drummers and the musicians wich influenced you ?

This is a very broad question. When I was young I listened voraciously to all sorts of music, and I was influenced by a lot of different styles. As for drums, certainly Tony Meehan when I was learning, then Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell, John French, Robert Wyatt and Christian Vander. But I also absorbed, en route, much from the Motown drummers, Sun Ra’s drummers, Elvin Jones and certainly Edgard Varese’s use of percussion, as well as Karlheinz Stockhausen’s ‘Mikrophonie I’, which was a strong  subliminal influence on my electrification of the kit - though it was the example of Fred Frith and his approach to the electric guitar that was the more immediate influence there.

What are your current projects?

I am working slowly on a new song project, I still play concerts with Fred Frith, Peter Blegvad and Pere Ubu. Also with The European improvisers Ensemble (playing Graphic Scores). I am currently working on a p53 project with the BBC Scottish Orchestra with conductor Ilan Volkov and a new version of my Timescales for calculated pulses. And of course the programme of solo concerts goes on. Right now I’m in a studio in the Pyrenees finishing a new 50-minute radio piece for Deutschland Radio. It looks possible that next year in Paris I will participate in a group with Hugh Hopper, Patrice Meyer and Francois Verly working on material from the Mahavishnu Orchestra Birds of Fire period. Otherwise I work on a new book of theoretical essays and am in the middle of assembling a definitive This Heat box set for ReR.

Interview by Patrice Boyer