amm | ammmusic (1966)

ammmusicThis extraordinary debut has become a legend, and with good reason. The importance of AMMMusic is difficult to overstate, particularly when considered as a prescient forerunner to certain strains of electroacoustic improvisation that would develop at the end of the 20th Century and the dawn of the 21st, with AMM’s guitarist (and shortwave radio operator) Keith Rowe serving as an elder statesman and frequent collaborator with younger musicians. This is ground zero, or close to it, for so much of the music that came after it.

AMMMusic, and the concept of AMM as a whole, was indisputably ahead of its time. The album was recorded in mid-1966 and released, somehow, by the UK branch of Elektra Records. It was the ’60s and all manner of esoterica was briefly imagined to be marketable by producers and label heads who didn’t understand any of the music that was catching on, so one bit of noisy weirdness might sell just as easily as any other as far as they were concerned.

The group arose out of the free jazz scene of the time, and apparently existed as a free jazz outfit, albeit probably a strange one even by those standards, before morphing into… whatever they were by the time they recorded this album. The initial trio – Rowe, drummer Eddie Prévost, and saxophonist Lou Gare – met while playing in free jazz and hard bop bands, and soon began experimenting in an attempt to get beyond the jazz idiom. They were joined, before this recording, by cellist Lawrence Sheaff and the composer Cornelius Cardew, whose development of complex graphical scores (particularly the epic “Treatise”) had led him to investigate improvisers as potential interpreters of his abstract music. This quintet thus represented a collision between ’60s “out” jazz and the academic avant-garde, though AMM was also a self-conscious attempt to make music that belonged, exactly, to neither of those traditions – or to any other.

The result is a blistering, very much alive recording that retains much of its power to puzzle, provoke, and delight even today, and in 1966-67 must have seemed even more sui generis. It’s possible to point to antecedents, of course, mostly in 20th Century avant-garde composition and some of the era’s very wildest jazz records, but AMM had very different concerns from either of the musical lineages that birthed them. Several ideas central to the group’s music were spelled out as “aphorisms” in the liner notes to AMMMusic. Among those ideas: that “every noise has a note,” that “sounds outside the performance are distinguished from it only by individual sensibility,” that the group was involved in trying to make music as though for the first time, with as little sensory or cultural baggage as possible. Many of these aphorisms represented impossibilities, ideal states that couldn’t actually be reached, but which were presented as goals nonetheless. AMM placed the emphasis on exploration, on experimentation in its truest sense, even striving to see their own instruments naively, as though encountering an enigmatic “reddy brown object” for the first time and interacting with it, surprised and delighted by the result. The group’s music can be appreciated on the same terms, with an attempt to hear the sounds afresh each time the music is encountered.

The members of AMM were of course not the only musicians of the era attempting to produce a new form of improvised music. Other UK improvisers (Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, etc.) were already developing, or soon would develop, their own form of post-jazz improvisation, but their music, which would in the ’70s seem more dominant and immediately influential than the example set by AMMMusic, was quite distinct from AMM’s concerns. Like AMMMusic, the music emerging from that loose scene attempted to expand the language and structures of jazz, but these musicians took a very different path from AMM. A core difference, beyond the greater radicalism of AMM’s actual sounds, is the emphasis of most ’70s UK improvisation on conversation and dialogue between instrumentalists. This music greatly valued the rapid back-and-forth exchange of ideas, much like the jazz from which it splintered. AMM also encouraged communication between its players, but on AMMMusic there is little of the overt “conversational” interplay heard in the UK improv of a few years later. Instead, AMM’s members collaborate in the sense of working together to build a cohesive, overall sound world, each adding to the waves and layers of sound in sometimes imperceptible ways. If much UK improv of the time evoked a conversation, AMM’s collaboration was more like building a house.

The original album featured two side-long tracks; subsequent CD issues have contained more material from the same June 1966 sessions, but in either format the thrust of the music remains the same. The original LP opened with scraping, atonal cello forming a bed for various percussive rattles, bell-like clangs, a second cello adopting a more sustained, droney tone, and the brittle vibration of guitar strings. A violin (played by Gare, who doesn’t audibly pick up his sax until the very end of this piece) also contributes to the dense clouds of sound. A few minutes in, there’s a brief snippet of conventionally melodic, even romantic classical strings, likely introduced from a transistor radio. (Rowe would make the radio a staple of his music for decades to come, a fount of random ideas off of which to play, but here Cardew was also credited with using one, and the reissue would credit Sheaff as well. The importance of the radio to AMM was summed up in the liner note aphorism, “Given a certain amount of experience, it is not difficult to assimilate any object.”) It’s a few seconds of acknowledging the distance between the sounds usually associated with these instruments and the sounds being produced from them by AMM.

Roughly halfway through the A-side (titled “Later During a Flaming Riviera Sunset”), the droning, scratchy music subsides to a tense, spacious aura. Rumbling guitar hum fills the silence, and the sustained, droney sounds give way to more spiky, momentary ones: a strummed note or two, a bit of percussive noise, various unidentifiable scraping or rustling noises. Cardew’s piano stands out, as John Tilbury’s would in later incarnations of the group, for its melodicism and prettiness; unlike the other instruments here, it’s difficult to divorce the piano from its typical sounds, from its habit of producing recognizable notes rather than noises. Occasionally, Cardew plays heavy chords that rattle the instrument’s frame and tend towards distortion, thus blending in more subtly, but mostly he inserts achingly beautiful lone notes or clusters and simply allows the tension between his playing and the rest of the group to exist.

The other player who stands out from the ensemble is Gare, whose tenor saxophone becomes prominent towards the end of the LP’s A-side. AMM was a free jazz outfit mere months before recording this album, and Gare still belongs to that lineage even if the rest of the ensemble had mostly left it behind. This is the rare section in an AMM album where the concept of the solo comes into play: Gare’s playing sounds very much like jazz soloing, showing off with ecstatic bombast. Paste this solo into a late ’60s free jazz track and few would say it’s out of place. But even buried in the murky mix during a noisy build-up, it feels out of place in the context of AMM. It’s a language, and a way of thinking, that runs directly counter to the band’s goal of egoless union. The ’60s incarnation of the band played shows in total darkness as a way to encourage audiences to focus on the sounds rather than the instruments or musicians playing them, but while generally this album succeeds in creating an aura rather than calling attention to the individual players, no amount of darkness could disguise that this is Lou Gare, playing a sax solo.

Perhaps appropriately, the classical strings also return in this piece’s second half, allowed to play for a longer stretch. The sounds of the musicians congeal around the radio fragment, reacting to it with little noises and bits of feedback that seem to nestle into the music’s structure, filling in its spaces. Most fascinating of all is Sheaff’s cello, which seems to fall into an out-of-tune mockery of the string melody, squealing along with the classically beautiful playing. It’s an almost childish reaction, as the musicians hurry to assault that shard of classical prettiness, arraying their “ugly” noises against the more structured music as though aiming weapons at it.

It’s one of the most suggestive moments on the disc in terms of AMM’s then-tenuous conception of their music’s place in the wider musical landscape. There’s a definite element here of musicians rebelling against the old, very conscious of the fact that they’re challenging both jazz practice and classical standards. AMM, naturally, fit in with neither of those traditions. While the sounds they produced would certainly not have seemed outrageous to many 20th Century avant-garde composers, the group’s improvisational ethos placed them well outside that camp. At the same time, though their commitment to improvisation arose from jazz, they rejected jazz both in terms of the kinds of sounds used and in their collective disdain for the ego-driven soloist conception. Oddly, AMM did find a small niche at the time at the fringes of the ’60s UK rock scene, playing shows with the Syd Barrett-led Pink Floyd and often seen, in a total misunderstanding, as a psychedelic curiosity, enough so that even Paul McCartney attended a 1966 show.

The group’s odd connection to that scene makes a little more sense given the start of the B-side’s “After Rapidly Circling the Plaza,” as Rowe plays some distorted guitar chords in a manner seldom heard from him in later years, when he increasingly abstracted his guitar’s sound. Even here, though, when there were still way more overtly guitar-like sounds in his palette, those chords stand out. They introduce a second piece that’s a little easier to wrap one’s head around, in terms of its lineage and its origins, than the first one. There are more obvious referents, with more of Gare’s jazz freakout sax squeals and Rowe’s droning guitar feedback providing both a prescient glimpse of the future’s avant-rock/guitar drone, and a sideways nod to ’60s rock guitarists’ own unrelated attempts to get new sounds from their instruments. (Indeed, Rowe so impressed Syd Barrett that that the psychedelic legend began incorporating many of Rowe’s guitar techniques into early Floyd tunes.)

In general, the B-side sounds heavier than the first track, with waves of guitar buzz building an oppressive atmosphere; at times it seems like Rowe has inadvertently invented doom metal. Gare’s sax still sounds distractingly jazzy and saxy, but he does generally plays longer, slower tones on this piece, adding to the doomy vibe and blending in more with the morass. Prévost busily adds hollow clattering and thin clicks and rim hits, then switches to more aggressive drumming that betrays his free jazz background. If the first track was dominated by the group’s avant-classical side, this one embraces noisy late ’60s free jazz as its model, with touches of rock, but still delivering sheets of noise that, even with those reference points, are difficult to reconcile with any previously existing music.

Indeed, few bands could raise this kind of clatter in 1966, as a dull background drone is offset with chiming cymbals, chunks of guitar feedback, scraping strings, sustained sax drones, even some atonal accordion (provided by Sheaff). It’s dense and at times incredibly ugly music, a ferocious racket in which the density and the volume allow even the individual voices or moments that refer to older traditions to be subsumed into the overall din. It’s a sign of the increased confidence of the later AMM that they were able to forgo this kind of density, allowing their music to be quiet, serene, and spacious while still subsuming individual instrumental sounds into a larger whole. In 1966, though, the best way to achieve that goal was to play loud and let everything blur together.

In that respect, the A-side, with its quieter sections and more varied structure, was far more radical than the straightforward accelerating chaos of “After Rapidly Circling the Plaza.” That’s only in retrospect, though, in terms of the band’s self-defined aims and the music they’d make in later incarnations. Taken on its own terms, this blistering wall of noise must have been baffling and troubling to all but the most adventurous of the era’s listeners.

I’ve been talking thus far about the original LP configuration, because that’s what (a few) people heard in 1967 and that’s what had such influence for 20+ years until Matchless and ReR issued the expanded CD in 1989, but I’ll add a few words about the 30 minutes of additional material. Both original LP tracks were parts of slightly longer improvisations, with 7 minutes chopped from the beginning of the A-side and a minute from the start of the B-side. In the case of the additional material that preceded “Later During a Flaming Riviera Sunset,” it’s very familiar improvisational meandering: several minutes of everyone getting their most obvious sounds out of the way, and the LP cut benefited tremendously from the editing. The extra minute preceding the B-side, interestingly, is a noisy fanfare that quickly subsides; the rest of the improvisation takes half its length to build back up to the roaring energy of the second half.

The primary contribution of the other additional tracks from these sessions is to enhance appreciation of the radio’s role in early AMM. The original LP reserved dramatic radio interjections for the ends of the two sides, but the bonus tracks feature far more aggressive and widespread radio usage. “Ailantus Glandulosa” features a near-constant backdrop of radio announcers and music behind the ensemble’s noisy clatter. “In the Realm of Nothing Whatever” is the longest of the additional tracks at 13 minutes, and though it’s strong material, nearly as good as the actual LP, it’s brought down slightly by the sense that its first half is primarily a showcase for Gare’s sax, which again acts too much as a solo instrument, the rest of the group falling into a supporting role. When Gare finally drops out, the radio takes over, and the group allows tense silences to surround bits of speech and songs, including a memorable few moments of Roy Orbison’s “Lana,” which fades poignantly in and out of the group’s din. This whole segment is excellent. The final extra track, “What Is There In Uselessness To Cause You Such Distress,” is a few minutes of moody drone.

All of this music, of course, is vitally important as a historical document. There are countless silly arguments among fans about who can claim the title as the first group to ever improvise freely without reference to established genres like this. It almost certainly wasn’t AMM, and it certainly doesn’t matter. They were early innovators with these ideas and approaches, and their influence has been felt in varied ways for nearly 50 years now. Though it probably didn’t seem like it at the time, modern avant music would be very different if not for this album and AMM’s later extensions of it.

As is often the case with such pioneers, this music doesn’t necessarily have the same impact decades later as it did when it was new. Its influence has been thoroughly absorbed by later generations, and some of it now sounds tentative and primitive in a way that later developments, including those by subsequent versions of AMM itself, would not. That said, it’s actually startling that AMMMusic does retain so much of its power, that it still feels so vibrant and strange, and that it still rewards careful attention to the sounds and ideas of a fledgling music just starting to take shape.

Available from Matchless Recordings.

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1 Response to amm | ammmusic (1966)

  1. Jim Kirchner says:

    Ed, I won’t bore you with the Google contingencies that brought me here, but this is the single-most worthwhile piece on this album I’ve ever seen. The line about this not being a conversation, but like building a house, makes all Eddie Prevost’s notes so much more precise (good as they are). And when I looked at your About page, only to find you are the same guy that wrote Only The Cinema??? Well, actually, I wasn’t surprised…you are one hell of a writer, and I plan on devouring the rest of these music entries the way I poured through your cinema posts. Just sorry not to have expressed my fandom sooner…cheers…


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