AMM: AMMMusic 1966 (ReR Megacorp/Matchless Recordings, 1989)

Free improvisation is a tricky thing. When done well, really magical things can transpire, which wouldn’t be possible in any other context. When done poorly, the experience (for both performers and audiences) can range from self-indulgent wankery to total boredom. And in my experience, there’s little way to control on which side of the spectrum the session’s gonna fall — which is totally okay, but demands a degree of tolerance and openness to failure that’s outside the norms for most other forms of musical expressions.

AMM were, if not the first, then definitely one of the earliest proponents of free improvisation in the strictest sense — that is, sounds produced by instruments without any reference to other kinds of music, formal constraints, harmonic systems, etc. This disc collects recordings made in June 1966 by the quintet version of the group: original members Lou Gare, Eddie Prévost, and Keith Rowe, plus Cornelius Cardew and Lawrence Sheaff. That first trio was involved with bop and avant-garde jazz, and there’s still some evidence of that — the second half of “After Rapidly Circling the Plaza” features saxophone and clarinet skronk that evokes Albert Ayler et al. For the most part, though, there’s really no ready reference point for the sounds and interaction here — it’s capturing a group of players pretty much inventing a new model for making music together. Opening track “Later During a Flaming Riviera Sunset” is, for me, the most successful expression of the AMM aesthetic — transistor-radio transmissions and woodwind squeals punctuate of a texture that’s painted thick with prepared electric-guitar and piano rumbling, cello scrapes, and scattershot percussion. Other points are not so great, but again, that’s part of the game — and ultimately, my response to this (and some other free improv) is less about “like”/“dislike” than about appreciating the seriousness of intent AND digging on how it sort of forces me to reevaluate assumptions about how music “should” work/be made/sound. THAT I definitely like.

THOUGHTS FOR LATER:

  1. I haven’t checked in on Keith Rowe for a while — I should, as (a) his tabletop approach to guitar made such an impact on me, and (b) I hear he’s doing very cool but different things these days.
  2. Reread Cardew’s writings from his post-AMM period — cannot remember at present what/if he wrote about the experience of playing in AMM and how it impacted his compositional development.
  3. Improvise, as often as possible.