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Benjamin Piekut - Henry Cow: The World is a Problem

In its open improvisations, lapidary lyrics, errant melodies, and relentless pursuit of spontaneity, the British experimental band Henry Cow pushed rock music to its limits. Its rotating personnel, sprung from rock, free jazz and orchestral worlds, synthesized a distinct sound that troubled genre lines, and with this musical diversity came a mixed politics, including Maoism, communism, feminism and Italian Marxism.
Piekut tells the band’s story – from its founding in Cambridge in 1968 and later affiliation with Virgin Records to its demise ten years later – and analyses its varied efforts to link aesthetics with politics. Drawing on 90 interviews with Henry Cow musicians and crew, letters, notebooks, scores, journals and meeting notes, Piekut traces the group’s pursuit of a political and musical collectivism, offering up its history as but one example of the vernacular avant garde that emerged in the decades after World War Two. Henry Cow’s story resonates far beyond its inimitable music: it speaks to the avant garde’s unpredictable potential to transform the world.


“A fascinating and pacey read, stitched together painstakingly from over 90 original interviews and both public and private texts including Hodgkinson’s extensive diaries. The combination of narrative background, musical analysis and critical insight should open the door for a new generation of listeners.” – Phil England, The Wire

“What was it all about, to me? Thinking. Henry Cow really thought about the why, the what, the appropriate methods of making music. Their riveting music was the sound of thinking out loud: Henry Cow seemed to be asking, ‘So, what is the significance of these sounds in our heads?’ And they were always witty: just look at the name of the band and the unwearable sock representing ‘the Henry Cow legend’. I am very glad this book exists. Henry Cow’s history – in all its inevitable turbulence – tells an inspiring story.” – Robert Wyatt

“In this landmark monograph, Benjamin Piekut offers a stunning new theoretical framework for writing the history of ‘adventurous’ music in the late 20th century, realising that theory in practice by replicating in his graceful prose the improvised relation to the world he seeks to illuminate. Through his gripping account of the band Henry Cow, he reconstructs the cultural space of what he calls the ‘vernacular avant garde’, where musicians learn from records rather than in institutions, live uncertainty, cross genres, improvise responses to novel situations, work with and against record companies, and embrace avant gardism without negation. It is rare to finish a monumental monograph with a gasp. A must-read intervention and instant classic!” – Tamara Levitz, Professor of Musicology and Comparative Literature, University of California Los Angeles

Benjamin Piekut is Associate Professor of Music at Cornell University, author of Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde And Its Limits and editor of Tomorrow Is The Question: New Directions In Experimental Music Studies.

Published in 2019, paperback, 512 pages, 63 black&white illustrations.

Publisher: Duke University Press / ISBN: 9781478004660
Medium: Book


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