n 2004 Eddie Prévost, percussionist and founder member of the seminal free improvising group AMM, published his second book, Minute Particulars: Meanings in Music-making in the Wake of Hierarchical Realignments and Other Essays, a trenchant defence of Prévost’s conception of improvisation as an inescapably collective and moral process of self-invention and dialogue. In the course of his engagement with various musical currents that he sees as undermining improvisation as communitarian praxis, Prévost offered a number of criticisms of what he considers to be the philosophy and musical procedures of AMM’s guitarist, Keith Rowe. Ideally, such a public airing of differences would seem entirely welcome in a music that surely should be as open, undefensive, critical, and reflexive in its speech and writings as it aspires to be in its playing. However, in this particular instance Rowe took the view that Prévost’s critique was a “deliberate one-sided, ungenerous and distorted reading of both my musical work and words, a reading that though on the surface seemed theoretical could be seen as prejudicial and personal” (see the observations posted on Rowe’s behalf on jazzcorner.com’s eai 5.0 thread). The outcome was that, 39 years after AMM was founded, Rowe withdrew from the project.
Following the withdrawal of Rowe, AMM finds itself operating as a duo. Neither Rowe’s departure nor a duo formation is unprecedented in the group’s history. In the early 1970s a growing rift between Lou Gare and Eddie Prévost on one side and Cornelius Cardew and Rowe on the other over the latter’s desire to incorporate an overtly Maoist framing to AMM’s music led first, during a tour of Holland, to the group playing as two separate duos and then to Cardew and Rowe’s departure in 1971/2. For their part, Gare and Prévost continued to play together as a duo—not least at a long-standing weekly residency in East Acton, London, which they shared with Evan Parker, Paul Lytton and various guests—and soon they started to use the collective name AMM for their collaboration (see AMM at the Roundhouse and To Hear and Back Again for this period of the group). There matters stood until around 1976, when a thaw in the relations between Cardew, Gare, Prévost, and Rowe resulted in a series of private quartet sessions. The new collaboration, however, ultimately did not prove to the liking of Cardew and Gare, both of whom departed for other projects. As documented on the 1979 ECM/JAPO LP (now a CD) It Had Been an Ordinary Enough Day in Pueblo, Colorado (attributed to AMM II), Rowe and Prévost continued working together as a duo. This too proved a short-lived arrangement, and after just a year Prévost and Rowe were joined by John Tilbury, a long-standing collaborator, and the trio that formed the core of AMM for the next 25 years was born. With Rowe’s withdrawal for a second time, AMM drops back to the two-member structure in which it existed for most of the 1970s. But this time around, we have not the saxophone and drums of Gare/Prévost, nor the piano, guitar, and tapes of Cardew/Rowe, nor the drums, guitar and electronics of Prévost/Rowe, but, uniquely it seems for AMM, a percussion (Prévost) and piano (Tilbury) configuration.
Norwich is the first CD release by Prévost and Tilbury under the name of AMM. It is derived from a recording of a concert given at the School of Music at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, on 14th February 2005. The opening few minutes of the music offer some intriguing light on two contentions advanced by Eddie Prévost in Minute Particulars. In an attempt to distinguish the silences of AMM from those embodied within the new “reductionist” music, Prévost suggests that “AMM’s silences […] owe their musical relevance to the context of the total performance” (page 38). Further down the same page he adds, “moments of significant serenity are only ever achieved after some kind of catharsis.” However, in the case of the Norwich session, a nearly 30-second silence appears after barely two minutes of somewhat quiet and fugitive playing. If this silence is a serene one, it does not seem to have been a cathartic reaction to what went before, suggesting that Prévost’s rather Protestant account of silence as reward for sustained hard work is not a complete theory of the genesis of musical serenity. In the alternative, if the pause is not serene in character, it would seem necessary to conclude that the musical functions and subjective correlates of silence in improvised music are not restricted to the achievement or expression of serenity.
The second of the moments of interest to readers of Prévost’s book occurs at the end of the silence I have just mentioned. At this point, Prévost attaches his often-heard mechanical beater to his tam-tam, and for the next three minutes he allows it largely to dictate the rhythm of his playing. This would seem a surprising course of action for a player who has, in Minute Particular, stressed the importance of a tactile connection between player and instrument and condemned the alienating effects of interposing a technological mediation between them. Of course, Prévost does not renounce all physical contact with his instrument, continuing as he does to manipulate the volume and pitch of the sound produced by varying the position of the instrument relative to the device. Nonetheless, an important musical dimension has been lost to a machine for the duration of its operation, depriving Prévost of any possibility of modifying the pulse in accordance with the needs of the moment. To make matters worse, the machine’s rhythmical input is sufficiently unvarying and banal as to be almost a reductio ad absurdium of the desultory “ecstasy of the clockwork” (Susan McClary) within which popular music is all but invariably confined.
Be that as it may, once Prévost has switched off his mechanical aid, the group’s music begins to bloom magnificently. The removal of Rowe’s keynote drones and amplified irruptions moves AMM another step away from the relatively amorphous sonic collectivism of the groups playing in the 1960s, as well as distancing it from the fetishism of the polluted industrialized soundscape that all too much of contemporary drone music celebrates with such drab conformist futility. In their place, there is a more pellucid poetry of deft exchange, collegiate challenge, and amorously arcane support. A key component of the success of Prévost and Tilbury’s exploitation of the new musical space available to them is the flexible range of sounds they each bring to the collaboration. Thus, Tilbury’s piano work incorporates not just standard techniques but also prepared piano strings and a direct manipulation of the instrument’s strings and frame, while Prévost deploys several parts of a barrel with steel strings stretched across the top, as well as cymbals, a tam tam, and what appears to be a set of chimes or tubular bells. Far more important, however, is the process by which the duo shifts between these resources in the course of a rich musical exploration. There is little teleogical quest for form, and rather than adhering to a prescriptive, abstract logic that stands prior to the performance, the music beautifully and fluidly modulates from one fairly short constellation to the next in accordance with impressions, reflections and impulses born from what has been or is being played. Of course, there are innumerable first-order pleasures to be found in the felicitous conjunctions arising between Tilbury’s lyrical insinuations, curious drones, animal cries, crashing block chords, and percussive notes from beyond the realm of equal temperament, as well as in the shimmering bowed cymbals, subterranean reverberations, echoing chimes, and metallic clatters of Prévost’s percussion. But above and beyond these, what grips and rewards is the unfolding democratic dialectic of challenging, intelligent, mutually supportive and collective musical decision-making.
That said, the recordings do raise some troubling questions about the functions that AMM’s performance at the University of East Anglia served. Universities exist as part of the hierarchical pseudo-educational process whereby human beings are equipped with the attitudes, emotions, skills and fragments of knowledge that will allow them faithfully and blindly to serve the dictatorship of the capitalist economy. One might suspect that in practice a university music department largely functions to provide tamed personnel to serve if not in a music industry whose imperialist mediation of humanity’s dreams and desires now yields an annual turnover of $32 billion then at least in the subsidized production of consumable cultural spectacles and pseudo-participatory experiences through which post-industrial cities increasingly compete with each other in an attempt to attract tourists and transnational corporations. Where did the series of lectures and workshops that Prévost and Tilbury conducted at the University of East Anglia and AMM’s performance stand in relation to this institutional molding? Is there a danger that, far from serving as a suggestive adumbration of liberatory social relations, AMM’s work at Norwich represents the state recuperation of improvisation, the reduction of the notion of collective self-creation to a truncated bureaucratic technique in the service of the maintenance or refinement of power? Some corporations already extol the use of improvisation in elements of their internal operations, requiring only that the whole of the fundamental social relations and objectives of a hierarchical profit-making machine be taken for granted in the process. Is something analogous to this destined to emerge from work such as AMM’s in bodies such as the University of East Anglia? In view of such questions, it is a pity that the sleeve notes do not have more to say about the wider social context and relations of which the music was a part.
Returning to where we started, it is also a pity that the differences between Rowe and Prévost have been the subject of only very limited public debate between the parties. In 1972 it would have been difficult to have any sympathy toward Cardew and Rowe’s absurd proposition that the authoritarian theory and practice of Mao had anything to do with a project of social liberation. Estimates of the number of millions of Chinese who had been condemned to die during the course of Mao’s violent attempt to develop a state capitalist society under the absolute control of a bureaucratic ruling class may not then have been carried out, but the bankruptcy of the revolutionary pretensions of Maoism had long since been clear to any moderately diligent critical enquiry. As early as 1967 Mustapha Khayati, writing in Internationale Situationniste #11, had stated what was all too obvious about Mao’s dismal enterprise: “In China, father-image of underdeveloped revolutionaries, the peasants’ struggle against American, European and Japanese imperialism ended up, because of the defeat of the Chinese workers movement in 1925-1927, by bringing to power a bureaucracy on the Russian model. The Stalino-Leninist dogmatism with which this bureaucracy gilds its ideology—recently reduced to Mao’s red catechism—is nothing but the lie, or at best the false consciousness, that accompanies its counterrevolutionary practice.” Where the balance of argument lies in the current disagreement is by no means equally clear, for which reason it would be of great benefit to anyone interested in the theory and practice of improvised music to read a more extensive account from Rowe of why he feels that Prévost’s account misrepresents his ideas and actions, as well as Prévost’s reasoned response to these accusations. Surely critical public engagement is to be preferred to private resentment and the bland pursuit of the business of music as usual.
Reviewed by: Wayne Spencer
Reviewed on: 2005-09-19
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