a column by
Stuart Broomer

Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, Jazz em Agosto
Joaquim Mendes/Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation©2010

The Jazz em Agosto festival in Lisbon has become a regular summer event for me, two weekends of adventurous music at the beginning of August in a city of rare and generous spirit. There are always a few spectacular performances, but I felt particularly fortunate this year to have a chance to hear, for the first time live, Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble--a group I’d admired on recordings since Towards the Margins (ECM) was released in 1997. Better yet, the group had just grown again, with new members bringing it to 18 musicians.

It was a spatially striking performance with an unusual sonic layout. Most of the major concerts at Jazz em Agosto take place in an outdoor amphitheatre on the park-like grounds of the Gulbenkian Foundation, Museum and Art Gallery. Acoustic performers stood and sat in a broad semi-circle on the stage, while the electronic performers constituted a smaller group behind them. Most of the acoustic sound came directly from the stage, while the sounds of the electronics came from the upper circle of the amphitheatre above the audience, creating a circle of sound, the electronics pinging around like the stars in the night-sky (reminiscent of Cage’s compositions using star maps but here literally among the stars). This sense of circular space constructed of original, reverberant and reflective bits suggested a cathedral to me at first, a cathedral in air, made of sound. Here improvised music approaches the intimacy and grandeur—an intimacy with grandeur, it has always been intimate—of Messiaen’s Turangalila. It’s an expansive experience of both space and time.

The Ficus and the Church

A few days later, I went for a walk in Lisbon, in part musing on the form of what I’d heard, but also seeking a couple of interesting sites, the Lisbon Botanical Garden, a 19th century garden that takes full advantage of both the country’s moderate climate and its global adventures, and the Igreja de São Roque, a 16th century church named for the patron saint of plague victims.

As I entered the Garden, my attention was arrested by a large specimen of a Moreton Bay Fig (Ficus macrophylla). I’ve been around a few ficus trees before, but either I wasn’t paying attention or they weren’t up to this one. Certainly, I was never as struck by the commanding weirdness. What first stood out were the dangling roots, clumps of them hanging at eye level from the branches, as if the tree’s upward thrust was so great that it was in the process of uprooting itself, in defiance of gravity. It got stranger. A vast limb was supported by three perpendicular trunks. I don’t know much about trees, but the ficus contradicted most of what I thought I knew. The trunk is not circular, but stretched lengthwise and the larger roots at the base seem to be pouring into the ground. It is as if the tree began in air and grew down, assuming the elusive shape of a tree in an Arthur Rackham drawing.

Contradicting my assumptions about trees, the ficus seems also to contradict most of what I know about time and causality. There is, of course a “simple” explanation for this, as I found out later. The Moreton Bay is a “strangler fig,” a tree that germinates in the leaves of another tree. It actually does grow down, shooting out roots that seek the earth, thrusting downward, thus the dangling roots and multiple perpendicular trunks, engulfing and strangling the other tree in the process. Given this strange propagation, there’s further surprise in its extraordinary size, some examples reaching 200 feet high and covering a city block.

After wandering and sitting in the Botanical Garden for an hour or so, I left and continued on to the Igreja de São Roque, a few downhill blocks south toward the Tagus River. Constructed in honor of São Roque or Saint Roch, a protector against the ravages of the plague, the church presents a simple and orderly facade of grey stone, nothing to attract attention. Inside it’s a riot of decoration, with extraordinary geometrical tiles and wonderful side chapels with relief sculptures, a couple of which (those dedicated to the Holy Sacrament and Our Lady of Piety) feature masses of angels—lacework of bodies and sometimes just heads, bulbous, spherical, infantile faces, some in gold, some in gleaming white. The crucified Christ and the Virgin are garlanded in these angels, festooned in cherubic bodies and faces. Made of gilded and upholstered wood, many of the faces have a porcelain-like finish that is continuous with the tile work and mosaics. These multiple faces might stand in for the actual bones that occasionally figure in the church construction and decoration of the era. They`re particularly beautiful in their finish, but there’s something significant in their sheer number, as if they`re bubbling up. It’s an ecstasy of proliferation, and it might stand in as double and corollary to the numbers of the plague dead, tribute to a swift and widespread death (whether such a connection was ever intended) as well as the transcendent order of the building.

If I’d begun my encounter with the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble a few days before thinking of it as a cathedral, I was starting to think of it more as a tree, though admittedly one of an unusual sort, a tree that grows in air. I don’t recall exactly when I realized that the walk was feeding a meditation on the form of the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble (I suspect first standing in the entrance of the church), but at some point the title The Ficus and the Plague Church had attached itself to my thoughts on the music, and not in any obvious contrasting way of strangler and sanctuary, but rather their essential similarity, somehow transcending what we think of as nature and culture and their rich metaphoric relationship. The church, made of stone—vast, weighty—may be readily imagined beginning in an idea of a celestial above, reflecting that above, leading to that above. The church is an imaginary disinterment. The ficus is so hard to imagine because it behaves in similar yet opposite ways. We imagine it as a tree, something beginning in earth, whereas it has begun in air, it is descending. These are movements of the imagination in time, images of doubling and routing. The tree or the cathedral is a vast and largely imaginary world, sort of like the internet where I have learned so much about both since first visiting them.

Something that the ficus and the church provided immediately for the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble was a sense of scale, both temporal and spatial. Each begins as the germ of an idea. The ficus has a symbiotic relationship with a fig wasp, each requiring the other for reproduction. The Igreja de São Roque had its beginnings around 1500 with a request for a relic of Saint Roch, the fourteenth century pilgrim who had helped plague victims until he contracted it himself, recovering with the help of a kindly dog and afterwards performing miraculous cures. Initially a hermitage, construction on the church began in 1576 and its extraordinary and multiple forms of art developed over the next three centuries. The extent to which this is a vast elaboration is further suggested by recent scholarly work that claims Saint Roch did not exist, but that both his name and his association with the plague are linguistic corruptions of a much earlier saint and the bad weather with which he was connected.

The music of the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble is big, larger than the mere idea of 18 musicians, which in another era could be a swing band or a chamber orchestra. It is both beautiful and impressive in ways that the tree and the church are, and part of that experience is based on witnessing something that took a long time to create and in which that time is not immediately apparent. We tend to think of improvised music at its best as fully occupying the time it takes to realize, but think less of the time of its conception, as if that might vitiate its essential spontaneity. What is extraordinary about the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble is that it increasingly appears to fulfill impulses that date from the first years of the free jazz era. 

Paul Lytton, Jazz em Agosto                                     Joaquim Mendes/Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation©2010

Sources and Doubles

Shortly after the concert, I was talking to Paul Lytton about the music. I knew Paul had begun working with Evan in a duo in the early seventies, a duo in which Paul regularly employed electronics as well as percussion, and mentioned this to Paul as the earliest impulse toward what has become the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. Paul pointed out Evan’s work in the late 1960s with Hugh Davies in the Music Improvisation Company. Davies had made home-made electronic instruments that were an essential part of the group’s work. Paul had occasionally subbed as drummer in the group in the late ‘60s so it moved the dialogue and connections into another decade. (Earlier I had spoken to Evan about the music. He had shown me the six index cards that functioned as composition—events, sequences of players’ initials and inter-relations-- and remarked, “Paul Lytton is keeping time: one beat every ten minutes.”)

Though the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble first appeared in the 1990s I think the 1960s are a seminal period for the group and that some of its sources reach deep into that formative decade. In its origins, the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble is a direct expansion of the Parker-Guy-Lytton trio, a group that has played together since around 1980 and which in turn is a kind of outgrowth of the Parker-Lytton duo. The Parker-Guy-Lytton trio bears a certain resemblance to the Albert Ayler Trio with Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray, the energized virtuoso trio of tenor, bass and drums that recorded Spiritual Unity in 1964. That record was an extraordinary breakthrough into free improvisation driven by a furious intensity and an increasing complexity. If Ayler maintained songs as themes, he did so without structural reference to those themes in his improvisations which were driven by velocity and the sonic resource of the saxophone. In the Parker-Guy-Lytton trio, thematic material has disappeared in favor of a more continuous rhythmic exchange, but notions of density and interactivity have been carried much further. There is a fundamental principle of multiplicity at work. While Parker developed much of his technical vocabulary on solo soprano saxophone—the multiple lines, multiphonic (chordal and cluster) notes, circular breathing-- his tenor playing regularly references those techniques and is also multiple in the way that he will change sound and attack frequently, as if approaching the moment from different angles. Guy, the most virtuosic of improvising bassists, will create walls of squiggling bowed harmonics, insert multiple temporary bridges into his bass’s strings and then drum on the various shortened strings as if he were playing several basses. Lytton’s drumming comes directly from the polyrhythmic tradition of Philly Joe and Elvin Jones and he too has integrated chance elements, placing objects on the drums and then drumming on them, creating beats on things that then create beats of their own.

The drive toward multiplicity (implicit in the history of jazz as collective improvisation from New Orleans’ earliest days) has another clear and distinct prototype, Free Jazz by Ornette Coleman’s Double Quartet. In his quartets with trumpeter Don Cherry from 1958 on, Ornette had brought something of collective improvisation back into the foreground of jazz in his dialogues with Cherry (the cult of the soloist is vastly over-rated—interactivity and collectivity are key to almost all improvisation, the greatest soloists finding new modes of interactivity whether it’s with an identity like “Picasso” or the interior of an unused cistern). In December of 1960, Coleman literally doubled his quartet, pairing each musician in a mirror band, two drummers, two bassists, two trumpets, two reeds. (One of Coleman’s most ardent supporters, John Lewis, had earlier composed a piece for the Modern Jazz Quartet plus the Jimmy Giuffre 3).

Free Jazz radically altered both the linear and vertical notions of group dialogue. Each musician was now responding to far more input than previously and the rules governing both the input and the output had been radically relaxed. Brief themes and fanfares simply demarcate different terrains in which each individual functions in turn as lead voice in a kind of spontaneous congregation. On this the fiftieth anniversary of its recording, it’s as important and as achieved as Kind of Blue and has had as wide and at least as rich an influence.

The first time this kind of double band appears in Parker’s discography is on an unreleased Spontaneous Music Ensemble recording made for Island in 1968, with Parker and Trevor Watts on saxophones, Dave Holland and Peter Kowald on basses, and Rashied Ali and John Stevens on drums (Francesco Martinelli, Evan Parker Discography, Bandecchi and Vivaldi, 1994, p. 4). Among more recent analogues to the Double Quartet in Parker’s music, there is 2 X 3 = 5 (Leo, 2000) which combines the Parker-Guy-Lytton trio with the Schlippenbach Trio of which Parker was already a member, thus doubling the drummers, Paul Lytton and Paul Lovens, and, in effect, himself; as if he is now responding to two simultaneous communities. There is also The Bishop’s Move from 2003 (on Victo) in which a trio of Parker-Schlippenbach-Lytton plays with the Peter Brötzmann trio with William Parker and Hamid Drake.

Throughout its history, the Parker-Guy-Lytton trio has regularly added guests, usually other horn players or pianists that extend its instrumentation in ways that reflect traditional jazz practice. There are recordings with George Lewis, Marilyn Crispell, Agusti Fernandez, Sten Sandell and David Stakenas together, and most recently, Peter Evans. However, its expansion in the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble is of a fundamentally different order in terms of the way it anatomizes the idea of improvised response.

Parker`s recorded interaction with electronics intensified around 1990 and it’s directly related to the development of his solo work on soprano saxophone, after achieving a kind of summit for solo improvisation with Conic Sections in 1989 (on Ah Um, reissued on psi). The first of these is Hall of Mirrors (on MM) with the electronic musician Walter Prati, recorded in Milan in 1990. The mirror image is central to all of this work, with Prati here taking Parker`s soprano materials and improvising directly with them, processing them and in effect handing them back transformed for further elaboration. Another relevant work from the following year is Process and Reality (on FMP), a solo soprano recording with multiple overdubs.

From Experiment to Community

WhiIe Parker has been as open to new situations as any improviser, he`s been particularly good at sustaining long musical relationships and patterns, from the Parker-Guy-Lytton trio and the solo soprano music to large ensemble projects like Globe Unity Orchestra and Barry Guy`s London Jazz Composers Orchestra and the London Improvisers Orchestra. What may be most striking about the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble is the way in which the Ensemble is a cumulative form for many of his musical relationships. It begins in that fundamental concept of doubling and the notion of improvisational response, the age-old practice of responding to and developing what a fellow improviser has done, but it readdresses the idea within the context of current technology, from recording to electronic manipulation. 

The first version of the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble was a six member double trio, taking the PGL and assigning an electronic musician to process the signal coming from each of the instrumentalists, though there were some crossovers in roles. Phil Wachsmann played viola as well as electronics and Paul Lytton played electronics as well as percussion. Parker and Guy worked acoustically, while Walter Prati and Marco Vecchi contributed live electronics and signal processing to the acoustic sounds. This treats improvisational tradition in a radically new way. If musicians traditionally listen to, respond and vary one another`s improvisations, here the relationship has changed because the initial signal is being precisely captured and electronically altered, suggesting group dialogue as an infinity of changing mirrors, repetition as transmutation (there`s a piece called ``Turbulent Mirror`` on the group`s first recording Toward the Margins from 1996 ). This meant a radical new exercise for the Parker-Guy-Lytton trio. If they were masters at creating densely interwoven lines, the new electronic refraction and magnification demanded self-editing, reducing one`s output to clarify components in the sheer interest of avoiding information overload.

The first expansion of the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble on record, Drawn Inward (all EAE recordings are on ECM) recorded in 1998, added electronic musician Lawrence Casserley who assumed responsibility for extending the literal connections between the group, acting as an umbrella in tweaking, altering and transforming individual inputs. The next, Memory Vision in 2002, added the pianist Agusti Fernandez on the acoustic side and Joel Ryan on the sampling and signal processing. The Eleventh Hour (2004) had bassist Adam Linson substituting for Guy and added the duo Furt, Richard Barrett and Paul Obermayer employing sampling keyboards and live electronics. The Moment`s Energy, recorded in 2007, balanced the acoustic side of the equation by adding trumpeter Peter Evans, shô player Ko Ishikawa and Ned Rothenberg on clarinets and shakuhachi. Short of that substitution of Linson for Guy, every recording of the group has included all previous members, extraordinary consistency for a group of this size and its special demands.

In Lisbon the group added Ikue Mori on laptop, Aleks Kolkowski on Stroh viola and musical saw, Peter Van Bergen on contrabass and piccolo clarinet, and John Russell on electric guitar, as well as Kjell Bjørgeengen on image projection. These subtle shifts conducted over so long a time give the sense in human time that the group has expanded almost like a family—very gradually. 

The band is clearly a kind of community. Knitting it together are the myriad sub-groupings within the ensemble and the sense of a continuous and expanding history. While the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble has been active intermittently since 1992, Parker and the individual members have performed together in a host of ways. The recordings could create a substantial discography, including micro-bands like Furt and the Parker-Rothenberg duo. There`s a trio with Parker, Guy and Casserley (Dividuality on Maya). There`s a recording with Parker and guitarist Thurston Moore with signal processing by Prati (The Promise on Maso) and there`s another recording by Parker and French guitarist Noel Akchoté with signal processing by Casserley and Joel Ryan (Live at Les Instants Chevires on Leo). Prati, Vecchi, Ryan, Casserley and Furt have appeared on numerous projects with Parker and some of the others. Parker distinguished the recording Set (on psi), based on mechanisms of biological evolution from Electro-Acoustic Ensemble recordings, but it includes the Parker-Guy-Lytton trio and most of the electronic musicians associated with the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble.

Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, Jazz em Agosto
Joaquim Mendes/Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation©2010

Technics and Principles

The expansive character of the orchestra begins in a technical irony, the congestion of hardware. The set-up of the electronics takes two hours—it’s a demanding process that facilitates a kind of improvisation but which is very different in character from improvisation. The interaction with electronics inevitably involves precision of repetition, but above all it’s about the instantaneous creation of variation and the invention of novel timbres, attacks and envelopes. Those same features that are present in the electronics increase the significance of both timbre and multiplicity in the orchestra.

On one hand the expanding sense of timbre is in part a cultural expansion—the shô and Rothenberg`s shakuhachi reflect this,  but it is also in a sense purely sonic, the emphasis on high and low frequencies expands the space that the group can occupy. This is highlighted in Peter Van Bergen`s contrabass and piccolo clarinets, the largest and the smallest and the two you`re least likely to come across. The contra-bass clarinet emits a grainy sustained sound that might announce the presence of a ghost ship entering a harbour, a richly resonant roar that extends the lower register of the raucous bass clarinets of 19th century Russia.  This taste for pitch extremes is also apparent in Peter Evans’ use of piccolo trumpet, the first prominent voice to emerge in the Lisbon performance.     

There is also a sense of timbre as time and technology. Aleks Kolkowski’s Stroh viola has a metal resonator and horn. Patented in 1899, the instrument is an exercise in acoustic amplification similar to the dobro-style guitar. The musical saw pays homage to the home workshop, the spirit of adaptation and the vaudeville stage. Another blast from the past, this one literal, is a large gramophone speaker that before the end of the performance will emit a blast of feedback.

The group`s durability and more pointedly the continuity of some of Parker`s reigning ideas has made this both a dynamic development of those ‘60s principles and a source for the future. It is ever more richly traditioned and part of that tradition is its own radicalism and its ability to address its own components as tradition. Parker’s rethinking of saxophone technique, once perhaps seemingly idiosyncratic, is now a central fact in improvised music, a key to practices from drone to counterpoint, extraordinarily central. Having found ways for a single horn player to sound like an ensemble, he now has an ensemble with other players who employ those and similar techniques. Ned Rothenberg, who plays reeds with a special individual elegance of timbre, employs controlled multiphonics and circular breathing. Peter Evans (along with Axel Dörner and Nate Wooley) has somehow found comparable technical resource in the trumpet to combine circular breathing and kinds of multiple lines, remarkably enough underlying the harmonic language of the ancient world of modern jazz. Alfred Jarry’s Dr. Faustroll, written in 1897, described the twentieth century as minus 3 years old; When John Stevens assembled the double trio version of the SME, Peter Evans was minus 13 years old. 

Often one finds large groups of musicians have an oddly military bearing, but the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble has none of that feeling of regimentation and resentment about it. It only has original members, no duplicates, and it seems to be rooted not only in the choices Parker has made but also the special nature of the music’s interactive structures. This music is both Utopian and Eutopian, no place and good place, born in the notion of individual extension and the possibility of extrapolating community out of collective free expression. As such, it’s one of the highest cultural forms of anarcho-syndicalism ever achieved.

Time and Space

It is the collective genius of the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble that it has found so much more space for improvised music to grow and multiply and disperse, whether it’s in the wires carrying messages or the circle of a performance space, embracing both mystery and numeracy. This graceful unfolding and growing in time is a strange flower of a music that once seemed driven to the infernal instant of apocalypse. If we date its first impulse to the SME’s double trio, the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble has been assembling at this point for the same length of time as the conventional history of jazz from Louis Armstrong’s first recording to the death of John Coltrane.

I have thought occasionally over the past couple of years of writing a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Coleman’s Free Jazz, in my view the most important jazz record of the second half of the twentieth century. Reflecting on the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, I think it’s the greatest tribute Coleman’s genius could have, and without simple regurgitation of a history that’s everywhere. On another walk, this one in Toronto, I pass a magazine store with a strange French publication called Les héros de litterateur displayed in the window. The issue is dedicated to the 400th anniversary of Don Quixote. Free Jazz is now an eighth as old as Cervantes’ masterwork.

Stuart Broomer©2010

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