Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra                               ©Aileen Campbell 2012

It’s a thoroughfare drawn by M.C. Escher. No one ever seems to go up Sauchiehall Street, but always down, the gravity imparted by booze or stockinged legs, or in bad old days the quick flash of a drawn blade. The two Jocks in The Great Escape, fired up on prison camp moonshine, keep morale stoked with the never-to-be-realized promise of Saturday nights tottering down Glasgow’s iconic street. Like most of the city, it straddles a hill, but however it’s approached, it takes you down. The name is a corruption (that is, an Anglicization) of sauchie haugh, a damp grove of willows. They say that Sausalito has a similar derivation, but with an unGlaswegian added diminutive. The name is a throwback to the city’s pre-modern history as Glas chu, the “green glen” or “dear green place,” the locus of Scotland’s interrupted pastoral. Displaced Highlanders and Irishmen flocked to the factories and shipyards and swelled the population to the third largest in the UK. Even at the height of the city’s industrial might, and before cars, motorways and the post-industrial play ethic eased escape, the country never seems far away. Five minutes takes you from a cityscape designed by Fritz Lang to places storied by Walter Scott.

Glasgow has until recently retained a fearsome reputation for drink, violence and urban squalor. It was as if the Gorbals “hard men” and razor gangs of No Mean City, a 1935 documentary novel by a jobless worker Alexander McArthur and a ghosting journalist C. Kingsley Long were still the defining demographic. It was as if the city of Alexander “Greek” Thompson and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, of Margaret MacDonald and Jessie M. King, of Van Gogh’s friend Alexander Reid, had gone the remote way of St Kentigern and his four miracles. It was only in 1990, when Glasgow was nominated European City of Culture that the southern media, once they had stopped laughing (some of the nervier critics stopped laughing when the heard they were being posted north to review), began to recognize what Glaswegians had always understood: that underneath the city’s raw exterior and apparent commitment to Mammon, there was a profound creative spirit at work, fuelled by a long tradition of self-education, mostly supported by vast industrial wealth, and enjoyed for the most part by the citizenry, not cultural tourists. Across the country in Edinburgh, the putative “capital,” an international festival had taken a strong role in post-war European reconciliation, but despite the fact that it takes no longer to travel from Edinburgh to Glasgow than it does to get across St. Paul from Minneapolis, or St. Louis and East St. Louis, or across London from Putney to Hoxton, Glasgow didn’t seem to be part of Scotland’s cultural landscape but remained the dark twin, Cain’s exile in Nod.

It’s generally accepted that music generally and improvisation in particular thrives in seaports. When relationships are necessarily fleeting, a Babel of monoglots, music provides an obvious lingua franca. For much of the jazz era, Scottish born musicians were more or less required to leave for London, or points west, in order to make a living. A scan of the personnel Benny Carter worked with in BBC bands will reveal plenty of Scottish names (plenty of Jewish names, too, but that’s another narrative). Plenty more stayed behind, working dance bands and juggling day-jobs. Glasgow, though, never quite seemed a jazz town. Edinburgh’s long-hair cosmopolitanism and not to be underplayed role in post-war cultural reconciliation drew away much of the improvising talent that wasn’t already claimed by the UK capital, and so it remained pretty much through to the 1980s and beyond. Apart from Bobby Wellins, who played Ariel to the leader in the “classic” Stan Tracey Quartet, there weren’t many significant jazz names around who claimed a Glaswegian provenance. Even Bert Jansch, another of 2011’s musical departed, and one who confidently bridged jazz and “folk music,” was a Glaswegian who owed his musical education to an upbringing on the other side of the country.

There is something about a Glasgow accent and dialect – elongated nasal vowels, glottal stops, musical elisions in the phrasing, phatic add-ons that work like grace-notes – that was peculiarly adaptable to the language of blues, rock and roll. If those forms had some ancestry in the displaced music of the Highlands, then one could say that they were coming full circle. It’s a stretch to describe Lonnie Donegan as a Glaswegian, when the family left for Essex when Lonnie was two, in the “Hitler year” of 1933, but he started it all and the Appalachian twang of his singing was just “Glesca” with a transatlantic twist. You hear the same thing re-surfacing with Lulu, Frankie Miller, The Poets’ George Gallacher and, curiously refined, in the high keen of Jack Bruce’s singing. It’s there, too, in Hamish Stuart’s work for the Average White Band, though the other members were East Coasters.

Jazz, though, figured only remotely in Glasgow music, either in downtime from other styles and commitments or in small, committed pockets. There is always a risk in “Dark Ages” historiography of allowing generalization to skip over a good deal of busy activity, or mistaking lack of systematic documentation for lack of passion, but good jazz was hard to find in the Glasgow of my youth. Miles Davis came once, played twice to churlish houses, and left on the three o’clock plane, grimacing at the weather. We watched him cross the tarmac, looking frail and pissed-off, and then we drove back along the A8. Half-way to Edinburgh, the engine fell out. We sensed it was symbolic.

If those were Dark Ages, the early Renaissance probably began before 1990 and the “year of culture.” People speak of that year as if David Livingstone had come out of the jungle handing out beads and mirrors, or as if St. Columba had returned to evangelize the Picts. It wasn’t like that, but it did induce a heady self-consciousness and a sometimes optimistically revisionist impression of just how creative a place Glasgow had been before gentrification. What is perhaps most impressive, jumping from there to now, is how sturdily Glasgow has resisted cultural homogenization and how remote she still seems from corporate control. It is as if Hadrian’s Wall were still manned and the A&R legionaries nervous about penetrating north of it. Where the average showcase gig in London is crowded with industry faces fearful of missing out on the Next Big Thing, Glasgow bands have generally played to small local crowds who have remained patiently loyal through various steps of evolution. One knows instinctively that Franz Ferdinand – to pick just one obvious example – wouldn’t have been Franz Ferdinand if an A&R man had got hold of them five years earlier.

All of this is in some respects beside the point. The history of pop music, being by definition a fairly transitory phenomenon, is very much the history of happenstance. It so happens that Oasis, sulky poster-boys of 90s booze-rock, were spotted by their future manager at a Glasgow gig in the sweatbox King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut (the Pit Inn of that rock genre), but it only so happens because said manager was a Scot. What’s more interesting in our context is precisely the context and what has come out of it. It requires no flush of nationalism or local pride to say that Glasgow is currently one of the hottest musical cities in Europe, home or home-base to such Zeitgeisty acts as Hudson Mohawke, Trembling Bells, Engine7/Allan McNeill, to offer only a random sprinkle. It also cradles the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra.

Almost the first question everyone asks, perversely, is: does that have anything to do with the London Improvisers Orchestra? To which the answer is: historically, yes, but profoundly, no. The London orchestra is the most obvious model and precedent, and GIO was so dubbed in 2002 by Evan Parker who was visiting Glasgow to perform at the Free RadiCCAls festival held at the city’s Centre for Contemporary Arts (formerly the legendary Third Eye). Parker’s visit was only the beginning of a long and very distinguished line of collaborations with major British, European, American and Asian improvisers, whose very different contributions to the orchestra have helped to shape but have in no way determined its homegrown ethos. Among them have been trumpeter Harry Beckett, Scottish-born vocalist Maggie Nicols, another London-based Scot in drummer Ken Hyder, pianist Keith Tippett, bassist/composer Barry Guy, trombonist George E. Lewis, pianist Satoko Fujii and drummer Gunter ‘Baby’ Sommer. Though these come in no particular order, one might pick out the visits of Barry Guy, who led the consolidating orchestra through an ear- and mind-opening realization of his Witch Gong Game procedures (which were in turn inspired by the Grangemouth-born painter and saxophonist Alan Davie, who just pipped Jackson Pollock to the invention of Jungian abstract expressionism), of Satoko Fujii, who has helped re-establish a long-standing cultural (once mercantile) connection between Glasgow and Japan, and perhaps pre-eminently, of George E. Lewis, who like all the other visitors readily accepts a reciprocal influence from the Glasgow musicians but who made the most emphatic philosophical impact on GIO’s evolution.

This came about not so much in musical terms, though Lewis’ extraordinary responsiveness to the total creative environment and adaptability of style and genre is extremely simpatico, as through a dawning recognition that Glasgow stands in the same relation to London as Chicago (or possibly Detroit) does to New York (or Los Angeles). Lewis’ role as historian of a now-renascent AACM (whose Renee Baker was a vivid 2011 visitor to Glasgow) made a strong impact on a group that has always had an innate, but sometimes inchoate democracy. The de facto leader, straw boss and whipper-in is saxophonist Raymond MacDonald, who is professor of improvisation at Glasgow Caledonian University, and an important creative catalyst within the group as well. But the striking thing about GIO is that instead of being a natural union of like-minded musicians it is rather a constellation of players from quite – sometimes radically – different performance backgrounds. The personnel, which has evolved over a decade but retains a strongly distinctive core, includes musicians from classical music, from jazz, folk and rock united by a collectivist philosophy that leaves generic assumptions parked outside. It is fair to say that in a country as small as Scotland (whose population is half that of the United Kingdom capital), and in a relatively restricted urban subset of that population, it makes no evolutionary sense to be a specialist. A measure of eclecticism is enforced, when actual playing numbers are quite small and opportunities relatively limited. However, this kind of happenstance has been turned to formidable advantage. The GIO ethos is that any idea presented by an ensemble member and generally agreed upon will be attempted without prejudice and without subversion or holding back. At the orchestra’s fourth annual festival last autumn, a radically new approach was proposed by flutist Liene Rozite. Her piece Ord required orchestra members to down their instruments and vocalize the syllables of various Swedish words and inventions. The piece provoked controversy in the orchestra, but was included in the festival program and passed off without dissent or secession.

One is immediately struck, when seeing the orchestra perform or meeting GIO members, at how brisk and, yes, workmanlike is the approach to a range of projects that range from neo-orthodox “conduction,” totally free environments, and musics that range closer to jazz and even to rock. One participant at the 2011 GIOFest was multi-instrumentalist and composer Bill Wells, a stalwart of the avant-rock scene in Scotland, who performed a set of new, collectively written songs with GIO members. Also in that hived-off group was George Burt, one of two guitar players in the regular GIO formation – the other is the splendid Neil Davidson – and an avuncular, influential figure in the orchestra’s evolution. Like the formidable Aileen Campbell, vocalist with GIO and a high-wire, white-knuckle improviser who deserves much wider recognition, Burt comes out of a folk tradition. Burt also works in educational publishing. Those are powerful signifiers in this context, for the whole GIO project is, however sophisticated and various its individual components, testimony to a strong spirit of autodidacticism in Scottish culture. During GIOFest, Burt supervised the site-specific performance of a multi-performer piece called to dree the darg and the dowie for the life that’s worth it aa, a title that one assumes needs no translation. No? Really? It was about the interrupted music of everyday life, a piece that explicitly invited audience members and passers-by to break in and interrupt, to reverse the inattentive polarity of a workplace where music and chat continue unmonitored in the background while the act of work generates its own distinctive “soundtrack.” A potent idea, somewhat awkwardly received by an audience and by casual visitors whose paradigm for music is performance and respectful appreciation and who would instinctively regard interruption as a major solecism.

The emphasis on work chimed strongly with the ideas that George E. Lewis, and later Renee Baker, brought over from Chicago. Even seasoned British critics continue to refer to AACM as if it were a specific style of contemporary improvisation. One even compounded the stupidity by referring to the Association for the Advancement of Coloured Musicians. Lewis gently corrected, as he does in his history of AACM, the impression of a stylistic school and his definition of the Association as a collectivist and communitarian project met with a highly receptive audience in Glasgow, where worker solidarity and the last remains of craft unionism still have some kind of foundation, though it’s worth pointing out that while the Clydeside shipyards used to have some forty trade unions, they were latterly reduced to two; music, perhaps, to those fellow-travelling Wobblies for whom “one big union” was the ultimate goal, but more to do with managerial convenience than with industrial realism.

If MacDonald is the organizer, the affable front-of-house man, and the group’s intellectual dynamo, Burt is GIO’s heart and sinew. The two began working together in a small group, anchored by the free drummer George Lyle and often including MacDonald’s sister Nicola on melodica and vocals. The group’s run of CDs, often with guest musicians like Lol Coxhill and on one memorable occasion a popcorn machine, are in a different vein to GIO music: post-bop, with elements of new composition, folk, song-form and other inputs. In retrospect, they seem like blueprints for the way GIO has evolved, not least as an ensemble that has comfortably embraced Celtic harp, strings, shakuhachi, and again melodica, within an otherwise familiar sounding “jazz” line-up: horns, piano, guitar, bass, percussion.
I frequently get asked what distinguishes GIO from the London equivalent. There is documentary evidence of an encounter, released on Emanem records, so to some degree I can duck the question and pass it over to direct experience. Not so easy on a live radio program. The last time anyone asked I said that the difference for me was that while LIO was all about give-and-take, which is the natural currency of the improvising group, GIO was more about give-and-give, a glib-sounding answer that was more honest for being off the cuff. There is tremendous generosity in the music, and a striking absence of ego. I find each time I see them perform that the silences and absences in the fabric of sound become almost as interesting as what is played. Why does such-and-such a player seem willing to sit out for relatively long periods? Why does no one feel inclined to leap in and disrupt a span of silence? Almost as if the members were enacting the “bell that never rang” from the city’s founding myth. One GIO member, returning from a visit to London and a further equivalent with the southern improvisers orchestra, murmured that it all seemed much more ... hierarchical. It unquestionably is, but longevity has that effect, and so does the presence of more than one musical generation under one umbrella. Glasgow hasn’t reached that stage yet. The challenge for GIO will be to continue to evolve and to broaden its demographic and creative base without becoming institutionalized. If there is such a thing as genius loci, they are in the ideal place. Glasgow long since lost its imperial market, and conspicuously failed – to complete Dean Acheson’s famous phrase – to find a new role. Since 1990, though it may have happened spontaneously, a new sense of purpose, welcome and near-evangelical enthusiasm has been restored. It’s possible already to see Glasgow as the hub of a new northern hemisphere musicopolis, Glastokycago, in which the term “post-industrial” loses its depressive aura and air of defeat and points to a new kind of work ethic, with improvisation at its heart.

[Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra recordings include With Evan Parker: Munich and Glasgow, Which Way Did He Go (with Maggie Nicols) and Falkirk (with Barry Guy), all on FMR, and Metamorphic Rock (with George Lewis) on the home Iorram label, which also releases material by GIO members. Also: Burt/MacDonald Quartet/Quintet, Popcorn (with Aileen Campbell), Tsunami (with Lol Coxhill), Hotel Dilettante (with Sushil K. Dade), The Great Shark Hunt (with Bill Wells), A Day for a Reason / Boohoo Fever (with Keith Tippett) on Tob and Leo respectively.]

Brian Morton©2011

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