Friday, December 13, 2013

Notes on AMM

Eddie Prevost - copyright Susan O'Connor, Toronto, Canada

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 Prevost 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's 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, Prevost 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 - Shostacovich, 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).

Keith Rowe - copyright Gerard Futrick Reading, PA. USA