June 11, 2009
Hugh Hopper, Composer and Bassist for Soft Machine, Dies at 64
By BRUCE WEBER
Hugh Hopper, who as the bassist for the British progressive rock band Soft Machine was a central figure in the forward-looking music scene that bloomed in Canterbury in the 1960s and ’70s, died on Sunday in the county of Kent, England. He was 64 and lived in Whitstable, Kent.
The cause was leukemia, said Steven Feigenbaum, the owner of Cuneiform Records in Silver Spring, Md., which has released 15 recordings involving Mr. Hopper since 1987.
In addition to being an artful, textural player, Mr. Hopper was the composer of brooding jazz-rock tunes like “Facelift” and “Kings and Queens.” Soft Machine was the best-known representative of a lively rock outpost that produced bands like the Wilde Flowers, Caravan and, a bit later, National Health, where the signature sound was an amalgam of psychedelic rock and jazz. Along with contemporaries elsewhere in England like Pink Floyd, the Nice, King Crimson and Yes, Soft Machine (it also called itself the Soft Machine from time to time) helped introduce the darting, dissonant chord progressions and improvisational daring of modern jazz to listeners of electric rock.
Mr. Hopper was part of the band during its most influential period, from 1967 or 1968 (sources differ) through 1973, playing on and composing for its first several albums. His compositions combined a bass pulse and droning melodic lines with electronic sounds and tape loops, leaving room for improvisatory explosions. Although he was admittedly unflashy as a player, his choice of notes, his resonant tone and frequent use of the fuzz bass made his sound distinctive.
“He wasn’t the most chops-aholic guy,” Mr. Feigenbaum said, noting that Mr. Hopper was always more interested in blending with the band and knitting the music together from the bottom than with virtuosic playing. “But if you heard three notes, you knew it was either him or someone imitating him.”
Hugh Colin Hopper was born in Canterbury on April 29, 1945. As a musician he was largely self-taught, playing guitar before he took up the electric bass. In 1964 he was a founding member of the Wilde Flowers, a rock band that gradually morphed into Soft Machine as avant-garde experimentation and jazz techniques became more pronounced in the Canterbury sound. (Membership in many of the Canterbury bands was fluid.) His first solo album, “1984,” was released in 1973, the year he left Soft Machine. In later years he toured and recorded with numerous fusion bands, including Gong, Isotope, the Carla Bley Band and, more recently, a descendant of Soft Machine, PolySoft.
Mr. Hopper’s first marriage ended in divorce. His survivors include his wife, Christine, his longtime partner, whom he married two days before he died, and two daughters.