This article is about new improvised English music
- its historical basis, it's radical and independent character, the interest in
environmental sound on the side of musicians, it's organizations and it's social and
musical pluralism. It is a revised version of a radio program sent by German
Deutschlandfunk in October 1998.
One historical basic phenomenon was the rising of a specific
Euoropean jazz in the sixties. One can mention names like Peter Brötzmann, Alexander von
Schlippenbach, Derek Bailey and Evan Parker as examples of well known pioneers. Although
European jazz retained some of the sound and rhythm of original jazz, the avant-gardists
did not make use of its fixed scales and song forms. Instead, collective improvisation
became increasingly important.
Starting from European jazz, a freely improvised music developed
step by step in which jazz became just one among more influences. An interesting, complex
picture of things arises here. The German musicologist Bert Noglik proposed that the
interactive aspect in improvised music, i.e. musicians reacting to each others' playing,
came from jazz. On the other hand, exploration of sound should be regarded as something
coming from composed new music. This is not totally wrong although it is also a
generalization. However this state of affairs, improvised music has the privilege of being
heir to both elements.
In several respects, England has a conservative image, and this is
true for its composed music as well. But it is a fact that the English are not afraid of
rough and unpolished sounds in improvised music.
That improvised English music is in fact so radical could be seen
as a dialectical necessity, for the lack of a better explanation. In all cases, it can
easily be pointed out that England has a whole line-up of independent, de-central
organizations: musician-run concert organizations, record labels, and festivals. Even an
charity organization for music teaching by self-employed teachers can be found.
Now I would like to go back in history. From 1969 and on the
"Scratch Orchestra" was an astonishingly well functioning social music
phenomenon, a whole music culture in itself. It was founded by Cornelius Cardew, a teacher
of composition at the London Morley College at that time. For the Scratch Orchestra,
Anglo-Saxon experimental music was the most important source of inspiration, not jazz. The
name "Scratch Orchestra" implies the idea of starting from scratch. It had
between thirty and forty members, among them were professional musicians, other kinds of
performing artists, and amateurs who went to the rehearsals not only just to prepare music
for concerts, but also enjoyed it as a social event. The orchestra had it's own special
music genres, and everybody participated creatively. "Compositions" might be
made by non-members. For instance Christian Wolff who for some time lived in London and
whose ideas were close to those of the Scratch Orchestra.
"Scratch Music" was a special kind of community
music-making taking place according to the participant's own quite individual recipes. It
constituted an introduction to the rehearsals which was carried on until everybody had
arrived and were ready to go on. Everybody was playing at the same time according to own
verbal or graphic introductions. In so doing, a quiet music was supposed to be produced in
which everybody accompanied everybody else.
Another genre of the "Scratch Orchestra" which fused a
jolly popular atmosphere with avant-garde boldness in a singular way was the "Popular
Classics". In these a short excerpt, a particle from well-known, often classical
music, was played. The resulting music sounded like a parody or a joke - but it was in
fact a seriously meant activity in which participants on one side attempted to play the
music correctly and at the same time accepted everything that happened in the process.
The "Scratch Orchestra" ended its activities in 1973. But
other English musical phenomena followed. Two years later a magazine with the name Musics
appeared. Musics Magazine published articles on improvised music, reviews of
concerts and recordings (among them many Trans Museq tapes), invitations to contribute to
various publications and information about events all over England. Since 1973 it began to
inform about the "London Musician's Collective".
The musicians' co-operative "London Musicians'
Collective" in 1978 set the framework for the festival "Music/Context". In
Michael Parsons' "Canal Project" the context was the special environment one
could experience when walking by a canal in the neighborhood. With Steve Cripps at the
same festival, the context was the sound of an electrical welding machine - Cripps played
the welding machine and a clarinette at the same time.
The magazine "Musics" ended in 1979. At this time,
fifteen musician's collectives were active in England. During the eighties there was an
opening to a new generation - young musicians made their appearance and mixed with the
older ones. Directions and styles became more mixed than ever. At the same time, there
came an economic crisis with cutting of funds. "London Musicians' Collective"
lost its own premises, however modest: a part of an old abandoned factory. But they went
on organizing concerts.
And at the beginning of the nineties the
improvised music scene of London had again a magazine - "Resonance" - and a new
festival taking place every year. Also, there is the website www.l-m-c.org.uk with not only an event calendar, but
also some articles from Resonance and other texts. The interchange of styles and
directions is characteristic for English improvised music now. The monthly calendar of
"London Musicians' Collective" comprises now concerts and improvisation gigs at
small places as well as in London's biggest concert halls.
Electrically amplified instruments became increasingly common to
improvised music of the eighties. But now sampling is being discussed in the magazine, its
advantages and disadvantages. Sampling means to copy the sound from a music recording and
using this sound for one's own purposes. Tim Hodginson says for example that the sound of
improvised music may become less flexible when using sampling techniques. Bob Ostertag, on
the contrary, has a positive view of this: sampling has shaken the old conception of
musical genres. Musicians and composers influence each other and cooperate in new ways,
and this attacks old concepts of artistic property.
One more yearly festival dates back to 1976. It is called
"Company Week" and is still organized by the grand old man guitarist Derek
Bailey. The basic idea of this, to invite many musicians from near and far and let them
play in changing constellations is as simple as it is effective. Many of them have never
played together before.
Before I end this going through the organizations and their
history, I would like to mention that there are many record companies publishing
improvised music, solely or for a great part. For instance, Acta, Bead, Bruce's Fingers,
Emanem, Incus, Leo, Matchless, Scatter, Quarz, 2:13, Rastascan...
Just like improvised music has its own institutions in England,
musicians also work independently of traditional educational institutions. Some are
radical auto-didacts. David Toop for instance has acquired much of his musical education
by improvising outdoors. - Phil Minton has, by contrast, developed his very special voice
indoors, within the context of noisy printing machines.
Often, noises and sound structures replace tones and melody phrases
in English improvised music. Radical attitudes concerning instruments can also lead to
invention of new instruments. The so-called "pyrophones" of the "Bow
Gamelan Orchestra" function for instance on the LP "Great Noises that fill the
Air" from 1988 with the aid of burning fire...
One could define pluralism as the co-existence of individual
elements. Styles and directions interpenetrate, but do not cancel each other. In London I
have experienced both that improvised music has its own special public and that people
might also come just for curiosity or because time and place suited them. One can view all
this as positive effects resulting from a pluralistic attitude of the city. Individuals
and groups are themselves, but at the same time they tolerate each other.
Art is, however, a public contemplation and working on the solution
of conflicts, as the psychologist C.G.Jung once said. One can work on the conflicts in a
playful, creative and thoughtfully reflecting manner. That which we call polyphony in
music has its roots in the simultaneous activity of several musicians. When we hear a
composition, then the interaction has already taken place and only in the fantasy of the
composer. But in improvised music this is immediately achieved by those who play. And it
is a special attraction for the listeners. Contrasts between players may lead to
frustration or fighting or discussion. Maybe a new balance arises, maybe an interesting
new unbalance. It is a real polyphony instead of an imaginary one.
I already mentioned the festival "Company Week" where
musicians play in various constellations. Here, pluralism is so to speak made into a
system. There is an ever open field for surprises and possible interactions. There is one
more yearly festival which since 1993 does a similar thing in a more condensed form,
"Relay". Three trios begin to play at three different venues in the same part of
town. Ten minutes later four more musicians join in the various groups. Every time a new
musician joins a group, another musician must leave. So the constellations change all the
time during the three hours of the event. The critic Ben Watson described the music of
Relay 1995 as pluralistic in the sense that he heard both chamber music qualities in it as
well as coarse-sounding manifestations reminiscent of certain popular genres.
Inspirations from jazz, from new music and more. Independent
organizations and musicians. Ongoing pluralism - those have been keywords in this article.
I believe the radicality of English improvised music will endure, even through changing
generations. One can only recommend those interested to take an explorative trip to
London. Be sure to check the events calendar on the web at www.l-m-c.org.uk.