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AMM
An Unintended Legacy
Matchless MRCD97



I. Does the group direction, or authority, depend on the strength of a leading personality, whose rise or fall is reflected in the projected image, or does the collation of a set of minds mean the development of another authority independent of all the members but consisting of all of them?


                                              ©Brian Slater

Writing about An Unintended Legacy, by AMM is a bit of a daunting task. Since 1965, the group has charted a singular approach to group improvisation, morphing through various ensemble configurations and releasing 30 recordings along the way. Right from AMMMusic, their 1967 debut on disc, AMM pushed forward a new way of thinking about collective playing based on a “collation of a set of minds.” The original liner notes posited 13 aphorisms that prodded at ways of thinking about group interaction, sound making, and perceptions about improvisation (the first prefaces this text; the other 12 appear throughout). Throughout their history, the group weathered the comings and goings of members, from an initial quartet of Lou Gare, Keith Rowe, Eddie Prévost, and Lawrence Sheaff down to duos, and eventually settling in on the trio of Rowe, Prévost, and pianist John Tilbury which lasted from 1982 to 2004, a configuration that produced some of their most indelible work.

For an insightful history of the group, check out Stuart Broomer’s Ezz-thetics column in the September 2015 issue of PoD. But Cornelius Cardew’s description of his activity with AMM in
Towards An Ethic Of Improvisation sums things up nicely. “In 1965 I joined a group of four musicians in London who were giving weekly performances of what they called ‘AMM Music,’ a very pure form of improvisation operating without any formal system or limitation. The four original members of AMM came from a jazz background; when I joined I had no jazz experience whatever, yet there was no language problem. Informal ‘sound’ has a power over our emotional responses that formal ‘music’ does not, in that it acts subliminally rather than on a conscious cultural level. This is a possible definition of the area in which AMM is experimental. We are searching for sounds and for the responses that attach to them, rather than thinking them up, preparing them and producing them. The search is conducted in the medium of sound and the musician himself is at the heart of the experiment.”

An Unintended Legacy, a 3-CD set and accompanying book, documents three concerts the reconvened trio of Eddie Prévost, John Tilbury, and Keith Rowe performed in 2015 and 2016, a full fifty years after the group first came together. Rowe had left the group in 2004 and it seemed for many years that the split was permanent. But in 2015, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival convinced the trio to get together to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the group; the first time that Rowe had played with the group in over a decade. At the time, many wondered if that performance was going to be a one-off, but four more performances followed, including the sets and Café OTO in London, the Sonic Protest Festival in Paris, and the Cornelius Cardew – From Scratch Festival in Trondheim, included in this set.

II. An AMM performance has no beginning or ending. Sounds outside the performance are distinguished from it only by individual sensibility.
III. The reason for playing is to find out what I want to play.
IV. Given a certain amount of experience, it is not difficult to assimilate anything.
V. Every Noise has a note.

The set from December 5, 2015 at Café OTO clocks in at just over 65 minutes, diving directly in with the shuddering sounds of bowed cymbals and percussive clatter, electronic crackles, and sparely placed piano notes. The three have mastered an approach which belies any sense of start or finish, as if what is heard is a slice of an expansive continuum of sound. That said, the improvisation is imbued with a quality of independent searching, something that had largely been subsumed into a more unified collective voice in the trio’s notable releases like Fine, or Newfoundland. There is a restlessness that prevails throughout the piece, but even with the laminal probing, one revels in their innate ability to latch on to a shared vocabulary assimilated through their years of playing.

The improvisation flows in waves, building density and then opening up in to pools of abraded metallic textures, poised reverberating piano notes, and scoured electronic timbres. At about 20 minutes in, the three coalesce around the slow beating of tuned gongs, sine-like wafts of feedback, and damped, repeated low-end notes on the piano and they let that sit, slowly transforming the moment through the introduction of fragile phrases, crackled electronics, and resonating gong. Rowe weaves snippets of the Beach Boys song “Don’t Cry” in and the saccharine harmonies peak in and out, subverting Prévost’s bowed squall and Tilbury’s mounting piano lines. But that notion of assimilation comes through as the piece weaves its way to a quiet, somewhat unsettled conclusion.

VI. The past always seems intentional, but at the time it appears to be accidental.
VII. Playing in AMM sometimes produces a state where you feel sounds in a completely different way than usual. Seeing as if for the first time this reddy brown object with all the strings going away from the left, a bow going across the strings on the right hand side and interwoven amongst the strings various little things, on top of that a plastic lid, and just watch the sounds happening.
VIII. There is no guarantee that the ultimate realization can exist.

The second disc, recorded in Paris on April 7, 2016 four months after the OTO show, begins with a sharp crack which seems to chart a more open strategy of interplay for the improvisation. The three lead in to the improvisation with an austere transparency, letting each sound resonate in the space. The notion of “feeling sounds in a completely different way than usual” is still a paramount driving force, even after fifty years of playing together, as frayed crunches, poised piano notes, and burnished percussion accrue. When Rowe floats in specters of Baroque chamber music, it lends a certain stateliness.

For most of this meeting, the improvisation never rises to peaks and densities, instead proceeding with a certain restraint. In his essay included in the set, Keith Rowe states that “from the start, uselessness and failure were terms attached to our efforts, and we had better get used to it …  Like the foetid tree and all other trees, we improvised our growth in the space allotted.” The declared tenet that “no guarantee that the ultimate realization can exist” has been fundamental to the group. This performance shows the three still committed to grappling with and ultimately embracing that foundational strategy.

IX. To play and arrive at the state where you no longer need to play.
X. AMM started itself. It was there a few minutes before we thought of it.
XI. Within the time span of a performance the nearness of sound beauty becomes laughingly obvious, the players merely indicators of what is there already.

The third disc, documenting a set from Tondheim, from June 2016 is the quietest and most spare of the three. Here, much more than on the other two sessions in this set, silence and space imbue the proceedings. One can hear the collective patience of the trio, honed over the course of their years of playing. Listening back to early recordings like AMMMusic or The Crypt, the notion of arriving at the state where you no longer need to play was an informing factor. Here, it is refined and central. The respective and collective vocabularies and strategies the three have defined over the years provides them a self-assured freedom to let the music inhabit the space throughout, capped by the final resounding bang of the piano lid closing. The contemplative notion of pulling “sound beauty from what is there already” reflects on their mutual history playing together in various formations. Listening here is totally absorbing, with little focus on instrumentation or who is making what sound, but rather how all sounds are subsumed into the totality of AMMMusic.

XII. Mistakes in and towards AMM could be due to constant references to sets of standards.
XIII. There is no certain knowledge, in the relation to your development that the effort you are making at the time is the right effort.

In his introductory essay, Prévost says, “Given that our musical approach and collective purpose has survived this long it should not be surprising if focus is on the past. I would argue however, that as our musical approach is characterized and motivated by open enquiry, then there is always a forward momentum. It just might not be quite as fast as it once was.” Rowe continues in his essay that “One of the many characteristics of a tree in Cardew’s Tiger’s Mind is ‘A dead tree may remain standing for centuries after death.’ AMM had remained standing through storms, wind, flooding, quakes, drought, subsidence, the cold and heat, had limbs torn off, but still stand.” Many groups don’t last for 5 years, fewer still make it to 20. The fact that AMM, in its various and mutable guises has lasted for fifty is remarkable in itself. That Rowe, Prévost, and Tilbury agreed to put differences behind and meet up for the music captured here is even more noteworthy. There is little doubt that when the original members of AMM came together, there was no notion that they would be still be working together five decades later, let alone charting their music along the same tenets they laid forth in the notes of their initial release. Their history together, including this set, is indeed “An Unintended Legacy.”
–Michael Rosenstein

Intakt Records

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