Ezz-thetics

a column by
Stuart Broomer

Fifteen years ago I wrote a survey piece on the work of AMM, commenting that “AMM have given us a unique musical gift. (It is reprinted below.) They have let us know what an improvising ensemble create if it persists for thirty five years.” This year marks another significant anniversary as AMM reaches fifty. AMM produces music that is at once absolutely distinctive and they have been doing so for such a length of time that they are central to the idea of improvising music, growing more influential in detail as well as concept.

AMM is marking the year with some signal performances and a new recording. The group will be featured in late November at this year’s Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music with talks, discussions, and a performance by musicians from Eddie Prévost’s long-standing weekly workshop in improvisation. There will also be an AMM concert reuniting the band’s current duo form of Prévost (present since the beginning) and pianist John Tilbury (an occasional participant who became a full-fledged member in 1980) with guitarist Keith Rowe (present intermittently since the beginning), their first performance together in a decade. A weekend of performances and discussions will take place at London’s Cafe Oto in early December.

The forthcoming CD is called Spanish Fighters, named for the performance site, Španski Borci in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where it was recorded during Neposlušno, the Sound Disobedience festival in 2012. The hall commemorates those Yugoslavians who volunteered to fight in the Spanish civil war, and the CD booklet includes an illustration of the medal awarded to them. It’s a powerful emblem, and in his liner essay Prévost explores the relationship between art and political circumstance, returning to a very early document from the AMM files, composer and early member Corneliius Cardew’s statement about purpose in Towards an Ethic of Improvisation (1967): “We [AMM] are searching for sounds and for the responses that attach to them, rather than thinking them up, preparing them and producing them.”

That emphasis on sound is remarkable, rooted in immediate material reality and emphasizing the search for sound rather than its manufacture, an idea that informs all of AMM’s work and none more so than this latest. The past fifteen years has, in a sense, produced more of the same that AMM produced in the 35 years before. There have been personnel changes: Keith Rowe departed the group in 2004 leaving it once again a duo of Eddie Prévost and John Tilbury, who since then have released several CDs of duo performances as well as performing and recording with a series of guests. As David Ilic once wrote in The Wire, “With AMM, their albums are as alike or unalike as trees.” That is, similar and infinitely different. It’s certainly true of the duos with Prévost and Tilbury – Place sub V.; Two London Concerts; Uncovered Correspondence: a Postcard from Jaslo; the AMM segment of That mysterious forest below London Bridge – but it’s also true of more expansive projects, like Sounding Music, which added Christian Wolff, John Butcher and Ute Kanngiesser; Trinity, with John Butcher; and Apogee which included the AMM trio of Tilbury, Prévost and Rowe with the three members of MEV, Frederic Rzewski , Alfred Curran and Richard Teitelbaum.

Through the years I have reviewed many of these CDs for various journals, Coda, Musicworks and Point of Departure, though I’ll avoid pulling them together here. Many of the reviews may say the same things (I’ll spare myself that exploration: you can find many of them online). Of Place sub v., I wrote in Musicworks a year ago: “Here close listening, the specific resonances of the space, the contour of a sound and its developing relations to time and silence are everything. One may hear silence being subtly massaged or sound and time coaxed into being, but the absolute purity and indivisibility of this music is such that any description risks falsifying the experience of it.” For that reason, an issue explored in my 2000 piece, I have turned to others to offer their insights into AMM, their feelings often based on the special familiarity of playing with AMM at one time or another, or of being profoundly influenced by their music.

One of the striking features of AMM that others mention is the distinctive character of AMM even with its changing personnel and different guests, even with Eddie Prévost as its one constant.

The Swiss saxophonist Bertrand Denzler, whose own work often focuses on tight-knit ensemble improvisation, hears AMM as a consistently collective presence:

“When I think of AMM, I hear a group sound, Not the sound of the group members but the sound of the group. And actually this is quite rare in improvised music. The sound I hear is the AMM sound of the 1990s, the period I know the best. And it’s a powerful vibration. AMM is one of the most interesting groups in improvised music because of its history. But what counts most for me is that, to my ears, they show how a group can keep alive a vibration, without having to “express” anything, or “create a form,” or whatever, just keeping alive a musical space.”

Richard Teitelbaum, who has been a member of MEV almost as long as Eddie Prévost has been a member of AMM, finds the same sense of a group mind:

“AMM and MEV go back together almost as far as AMM itself. In 1969 or so, Earl Brown released an LP on Mainstream Records called Live Electronic Music Improvised which had AMM on one side and MEV on the other. It was a great and forward looking idea, but unfortunately the labels (on MOST but not ALL copies) somehow got reversed. That, if nothing else, tied us together for decades, if not for life. Good friends and well-meaning supporters still unintentionally misidentify the two groups when playing the record for their students.

“But our styles were (and are) really quite different.

“How does a group like AMM create an ongoing and recognizable style over fifty years, especially when only one member has played in it consistently for the whole span of time? Of course, much credit for that must go to the tortoise-like member, Eddie Prévost. But the textures the passing members/visitors have maintained and their understanding and consistency of styles and approaches accounts for a great deal as well.

“One of the main characteristics has been a predominant attention to sound over music. To some extent this has been mitigated, especially in recent years, by the presence of the piano which, when played on the keyboard, sounds distinctly ‘piano-like,’ though John Tilbury’s performance strongly focuses attention on the piano sound itself, somewhat as Feldman’s music does.”

“With MEV (after our initial ‘60s noise phase) there is clearly more attention to the more traditional musical characteristics – even of old fashioned melody, harmony and rhythm. This was evident when we recorded with both groups together a few years ago [Apogee, 2004], and I think it may even have contributed to driving poor Keith Rowe out of the group (glad to hear he may be back soon!).

“For whatever reasons, AMM has clearly had a profound influence on the development and history of improvised and electronic music over these past fifty years, which has established a well-set and rich ongoing tradition–one of the major ones in the field. And this is just the beginning!”

A long-time associate of AMM, Evan Parker notes, “AMM has (AMMs have) been a fountain of wisdom and bravery in face of the hubristic (or is it rather, entirely natural) idea that we can improvise music on an acoustic blank slate. Like the seasons and the weather, the changes of emphasis, personnel and performance strategies truly constitute an inexhaustible document, an essential pillar in the house of music.”

Ken Vandermark, who recently included a performance with AMM on his Nine Ways to Read a Bridge (Not Two), points to the particular kind of silence with which AMM works and its moral significance:

“Eddie Prévost titled one of his books about music, No Sound Is Innocent. I would also say that almost every sound has been made a lie or is cursed by the rampant capitalism of contemporary society. Is there an environment that is not inundated by advertising, coupled with a soundtrack which appropriates music from all genres and time periods? Can we listen to Mozart without thinking, even unconsciously, of a car commercial?

“It is not surprising to me that John Tilbury has such a strong interest in the work of Samuel Beckett. Like Beckett, I believe AMM struggled to find a language that could somehow circumvent the falsehoods implicit in our systems of communication, which, due to codification and commodification, now have limited and often predetermined meaning. In the end, Beckett almost completely removed the words from his theater, leaving more and more silence onstage as a way to get around the lies buried in language. I feel that ‘silence’ has a similar role in the music of AMM. In both cases, after stripping away the clichés, what vocabulary was left to get at the truth?”

“I’ve been fortunate to play with Eddie and John on a few occasions in the last couple of years. John Coltrane described the feeling of losing his way while playing with Thelonious Monk as similar to falling down a well. When I was playing with John and Eddie, it was like walking across a deep lake on a thin sheet of melting ice, about to slip and fall every moment while I tried to keep up with the two of them, knowing that when they got to the other shore the music would finish and the ice would be gone.”

Simon Reynell, the founder of Another Timbre records, also emphasizes that significance, in which social principle and consciousness have become embedded in a music making:

“AMM was always more than a purely musical project; the politics was understated but mattered. Sadly, as history has developed over 50 years, the politics of AMM have become increasingly marginalized from the common sense of the contemporary world. But musically, improvisation has flourished and widened its appeal, and in particular the ‘laminal’ form which AMM pioneered has become a kind of common sense for younger generations of contemporary players.”

AMM’s music has impacted contemporary improvisers in positive ways, whether they proceed structurally and analytically or more intuitively. The English saxophonist Seymour Wright, first associated with the Prévost improvisation workshops and now responsible for intensely original work of his own, takes an epistemological approach:

“AMM – in particular its earliest period, discovered first through the documents contained in The Crypt box – has posed (and represented) blocks/yields of questions, at various times in my life.

“One way that I have learned learning is through asking these questions (over time) – what they are, and mean (to me). And through this (uncertainty), evolving my own ways – to investigate them, to accommodate the multi-potentials in the yields/blocks of these questions’ subsequent questions (and so on), and so, to create my own ways.”
The Portuguese guitarist Abdul Moimême, who has recorded a series of imaginative sound-oriented improvisations on the Insub and Creative sources labels, reflects on the sheer power of AMM’s music on succeeding generations of musicians:

“AMM has had a profounder and more far-reaching impact on my playing than I can fully acknowledge, the case being the extent of their influence on an entire community of musicians that has variously assimilated and reinterpreted their groundbreaking approach to improvisation and by which I am invariably surrounded.”

“I first became aware of their work when I was already submerged neck-deep in the troubled waters they had so willingly agitated. The experience was alarmingly similar to the impact of my first swimming lesson, when I was too shy to tell the instructor that I didn’t know how to swim and thus indulged him by plunging, head first, into the deep end. Both impressions were simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating.”

 

AMM: Entering and Leaving History (2000)

by Stuart Broomer

Among John Cage’s koans about the nature of music, one – first read in the mid-sixties – has always stuck in my mind, remembered as “What is more musical, a truck driving by a factory or a truck driving by a music school?” It raises not only the issue of the listener’s perspective, but also suggests modes of production and the social institutions of musical history and practice. AMM, the British improvising group that has now been active since 1965, has looked at those issues (and many related ones) as much as any group or individual, whether in committing itself to spontaneous collective creation or in situating its music within an ongoing critique. What is more musical, a piano or a transistor radio? What is more musical, the industrial revolution or the electronic? AMM have given us a unique musical gift. They have let us know what an improvising ensemble of talented and visionary players can create if it persists for thirty five years.

 

Personnel – Something like a history

AMM evolved out of the first generation of British free jazz musicians in 1965, with a core group of percussionist Eddie Prévost, guitarist Keith Rowe and saxophonist Lou Gare. Soon Lawrence Sheaff joined, playing cello, accordion, clarinet, and transistor radio, and then the composer Cornelius Cardew, playing piano and cello. After the departure of Sheaff, it briefly included Christopher Hobbs, a student of Cardew, on percussion. The break with free jazz was undoubtedly a sharp one, for the earliest recording by the group, AMMMUSIC1966 from the summer of that year, seldom has anything in common with the rhythmic or linear patterns of jazz, however freely defined. “Later During a Flaming Riviera Sunset” emphasizes strings and metallic percussion in patterns that seem closer to the looping tapes of electronic music, while “In the Realm of Nothing Whatever” is a layered collage in which radio signals are prominent components. Early on, the group committed itself philosophically to two tenets, unstructured improvisation and the exploration of sound. These are not necessarily synonymous.

By 1970 AMM had coalesced into a quartet of Prévost, Rowe, Gare and Cardew, which continued until 1972 when it broke up into two duos, Prévost and Gare and Cardew and Rowe. In the shifting politics of the group (politics here intended literally: the rupture was occasioned by Rowe and Cardew’s Maoist reading of Marxist principles), Cardew and Rowe began to work again with Gare and Prévost in 1976. Soon, however, Gare departed, followed by Cardew, with Rowe and Prévost becoming a second two-man version of the group. The distinction was sufficiently strong that their sole LP as a duo was released by ‘AMM III.’

Around 1980, pianist John Tilbury, an associate of Cardew who had occasionally played with AMM as early as the sixties, became a regular member. Since then the group has consistently appeared as a trio, with the occasional addition of Gare or cellist Rohan de Saram.

This truncated history can suggest institutions like the Juilliard String Quartet, the MJQ, or the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but AMM has lived without a repertoire. Further, an early work by AMM bears little sonic resemblance to a recent one. The early is loud, the recent apparently quiet; the early, abrasive; the later relatively gentle. What persists is a willingness to explore and to take chances. Their long improvisations can suggest the moral grandeur of Sibelius or Coltrane, or the deconstruction of cricket sounds, or, likelier, both, sometimes alternately, sometimes at once.

The group that AMM most closely resembles, though they sound utterly unalike and their musics seem to take shape on different principles, is the trio of Evan Parker, Barry Guy, and Paul Lytton, whose playing relationship is almost as long as AMM’s and who share the same devotion to collective improvisation. When AMM was a tenor/drums duo in the ‘70s, Gare and Prevost frequently co-promoted concerts with the duo of Parker and Lytton, and there’s an extraordinary quartet recording from 1984, called Supersession (Matchless MRCD17), with a quartet of Guy, Parker, Prévost and Rowe.

 

How to Write?

It’s often remarked that music is hard to write about, and it’s well nigh impossible to write about meaningfully. Further, the more music involves us in its processes, the more it eludes description. It follows, then, that the richest music will receive the least attention in print. Ed Baxter has written, “commentary on AMM tends to lead one away from the music into superfluous description or unwieldy analysis. AMM exists where words fail ... ” One reason for this may be that AMM makes music that refers – musically and structurally, not simply programmatically – to the “larger” aspects of human discourse – politics, religion, philosophy. It is a music that engages ideas of spirit, work, community, and consciousness. In attempting to address its processes verbally, however, we move inevitably into aspects of language that are doomed to fail (Wittgenstein). Another aspect of AMM’s work that seems to deliberately undercut language is Keith Rowe’s use of radio and tapes, in which language appears as banal.

I believe that AMM’s music literally enacts certain philosophical ideas about history, particularly the utopian end of history as postulated in Hegel and, to a lesser extent, Marx and the recent writer Francis Fukuyama. The particular pleasure of listening to AMM, its meaningfulness, may be related to how we experience time, work, material, the self and history.

The present essay is written at a fundamental level: to recommend. Eddie Prévost’s book, No Sound Is Innocent (Copula, 1995), is a remarkable collection of essays on the thoughts and processes surrounding and underlying AMM’s musical practice, and on the principles of what Prevost terms “Meta-music”. As with John Cage and Derek Bailey, Prévost is the best spokesperson for his work.

AMM deserves hearing in inverse proportion to which it can be talked about successfully.

 

Continuity: Prévost and Rowe

In a sense, the collaboration of Prévost and Rowe is the essential feature of AMM. This is not to diminish the roles of Gare, Cardew, or Tilbury in the group’s music at different times, but Prévost and Rowe are the two musicians who were there at the beginning and who are there today. Together they define a continuing principle in AMM music. It’s more than that. Each began by expanding the sonic vocabulary of his instrument immensely. Prévost comes from jazz drumming, and his skills here are enormous; witness his recordings as leader with other groups and his duets with Marilyn Crispell and Evan Parker. But his interest in timbre and sounds both discreet (isolated taps) and continuous (bowed bells and cymbals) was unprecedented in the improvisatory traditions where drumming tended to be more exclusively rhythmic. His work is linked to the modernist tradition in which composers like Cage wrote percussion music to escape the tyranny of isolated pitches.

Rowe, a visual artist as well as a musician, made an essential discovery circa 1962-63, one borrowed from the methodology of Jackson Pollock. In the forties, Pollock had found the freedom from tradition and technique to be gained by taking the canvas off the wall and putting it on the floor; Rowe applied the same logic to the guitar. Placed on floor or table, it soon became a machine for making sounds – bowed, drummed, prepared – that has had far ranging effects on one major branch of improvising guitarists. The first guitarist to fully embrace the instrument’s electronic possibilities, Rowe also began using radios (short wave, transistor) as sources for random sonic input and textual components.

Prévost and Rowe’s particular instrumental approaches have largely defined the sonic palette of AMM, both in its early density and its later breadth, while the combination of discreet and continuous sounds persists to the present. Rowe’s use of mallets on guitar is percussive; Prévost’s use of mallet struck, pitched percussion is linear and melodic. The shared practice of bowing, too, has made a fundamental difference in AMM and it results in some of the crossover in voices (the loss of the individual self in a genuinely collective music) that is their hallmark. This synthesis of sound is not restricted to early recordings with relatively poor sound, but is apparent on the Generative Themes CD, a superb studio recording. Often it is difficult to attribute a sound to one or the other. In his 1992 note to the reissue of The Crypt (1968), Prévost writes “The player could, at times, share a timeless immersion in a world of sound, while simultaneously being free to pursue their individual paths. It was not uncommon for the musician to wonder who or what was producing a particular sound, stop playing, and discover it was he himself who had been responsible.”

This confusion of source is extended. Three of the other musicians who have participated in AMM – Sheaff, de Saram and Cardew – have played cello, an instrument that (used conventionally) extends the techniques of Prévost and Rowe (Lou Gare has played violin, while Rowe plays cello on the opera Irma). This issue of bowing is already embedded in the music of The Crypt, a CD which takes its name from its venue, but which may readily suggest entombment (or encoding). Gordon Alien’s comment on the liner – “This is the music I want to hear at my funeral” – is telling. “Coffin Nor Shelf” and “Neither Bill nor Axe would Shorten its Existence” are all about bowing. Further on, Prévost’s emphasis on bowed metal and metallic scraping has dovetailed with Rowe’s use of feedback and electronic alterations of sound – one of the other things being blurred is a distinction between the acoustic and the electronic.

 

Rowe, Radio and the Reified World

Another distinctive and consistent features of AMM has been Keith Rowe’s use of short wave and transistor radios in performance, introducing spoken word, popular music, and random frequencies. Its function is always complex, and it has become more explicit in recent years as AMM’s music has grown increasingly meditative and, in some sense, spare. It would be easy to find it merely comic, since it’s often funny, but it’s also a reality check. Music springs conveniently forth from the radio, with melody, structure and associations (at the 28 minute mark of the first piece from The Great Hall, London (from Laminal), “Heat Wave,” the Motown hit of the sixties, erupts). Sometimes, because of this, it’s a reassuring touchstone in the world of the seemingly aleatoric.

Other times (same times?), it can seem like a Bronx cheer or a deliberated fart in a religious service you happen to believe in. It declares the ironic relationship of AMM to the world of music, which is both inclusive and exclusive – any sound, no premeditation. Rowe’s non-matrixed sound bites emphasize the experience of placelessness, whether a world saturated with media or the bliss of inhabiting music. It had been an ordinary enough day in Pueblo, Colorado was recorded in a studio in Ludwigsberg, Germany. The title phrase, and place arise in a radio broadcast.

 

Lou Gare’s Line

“All the sounds seem to go on inside.” Lou Gare, from “Subjective view of an AMM session,” The Crypt.

To Hear and Back Again is the only currently available document of the duo form of AMM, with just Gare and Prévost, that existed from 1972 to 1976. It contains the 1974 material from the original LP and adds a half hour of music recorded in 1973 and 1975. It is perhaps the most accessible of AMM recordings for those with a free jazz bias, the group reduced to a naked acoustic duo of tenor saxophone and drums. Gare is unquestionably among the most under-rated of saxophonists, a musician gifted with a creative ease and fluency that will link him as much with the best of the Young school as with free jazz and which consists in his ability to develop long strings of melody. His sole appearance on a recent AMM CD is on The Nameless Uncarved Block, from 1990, and it’s distinguished by the continuity of his line.

 

Rohan de Saram

There is in the work of AMM a new vision of the physicality of sound itself. I put The Inexhaustible Document into the player, put on the headphones, press “Start.” It is a different AMM, with cellist Rohan de Saram (a member of the Arditti Quartet) joining Prévost, Rowe, and Tilbury. It is immediately “beautiful,” as is almost all AMM music since the early ‘80s – a cello plucked gently yet resonantly amid waves of continuous, subtly changing sound. Those waves are not immediately identifiable as particular instruments, though one first assumes and then identifies where the amplified guitar and the bowed or scraped cymbals begin, end, converge. This hyper resonance has very little to do with the way a musical instrument or line is usually defined. It is somewhere between stroking, rubbing, or – at its most electronic – gauging or grading. But it is something else, too. As a mode of labor it resembles polishing – polishing metal, polishing wood, polishing ... silence. At the end of the piece, there is a bird-like sound, and then a solitary drum tapping like a bucket washed by lapping waves against a dock. De Saram here assumes a special status: it may merely be that it is his sole appearance with AMM on a full-length CD, though, too, it may be his specific linearity. The Inexhaustible Document is as arresting a cello work as composed music has given us in the 200 years that they’ve been written – Shostakovich, Kodaly. What improvisation means in AMM: elsewhere there is music that argues for improvisation; AMM, more lethal, assumes the world of composition.

 

John Tilbury/ Utopian Music

“AMM in its music making seeks to wrest the idea, and practice, of ‘spirituality’ from religion.” John Tilbury, notes to Laminal.

If the early history of AMM is in part about testing ideas, comings and goings, even rupture and change, it has possessed a remarkable stability since 1980. AMM entered a new phase with the addition of John Tilbury that has nicely dovetailed with the rise of the CD, a medium that’s closer to the “natural” length of the AMM performance or “piece.” A gifted interpreter of twentieth century piano music, Tilbury possesses a rare “negative capability,” a selflessness shared with Prévost and Rowe that allows him to immerse himself fully in a group creation, combined with an ability to create abstract patterns with perfect composure. At times his playing will suggest (even expand) the lovely chance quality of Cage’s sonatas for prepared piano, which he has recorded. His senses of form and clarity are extraordinary, and his participation has both complemented the others and added another dimension.

The music of AMM is “utopian” (a pun, suggesting both eutopia, “good place,” and utopia, “no place”), not in the sense of an unrealizable ideal, but in the way it has constructed a plural placelessness in its music. Arising in part within a Marxist critique (Prévost is an adroit handler of theories of history; a reading of Ernst Fischer’s The Necessity of Art is germane), it goes straight to the Marxist idea of alienation, that industrialization severed the direct relationship of workers from what they produced. In the wholly improvised work, musicians achieve a kind of absolute oneness with what they produce.

In an early text on AMM’s music, included in the notes to The Crypt, Cornelius Cardew, concentrating on the primacy of process over product in improvised music, wrote, “Documents such as tape recordings of improvised music are essentially empty, as they preserve chiefly the form that something took and give at best an indistinct hint as to the feeling and cannot convey any sense of time and place.” The music of AMM, while self-consuming (the nature of improvisation as an artifact) is only tenuously commodified, almost ironically so with the remarkable cover art of Keith Rowe, so that this product-resistant music comes in the most beautiful packages.

AMM statements have made much of the possibility (even necessary presence) of failure in every performance, both as an index of the demands of improvisation and as a source of new material and directions. The recordings of the trio since 1982, however, would seem to dispute the issue: Prévost, Rowe and Tilbury have been producing spontaneous masterpieces of unique scale and design. It’s precisely at this stage that descriptions of AMM recordings become so difficult. Most of their recordings are performances. Several CDs – Newfoundland, Live in Allentown, From a Strange Place – consist of a single track from an hour to 75 minutes in length. Even CDs that are segmented represent edits or mere divisions in long performances. These performances are both spontaneous and unstructured. While they can suggest geological stratification, layers and depths and qualities of material with instrumental voices shifting around like continental blocks, the points of interest, and how they might be heard or described, are largely subjective, the listener somehow at the center of the work. The performances have an absolute structure in time, a kind of inevitability, but each listening suggests another emphasis, whether the vertical integration of simultaneous events, a linear sequence of stages, the sheer sonic exploration, or the proliferation of detail emerges as dominant. Listening to these CDs, we experience a bliss and beauty that might be described as an extension of the collective, of the purely sonic, or an experience of forms that arise at the end of history as it might be constructed in terms of tonal and temporal structures. The aesthetic might be described as Oriental, insofar as the East traditionally eschews the progressive patterns of the West (history, chords, technology).

Stuart Broomer © 2015

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