Defining Mike Cooper

An interview with the musical artist who calls Rome his home


For the past 45 years Mike Cooper has been an international musical explorer, film and video maker, installation artist and visual artist pushing the boundaries of his work. Initially a folk-blues guitarist, he is as responsible as anyone else – and more so than many – for ushering in the blues boom in the U.K. in the late ‘60s. He plays lap steel guitar / electronics and sings.

With his roots lying in acoustic country blues he has, arguably, stretched the possibilities of the guitar even more than his better known contemporaries Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, John Renbourne, etc. by pursuing it into the more avantgarde musical areas, also occupied by contemporary guitar innovators such as Elliott Sharp, Keith Rowe, Fred Frith and Marc Ribot, with an eclectic mix of the many styles he has practiced over the years. Ranging freely through his own idiosyncratic original songs, traditional country blues, folk, free improvisation, pop songs, exotica, electronic music, electro-acoustic music, and ‘sonic gestural’ playing utilising open tunings and extended guitar techniques. He also composes and performs live music for silent films, as well as for his own films and videos, which are often screened in his live performances. His full length video Hotel Hibiscus City is on You Tube in 14 parts. His list of recorded works run into the hundreds.

An improviser, composer, video maker and graphic artist, you’ve been defined as “the icon of post-everything music”, a definition that seems to fit well with the fragmentation, hybridization of genres and linguistic multiplicity of contemporary culture. How does this find expression in your music and art?

MIKE COOPER: “We seem to live in a time where people are expected to be ‘specialists’ but some of us seem to have decided early on in our career that this was some kind of a lifestyle and creative trap. Over Christmas and New Year 2013/14 I spent a few weeks in Sri Lanka, a mixed Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic and Christian culture. Admittedly they have just had a civil war which was religious but at the moment they are getting along with each other. When I returned to Italy I looked up the history of Buddhism and to my surprise I discovered that Buddhism spread as far as northern Greece and North Africa. There are Buddhist graves just outside Alexandria. We are constantly being asked to consider and respect borders; national, cultural and artistic. All fabrications of our modern society. In the past people moved freely, both geographically and culturally and those that moved spoke many languages. ‘Hybridization of genres and linguistic multiplicity of contemporary culture’ has been going on for a long time around the world and I personally try to dispose with ‘borders’ in my work – hence I liked the description, by Lawrence English, of my work as ‘post-everything’.”

You have been a part of the international experimental musical scene for over 40 years. What brought you to leave your home country, England, at a certain point of your life and career, and move to Rome?

MC: “I left England at the end of 1988 and moved to Rome for love and politics… bread and roses maybe? I came to Rome because the person that I have spent the past 26 years of my life with was already living here, and when we met I was ready to leave England again (I had lived in Australia, France, Germany and Spain before) because it had become unbearable under Margaret Thatcher, so that meeting made me very happy in more than one way.”

Since you are both an outsider and insider of the Roman cultural life, having played with many Italian musicians and artists, I would like to hear your impressions about the contemporary musical scene in Italy, Rome in particular.

MC: “I actually only really know about cultural life in Rome. Italy, for all its unification, is still fragmented into different cities and cultural scenes. We in Rome, most of the time have no idea what is going on for instance in Torino or Bologna. This also extends down the ladder into different scenes and social groups within Rome itself. I am a member of a big band that dedicates itself to playing improvised music. At the last meeting it was around 26-28 musicians. A few weeks ago while I was working putting up my installation ‘A White Shadow In The South Seas’ at Teatro In Scatola near the Ponte Testaccio, someone came into the gallery and said ‘Luca Miti is recording with a big band of invited musicians across the road in a centro-sociale’. Luca is one of Rome’s contemporary music composers. First of all we had no idea there was a ‘centro-sociale’ in that area and when we went across the road we were confronted with a room filled with musicians, most of them unknown to us. Not only that but also the audience, which was quite a few, were mostly strangers to us. We had never seen any of them at one of the many concerts our big band has played in Rome. Also recently I went to another improvised music night organized by Franco Ferguson, who organizes evenings of what he calls ‘Improring’ music, with again a collective of musicians, at the Fanfulla in the Pigneto district of Rome. Again, I knew hardly any of those taking part and again I knew hardly anyone in the audience.

A few years ago there was a healthy, underground, alternative, music scene and we had some festivals of more avant guard music that were subsidized by the ‘commune’ (local council) but slowly the funding has been cut from us and channelled into the more ‘establishment’ venues such as the Auditorium concert halls etc. We are at zero funding level now and so the scene is relying on mostly local musicians or artists or Italian musicians who organise their own tours and happen to be passing by here. There is no money to bring international artists to the venues where ‘creative’ activity takes place.

Places such as the Auditorium with its vast concert halls are not going to present anything that doesn’t fill the place and the audience for any creative contemporary music is small. Rome is a small city, barely 4 million, compared with London, New York and Paris for instance and the percentage of a cities population as potential audience is probably less than one percent.

In most venues the going rate of pay for an evenings music is around 150/200 euro for a solo artist or a group. Hardly a living wage and in fact hardly any of my close circle of musician friends here are professional musicians. They all have other means of earning a living such as teaching. This in turn is beginning to effect the music I am beginning to see/ hear being played; these financial restrictions and artistic isolation that this can bring about. Even though the Internet gives people access to the musical world at large the live experience of music is still the one that affects people the most, I have no doubt about that, both from a listening perspective and a playing and creative inspiration point of view.

There is another scene here in Rome, of which I am not a part or member and it is connected with academics, contemporary composition and electro-acoustic music. But I can’t comment on it as I am not a part of it apart from to say that for me the words ‘academic and creative artist’ don’t sit well together on the same page.”

As the Oscar-winning film by Paolo Sorrentino, “La grande bellezza”, has superbly portrayed, in these days Italy does not seem to be able to keep up with its past artistic and cultural greatness. Is it also true in the musical field?

MC: “I have not seen the Sorrentino film and part of the reason I have not is exactly the reason you mention. The golden age of post war Italian film makers has passed and I am not that interested in contemporary Italian film. Maybe I will go and see this film as so many people have spoken about it. I gave up going to see Italian film makers making folkloric representations of Italy and Italian society always full of all the usual cliches. I have read various reviews of this film and an interview with the director who said: ‘The film is called The Great Beauty, and I wanted to compare and contrast the beauty of the city itself with people who don’t realize that this beauty is all around them.’ Wouldn’t that be its dead beauty though? I have heard various interpretations of this film. The Hollywood Reporter thinks that it portrayed a ‘…vision of moral chaos and disorder, spiritual and emotional emptiness.’ So I really need to see it.

Often when I have been in far away countries and you get into a taxi for instance and the driver asks you where you are from and you say you live in Italy they almost always immediately reply ‘Ah – Italia, football and mafia eh!’

There was a conversation recently in one of the British newspapers about the MAXXI (Rome’s latest contemporary art gallery) and how it was having trouble coping. There were a lot of comments underneath saying things like well Rome doesn’t really need to care or worry about contemporary art as it has all this historical stuff which is what the tourists expect and come to see, but then further down Romans began to comment saying things like ‘Hey, but we live here. We see that stuff everyday and we need to see some new stuff.’ The MAXXI ran out of money before it was even opened which has turned it into a curators nightmare I would think and I dont think ‘sound art’, for instance, has penetrated the consciousness of any of the curators they have had there at all yet.

Sound art in Rome has been presented in the past but usually funded by the cultural foundations from other countries based here in Rome and in their venues. The Goethe Institute, British Council, Swiss Institute etc. but funding has been or is being withdrawn slowly from them I hear.”

Compared to the British or other international contexts, how is the life of a musician in Italy? What are the challenges and opportunities of producing music in this country?

MC: “I would like to start the answer to this question with a quote from one of my favorite film makers who is from Thailand: ‘It’s like we are underground, in a cemetery… the sky is the earth… We are hibernating, sleeping all the time and we don’t know it. We are dreaming that there is plenty of oxygen.’ (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

I think the problems of being a creative musician here in Italy are not that different here in Italy than perhaps the rest of the world right now apart from what I spoke about earlier the isolation from inspiration in the form of being exposed to new and exciting stuff.”

ARTICLE Defining Mike Cooper 2

Who are the most interesting Italian artists you have played with or would recommend to a foreign music enthusiast eager to know what happens in the local musical panorama?

MC: “I am really only familiar with the music of my close circle of friends here in Italy and a few people in other cities. As I already mentioned we have a big band here in Rome which was started as an open orchestra to explore what is known as ‘conduction’ – a way of generating improvised music in a controlled environment by using sets of signals such as hand gestures or written cards which don’t tell you what or how to play but are more like suggestions for the musicians to consider using. It is usually credited to the late Butch Morris as being its inventor. The saxophonist/compo ser John Zorn has explored its use a lot as well. Our orchestra has grown to about 26/28 members right now. It is open to anyone who wants to join and it seems to be a self regulating system and no one has been asked to leave yet (ha ha!!).

Elio Martusciello is a member. He is an Electro-Acoustic composer and a teacher of Electronic music who also makes video. He is also a ‘conduction’ (conducted improvisation) artist who travels internationally. He usually plays prepared table top guitar in the orchestra.

He is also a member of a trio called Ossatura, a free improvising trio in which he plays computer. It also features Fabrizio Spera on drums and percussion and Luca Venitucci who plays keyboards and accordion. Luca is another musical wanderer in terms of genre. An extreme talent on any keyboard instrument he also likes to vocalize and sing. As a group they tend toward exploring the quiet minimal zone of improvised music.

Fabrizio also plays with me and a double bass player Roberto Bellatalla in our group Truth In The Abstract Blues, which as the name suggests has something to do with blues music. We tend more towards the abstract version of it though. ‘One foot in the blues, one foot in the abstract’ as Jimmy Giuffre put it. Roberto lived in England for 20 years or more and played with many of the expat South African jazz community that were living there.

Further afield there is Paolo Angeli a Sardinian musician. Paolo plays a version of Sardinian guitar which he has modified and he plays with a bow, like a cello. He travels and plays internationally and in fact lives part of his time in Barcelona. In Sicily there is Domenico Sciajno a computer and video composer. These people are all pretty exciting.”

Laura Giacalone is the Associate Editor for the Italian Journal