Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

London Improvisers Orchestra                                                                         © 2019 Jenny Gallego

Anniversaries in improvised music are now a dime a dozen; but surprisingly few make more than a dime’s worth of difference in refining the history they represent. Mainly, an anniversary confirms that strong ideas endure. That is certainly the case with London Improvisers Orchestra, who celebrated its 20th birthday last autumn. However, the backstory of LIO’s genesis and how that shaped specific ongoing practices merits the periodic retelling anniversaries afford, as LIO has played a singular role in modulating the great dialogue about improvisation and freedom that began in London over 50 years ago into one that emphasizes empowerment.

The big bang that begot LIO was the Contemporary Music Network-sponsored tour of Butch Morris’ “London Skyscraper” conductions in 1997. Despite initial assurances that his conduction methods gave the musicians unencumbered latitude in response to his cueing system, Morris soon directed several to alter methods at the core of their aesthetic: Rhodri Davies to remove preparations and reverse the detuning of his harp; Philipp Wachsmann to play acoustically, dispensing with the electronics he employed for decades; Robin Hayward to play notes, instead of the airy sounds he preferred on tuba; and violinist Philip Durrant, then focusing on overtones, textures and noise, to play more conventionally. This left some participants that Morris’ music was, to a degree, a top-down proposition.

At the same time as he was reproving some musicians, Morris showed considerable deference to elder statesmen in the ensemble, particularly Keith Rowe. Rowe’s tabletop guitar, surrounded by mixers, signal processers and sundry contraptions, required constant attention; he made not looking at Morris during the performance a condition of his participation, which the composer/conductor accepted. This differs markedly from a similar situation that occurred at a 1987 rehearsal for an Amsterdam performance of “Conduction No. 8, The Fall Conduction.” As recounted by Evan Parker in his notes for Twenty Years On, LIO’s self-produced 2-CD collection, Morris stopped a rehearsal and said to Derek Bailey, “‘Derek, if this is going to work you’re going to have to look at me,’” prompting the guitarist to quit on the spot.

“Basically, the English improvisers are not by nature keen to doing ‘what they are told.’ It is not the nature or political context of what we are about,” Wachsmann, recently explained. “I had great respect for Butch’s project. He had a great ‘feel/presence’ and exercised his vocabulary of hand signals to great effect – related to his emotional stance.

“It was sometimes challenging (and occasionally disturbing) that one needed to ‘guess’ ... what he wanted, and sometimes he got a bit annoyed if we did not ‘get’ what was in his mind.” This was consonant with his experience performing a Morris conduction at the Nickelsdorf Konfrontation: “the players were sorting something out and Butch coolly politely said, ‘take your time (pause) but not my time.’”

The tour lasted twelve days, more than long enough to intensify the discourse among the 23 ensemble members. “The London improvising scene can be extremely bolshie,” John Butcher commented about the backlash twenty years later, during a Resonance FM roundtable about Morris with Steve Beresford, Christian Marclay and Zoë Martlew. But, not all the musicians bristled. The saxophonist was not alone when he resolved early on that he was “an improviser playing Butch Morris music.” One of three contemporary music-steeped musicians enlisted for the tour, Martlew (a cellist who regularly ventures into cabaret and other genres), found Morris’ approach to composing in the moment vista-opening. Throughout the roundtable, Martlew’s enthusiasm for Morris’ methods was palpable.

Even though the tour ended with a core of ensemble members wanting to develop large group improvisation on an ongoing basis, the rhetorical gap that opened during the tour prompted principle instigators Beresford and Parker to delay launching a new project. Months later, three fall ‘98 dates were booked at The Red Rose. Concurrently, a committee including trumpeter Ian Smith (now MacGowan), keyboardist Pat Thomas, and saxophonist Caroline Kraabel was formed to articulate the operational parameters of the new ensemble.

“We would have short meetings before the gigs at the Red Rose, recalled Kraabel, who believes she was enlisted for “the committee” to bring a female perspective to the deliberations. “We spoke mostly of practical things, such as who would conduct, which guests to invite, how to structure the evenings. Evan spoke up for having at least one completely improvised piece every month, which we've continued to do. It is an idea that also became important to me.”

The early concerts posed the conundrum of solving problems without creating rules that could become problematic in their own right. Kraabel recounted how “players of quieter instruments were too often drowned out. We talked about ways of ameliorating that situation in improvisation, never finding a single magical solution, but trying to remain aware. This is still a challenge for us today, but I think we have nevertheless learned a lot about how to listen and let everyone be heard.

“I think our general outlook was that we didn't want many rules; we hoped that the LIO would flourish organically with just a nudge from time to time, and this has largely been the case.”

Even though there was an egalitarian impetus to LIO’s formation, Morris’ gestural vocabulary and more explicitly compositionally derived approaches were in the mix at the outset. The latter are exemplified by bassist Simon H. Fell’s contributions, which he assigned composition numbers. His 2000 notes for “Morton’s Mobile,” included on LIO’s the hearing continues ... (2000; Emanem), expounded his “conviction that composed music (in every sense of the word) is possible for improvisers. Thus in addition to the more usual ‘organization of improvisation,’ my L.I.O. pieces have also included several  which set out to have a very specific character – a recognisable aural identity as a composition – without throwing away the creative possibilities of improvisation.”

Beresford regularly employed Morris’ vocabulary, but with an affable bandstand-side manner that stood in marked contrast with Morris’ occasionally blunt direction. With the possible exception of Parker, Beresford had the most direct and positive contact with Morris’ music prior to the ‘97 tour. He played in the ensemble that performed Morris’ “Conduction No. 31” at the 1993 Angelica Festival of International Music; four years earlier, Beresford attended a performance of “Conduction No. 15, Where Music Goes II” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (both are included on New World’s 1995 10-disc Testament: A Conduction Collection).

Beresford’s enthusiasm for “No. 15,” a concerto for saxophonist Arthur Blythe, informed several of his early conductions with LIO, particularly self-identified concerti for trombone, the first for Alan Tomlinson (Proceedings: 1999; Emanem) and the second for Paul Rutherford (freedom of the city 2002; Emanem). The concerto has a centuries-old agenda of elevating, if not glorifying, the exceptional individual; in jazz, compositions like Ellington’s “Concerto for Cootie” served the agenda of upscaling the genre.

However, none of this is at play in Beresford’s work. “I love trombones,” he casually rebuffed recently. “It was probably watching George Chisholm on [The Goon Show] that did it. I think you’ll find that Alan Tomlinson is a great Chisholm fan. Alan also plays Cage’s ‘Solo for Sliding Trombone’ and sometimes prefaces his performances with an intriguing short lecture.

“Of course the concerto was part of big band history, even if it wasn’t called that. I just watched Lockjaw Davis playing some insanely up tempo thing with Basie. I still know his solo on ‘Whirlybird’ off by heart.

“I don’t think it’s anti-egalitarian at all. It might be if you constantly only featured certain players. Anyone in the LIO is welcome to do a conduction or pre-planned piece. People can step forward and be featured. It’s fine.”

Beresford’s latter point is well supported by pieces like Kraabel’s “Notes for Terry Day” (Proceedings), which celebrated the reemergence of the People Band percussionist – and now piper – after a long absence from the scene. To accommodate the constraints of the soft-spoken pipes – the reeds close when wet, requiring mid-performance maintenance – Kraabel had each improviser choose one note, determine when they played it, and render it very softly for a breath’s length. The requisite sensitivity made the piece a concerto that prioritized close listening over virtuosity. Another example of minimal, listening-based instructions having determinative impact is clarinetist Alex Ward’s “How Can You Delude Yourself?” (the hearing continues ...).The improvisers were given two, seemingly innocuous instructions: play when any silence is heard; stop playing when more than two others are playing.

In short order, LIO posited a plethora of new relationships between conductor and ensemble, including using multiple conductors. Wachsmann’s aptly titled “Changing Places – Summer 99” (Proceedings) can even be considered something of a meta-conduction; in addition to assigning four conductors to respective sections of the orchestra, he functioned as the fifth, “regulating” conductor – essentially conducting the conductors.

“I am constantly amazed as to how each conductor can make the band sound very different,” saxophonist Adrian Northover recently admitted. Although he has occasionally conducted the orchestra, he frames his thoughts on the conduction process from his perspective of 20 years in the “pit.” For Northover, the full impact of the process is “often achieved by the character or attitude of the particular person giving the directions.

“Feeling that the person directing knows what they have in mind really helps towards achieving the kind of clarity that results in a good piece – this also involves a kind of trust and mutual respect. The way signals are communicated from the conductor to the group (body language/vibe) often offers more information than their supposed meaning; also the reaction of the conductor when it all goes wrong is usually quite interesting.

“There are also other factors involved, such as the responsiveness and line up of the orchestra on that particular night – sometimes there will be more people who are doing it for the first time, or maybe just 10 regular players, who will respond very quickly, so when you are in front of the group you need to take this on board – the orchestra can be a truculent animal if not handled well.

“When I began I used to have an idea or concept that I wanted to realise; however after doing a few I began to loosen up, and tried to listen more, and just go with the things that were front of me, using the skills of the players to work with sounds and events that were already happening – in fact more like I would work as a player in an improvising group.

“Now when I approach conduction I tend to have a fairly blank mind, and just like to see what happens. That was the case with the “Outside and Inside” (included on Twenty Years On) – it was a nice evening, and so we decided to start the concert with the wind players outside the venue, I then led them in, so hopefully the feeling of changing space comes across – the rest was really just improvised!”

Perhaps more amazing than the diversity of conduction approaches spawned in the LIO is their discography – eleven albums in 20 years (three of which are samplers/anthologies recorded at the Freedom Of The City festival), a pace approached by very few jazz or contemporary music orchestras. Fewer have performed more than 200 times. Beyond the orchestra’s esprit de corps, this productivity is largely attributable to the infrastructure the London improvised music community has built since the late 1960s: a decade-long residency at The Red Rose, ending in 2008; an annual slot in FOTC, which enabled their 2007 collaboration with Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra; and more recent relationships with venues including Café Oto and I’klectik Arts Lab.

The conductor-less, rules-free improvisations collected on Improvisations for George Riste (issued in 2008 on psi) provide another telling measure of this diversity, a high-contrast program that defies easy generalizations. Whereas LIO’s other albums are studio sessions performing an agreed-upon program, or concert recordings issued in whole or in part – arguably field recordings in case of The HMS Concert, documenting a performance on the Royal Navy’s shore establishment on the Thames – Improvisations for George Riste was archival, curated by committee. Inspired by Vancouver hotelier George Riste, who resisted developers to preserve his Del Mar Inn’s affordable housing for his low-income, long term residents, Parker convened a group to winnow a selection of improvisations, “using,” he explained in the booklet notes, “a system based on team work and intuition – a similar system to the way the music was made.” Beyond its many musical merits, the album makes a significant political statement, as it repositions the freedom agenda galvanized in the 1960s to confront the greed spawned by finance capitalism.

This diversity – and, implicitly, the communitarian response to conventional power relationships – is also well-represented by Twenty Years On. Collecting performances from 2015 through ‘18, the program spans retooled rondo and concerto forms and undirected improvisations, resulting in music that, over the course of two CDs, roams freely from gauzy textures to robustly propulsive tuttis. The pieces led by relative newcomers like clarinetist Noel Taylor and electric horn player Tasos Stamou are measures of the self-renewal LIO has demonstrated over the years, while those conducted by veterans like Kraabel and Wachsmann extend threads of continuity that stretch back to the orchestra’s inception.

Kraabel’s “Une note n’écoutant qu’elle-même” (the title taken from Henri Michaux’s Premières Impressions) utilizes almost a dozen signals; but, instead of specifying what improvisers play, most concern listening and responding to others. Her “scanning” sign is typical of how Kraabel catalyzes interactions. Upon receiving the sign, each musician scans the orchestra, “listening specifically in quick succession to each of the other players, to ensure that she can hear and respond to all of the other musicians. The musicians should consciously and continuously regulate their volume and density, so that the sounds made by the quietest instruments are still generally audible. This cue also implies a responsibility on the part of each player to be producing something sufficiently distinctive to be recognised by the other musicians!”

This recognition almost immediately comes to the foreground in the piece’s 2018 realization, as phrases ricochet through the orchestra, altered by the register, timbre and articulation of successive instruments. Emerging color palettes and modulations of attack soon subsume the game of tag, sending the music into a succession of unforeseen zones. Even in its most intense moments, however, the most soft-spoken instruments are clearly heard; a balance that is a high bar to clear for even rehearsed large ensembles, let alone an improvising orchestra. There are very few spots where it can be assumed that Kraabel overtly directs, but those moments are equally impressive, as when the ensemble melts away, allowing for a short duet between Beresford and violinist Pei Ann Yeoh. Ending far afield from where it began, “Une Note ...” nevertheless has the second-by-second coherence that has become the LIO’s calling card.

Like most conductions, “Une Note ...” begs the question about how much of the music reflects Kraabel’s intentions, and what is created from spontaneous reactions that bypass the process. Conducting is often presumed to be wholly intentional, but is often reactive, even in settings thought to exemplify top-down control. When he took Pierre Boulez’s conducting course in Basel in 1968, Wachsmann was impressed that Boulez emphasized how “the conductor has an ‘intention’ but immediately is responding to what the musicians do and adjusting/altering.” This early experience eventually led him to the recognition that “there is a conflict or dis-ease between improvisation and conduction. I see each project as being a search amongst this irony for an individual solution.” Wachsmann concluded that LIO’s conductors have “an equal role to those of the musicians, who are not obliged to do what they are ‘signaled to do’.”

One take-away from Wachsmann’s studies – which include a conducting course at the University of Indiana – was the importance of body language, which he calls “the basic language in classical music conducting.” Body language “communicates and influences in clearer and more subtle ways than a lexicon of pre-arranged signs. Both in conjunction can work well, as a change of process leads to a different result.” Wachsmann also employs counterintuitive tactics, sometimes conducting LIO with his eyes closed – “because I do not want musicians looking at me for clues when I want to empower them, as it is they that are making the music” – and rehearsing a simple idea and then not use it in concert.

If there is a result that Wachsmann consciously pursues it is balance – balance, arguably, being synonymous with equality. Citing Evan Parker’s admonition that a conductor’s priority is to balance the various sections of a large ensemble, Wachsmann is “fascinated by the ways in which balancing loudness in a big ensemble can happen – the roles of musicians, what they do can allow for audibility as well as managing loudness out front for the audience. As a string player I am often concerned with caring for these softer instruments in the group.”

Wachsmann’s contribution to Twenty Years On, an untitled 2017 conduction, is a fine starting place to hear his striving for – and achieving – balance throughout the ensemble. Initially mingling pizzicato strings with malletted cymbals, Wachsmann incrementally brings in the orchestra a few improvisers at a time, and brings the music to a boil, replete with piercing electronics. Admittedly, the strings have to bow vigorously, but they are not swamped, a credit to Wachsmann baselining the loudness of the ensemble on its soft-spoken section. In doing so, Wachsmann elevates the crescendo-decrescendo gambit that is a staple of improvised music.

Undoubtedly, future scholars will confirm Butch Morris’ innovations. This will be accompanied by an increased focus on work his conductions inspired. Not only will London Improvisers Orchestra head this list, but it will be credited with ushering in new generations of conductor-ensemble relationships, issues that very well may be at the crux of 21st Century orchestra music. Twenty Years On will be a persuasive exhibit in that deliberation.

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