The Book Cooks
Excerpt from
An Uncommon Music for the Common Man – A Polemical Memoir: Episodes of a Personal History Embracing Ideas of Autonomy and Supportive Social Conditions

Edwin Prévost
(Copula, an imprint of Matchless Recordings and Publishing; Harlow, Essex, UK)


After the first review of my memoir, An Uncommon Music for the Common Man, in The Wire (September 2020), Point of Departure suggested they carry a chapter along with a contextualizing commentary. One chapter, from a total of 34 (plus a few other accompanying narratives) is unlikely to convey a comprehensive impression of the scope and complexity of my memoir. What I chose as a sample: ‘Horticultural Challenges,’ does though, by recounting some early AMM history, as well as offering some critical analysis. This may be of interest to readers familiar with AMM’s contribution to the early foundation of what now, over half a century later, is referred to as free musical improvisation.

The first review was even-handed and fair. But it was, by editorial necessity, inevitably economic in its coverage of the chosen array of topics. The reviewer was critical of my condemnation of many forms of music. Actually, a closer reading of the text will reveal my admiration for other informal musics (especially jazz), and an acknowledgement that human beings can overcome, in creative ways, the most unpromising of circumstances. I also make it clear that few of us involved in the more experimental sectors of free improvisation, including myself, are free of self-deceptive illusions.

But, given a wider ideological brief than is usually applied to these topics, I feel obliged to point out when negative unintended consequences arise. For example, I berate punk. I recognize its energy and respect its justifiable anger. But – as often mentioned – it is a negative response to a negative social and cultural environment. It does not offer (as far as I can tell) potential solutions. By such observations, and other critical responses to cultural ‘product,’ I do, of course, risk anticipated, and perhaps justified, critical blowback. Such perilous prose is applied because the musics I discuss do not bear the kind of self-aware cultural and political weight (perhaps unreasonably) I require of them. But, the most outrageous attack I make is upon the behemoth of Western classical music. Yet, of course, I realise that what I write is likely to have as much effect as a slight pin-prick on the backside of a tough old bull elephant.

Our parlous social and political condition requires a new range of sensibilities. Where better then to explore and develop new creative social relations, than within a music which had steadily defined itself as ‘alternative.’

Qualities different from the thin social gruel offered by the neoliberal menu are required. Our music thrives mostly on creative investigation and dialogue. These, I believe, are valuable practices that could assist a shift from the deleterious hegemony that favors a self-centered destructive individualism (greedy to itself and negligent to the needs of others) to creative enquiry in a collaborative context.

By the time this piece is published the US election would have been and gone. But even this scenario is not certain. Legal process, and further shenanigans, are possible before any resolution. And, despite who finally secures the White House, many cultural battles will remain unresolved. The longer progressive march of the common man and woman, black and white, will still require a lot more boot leather.

To claim that improvised music could be in any way part of such a process will be perceived as irrelevant, and self-aggrandizing, hyperbole. This kind of response, however, is a sign of how far such cultural, or creative, activity has been side-lined in the social debate and, too, how far practitioners have accepted such a docile condition. Music, in a dominant market economy, is not supposed to have a political voice. And those agit-prop protesters who use music to carry their messages may, of course, be sincere. But, they risk being but temporary political pests. There is no over-night solution. The prevailing ‘common sense’ hegemony – to which we are advised ‘there is no other way’ – cannot accommodate what creative improvising music suggests. I hope therefore that my memoir contributes towards a perception of what we want our creative means and ends to achieve – in effect formulate possible meanings for our work. Because it can be, even if small in status, part of the necessary hegemonic leverage required to change the overall social and political debate. We commonly recognize – even if we do not foreground or articulate our methods – that improvising has its own aesthetic and practice priorities. We do things differently from the established schools of music, including how we relate to market obedience. Let us examine, explore, and develop these methods. Because within them lies an ‘alternative’ value system. No sound is innocent. Let us discuss.

Eddie Prévost, September 2020

 

Chapter 22
Horticultural Challenges

There is conflict hidden within this narrative that needs to be uncovered and more fully explored. The issue of technical competence has often lurked (negatively) within critiques of alternative music-making. Modern Jazz did much to redress a primitivist perspective. It should be remembered however that distant admirers of jazz often feted the informal and the unsophisticated even though they probably absented themselves from intimate involvement with its culture. Jazz as a form of exoticism. As one might revel in the atmosphere of a vibrant community, like a favela or a township, but not wanting to live there. Nevertheless, the contemporary committed denizens of jazz clearly have an aesthetic priority which has increasingly favoured academic musical achievement. This, over intuitive teaching more redolent of informal passing-on of skills and independently developed aptitudes. Jazz scholarship – detached from its host community – has become a more secure route to accreditation and a career route in the jazz world than in the earlier formative decades. I sense that the very idea of officially acquired credentials and career would be anathemas in previous periods of the jazz’s spiritual or community establishment. (66) Not now. To some extent this must be because the idea of teaching jazz became more formal. And, it began to allow conventional musical education establishments to feel more liberal and fashionably modern while noting an opportunity to increase rolls of students from a hitherto untapped potential education market. Some practicing jazz musicians and (now increasingly) experimentalists find a semblance of economic security as well as professional fulfilment by entering academia.

Of course, none of this has any real bearing on creativity or on individual or collective cultural autonomy. Quite the reverse. Professors of jazz approve mostly of lessons learnt. They often have models in their minds when they encourage or chastise. The basics are taught, practiced and honed. The expectation is that some kind of continuity will ensue. The tradition will be secured. The most likely outcome, however, is a kind of hyper-reality. Jazz remains as it was, but made better. For despite the profusion of musicians who have been schooled and moulded, the ideal model remains an exaggerated approximation of the original be-bop progenitors. This is: post-modern jazz. When Cornelius Cardew suggested that music was “going wild again” he was thinking about the avant-garde in general. (67) And for me his thinking resonates with what Thomas Mann was to suggest in Dr Faustus about modern music as a “howl across several pitches”. (68) But a state of nature condition is lonely and, I fear, ultimately unsustainable and probably a dead-end. There is little in human history to suggest that wildness can be maintained in our social behaviour. Human creativity is irreconcilably linked with communication, shared responsibilities and common effort. These are the ultimate avenues of creative fulfilment. An inventive individual exists by virtue of the effect they have on a community. Without context and application an invention dies with the inventor. Association gives life to individual effort and is also a catalyst for further development. But ‘the idea’ is an infectious possibility. The concept of wildness (referring of course to an analogy with the re-wilding of natural habitats) in music is invigorating to many as it is frightening to the holders of tradition. But, of course, wilding in nature is not a conscious act. It is equilibrium within natural processes. While re-wilding is usually the result of some human decision which finds a position to act from. Such actions are rare and dependant upon substantial material wealth and energy; previously not available and perhaps therefore hitherto unthinkable.

I see this in relation to the post-Second World War social settlement which by the mid-1960s was sensing greater and alternative possibilities than our paternal political masters had envisaged. A kind of re-wilding of the human soul seemed within reach precisely because the Welfare State offered the possibility (as is does for all those who have ‘wealth’) to give reign to a sense of freedom. This led reactionary sections within social and political life to view the antics of the alternative culture with some anxiety, and to consequently propose a return to what they euphemistically referred to as family values. Hence Mary Whitehouse and the ultra-fear of ‘the permissive society’. What generated the young changelings was the prospect of a new set of living and working principles. What really frightened the establishment was the possibility of an alternative moral authority.

In the albeit small if energetic cockpit of improvised music such freedoms were being realised. We had our own cultural equivalents to Mary Whitehouse. Some critics and overly respected opinion-formers were quick to try and nip this musical excrescence in the bud. Mostly viewing these things as naive or even the outpourings of exhibitionists and charlatans. This probably worked up to a point. But reviewing some of those early critical responses, I note that they usually came from critics with a ‘serious’ music background and their critiques were mostly aimed at recalcitrant members of their own establishment who had, as it were, jumped ship. Thus Cornelius Cardew, the American avant-garde who were almost entirely ensconced in US academia and even John Tilbury (as an alumnus of The Royal College of Music) were more likely to elicit broadsheet coverage than say John Stevens, Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. As I have previously mentioned, Michael Nyman’s now famous book Experimental Music failed to include most of the improvisation scene. (69) My guess is, AMM only crept in because of its association with Cardew. Curiously this sense of ‘wilding’ only appeared to be visible to those who were used to a particular form of musical horticulture. And even when more left-wing critics ventured towards a radical appraisal they often fell short of the implications of the subjects they were treating. One such ventured an overview of various musical subjects in a New Statesman article headlined as ‘The Man and the Boys’. (70) Quite rightly, in my current view, he posed Sonny Rollins as the consummate jazz musician:

“He [Rollins] has become one of the rare figures in jazz who can create, not just a mood, a tone, a technique or a passion, but an order of his own.” (71)

There was much else in this extended review with which one could agree in regard to Sonny Rollins. And indeed, in 1966 AMM were literally ‘the boys.’ He noted, however, that at the AMM concert he attended that “Mr Gare [i.e. Lou Gare] is not only a devoted but perhaps also a capable saxophonist”. As has been noted in Seymour Wright’s tribute to Lou Gare after his death in 2017, Sonny Rollins was a musician to whom Lou felt strong affinities. (72) The comparison of AMM and Sonny Rollins seems a little facile especially coming from a man with such admirable social/ historical credentials. AMM never offered itself as a jazz group. Rollins at the time of writing had perhaps become a well-sculpted garden of jazz. He had indeed found and developed his own order. AMM at the time was clearing the ground and trying to create an order of its own. Fifty years on and AMM is perhaps offered accolades similar to those showered on Sonny. But whereas he developed a unique solo voice, AMM searched and found an ensemble status that is probably seen as a garden of its own Maybe AMM music, as some have more recently suggested, is something like the Japanese Zen rock garden of Ryõan-ji.

Francis Newton (Eric Hobsbawm) may well have perceived the work of innocents. But it is curious how, and especially given his leftwing leaning, he could not perceive something socially and politically challenging in our early and maybe feeble attempts. Given how radical the work was at the time, I think it can only be explained by his auditory scene analytic sensibility. He presumably had never heard anything like it before. For him the situation seems only to be interpreted as: a): the ravings of self-regarding exhibitionists or b): his inability to find a space for the experience within his perceptive and cultural apparatus. I am willing to concede however, that he might have come to a different conclusion when we had become more familiar and confident about what it was possible to achieve. There was never a preconceived agenda. Rather the implications of what the music represented arose from how it was made.

I think the AMM experience suggests that any successful re-wilding eventually results in a new scenario. A state that cannot be anticipated. And during the process of any search the only things that can (and maybe should) remain consistent are the practical imperatives of searching, listening and relating. These become the alternative expressions of a new kind of virtuosity.

There was, of course, a later re-wilding riot – Punk. When this emerged there was already a new popular establishment in place. Rock music (much of which punk rebelled against) was rampant. A cocksure commodity. Residues of Punk still persist but it was more easily subdued and marketed than the earlier free movements. Punk succumbed. Practitioners and audiences were soon tamed by a commodity fetish. What seemed like an aggressive youth movement capable of unsettling the social and political climate became an appendage to the fashion industry. While its most ardent players and followers bowed to the inevitable – and became unfashionable and a minor perennially awkward social cult. Many prefer this constant negation of what they feel is negative in the genteel bourgeoise culture. But in effect it feels like another defeat for an alternative socio-political condition. (73)

The question remains, what is technique and what is it for? Jazz, for example, began as an intuitive musicality where the song or blues format was blended and bent through harmonic and rhythmic allusion, i.e. following, expanding, playing with the chord-changes to become, in some cases, a super-mathematical ‘glass bead game.’ Of course, there were musicians who could use these powers magically. Equally, there were many who ploughed on regardless of the superfluity of sound amid acres of arpeggios. Mostly the overall output was tempered to meet the median taste of the followers of fashion. Free-jazz is inevitably raggéd, idiosyncratic – personally distinct. It is frequently awkward, irritating and perverse. It is sometimes frenzied, fractured and fearsome. At its most dynamic it displays all the signs of things as they are rather than offering tempting flickering shadows of what might be. At its worst it is dull and crass.

Free-jazz is no less immune from self-deception and hubris. But when it is sufficiently selfaware and functioning with its often perverse mixture of dispassionate passion, then it bears the heavy mark of its time, its place, its psychological atmosphere and its historical development. This is what can separate free-jazz from the artificial ambiance of post-modern jazz, with its tendency towards romanticism, fleeting and contained excitement and cultural escapism which has no historical consequence.

To re-imagine jazz we have to envision a new social and material order. This requires knowledge and respect for its practice and history. And, in this regard we may have to research and reassess some of jazz’s apparently untouchable shibboleths. It also requires a reintroduction, encouragement and strengthening of an experimental method.

 

Footnotes:

66: There is a recurring impetus for minority communities to seek cultural validation and socio-economic equity. Inevitably (and I believe deleteriously) such initiatives succeed best when they most mirror the majority (ruling) establishment. Both parties in such a cultural convergence ultimately accept some form of compromise. For example, In the 1960s the first Arts Council of Great Britain award to ‘jazz’ was to a ‘composer’ of jazz scores. Practicing jazz artists (even of a conventional persuasion) had to wait some time before some state largess seeped their way.
67: Cornelius Cardew (interview), International Times, February 2-15, 1968
68: Thomas Mann, Dr Faustus, p.70, 1997
69: Michael Nyman, music journalist and composer was also a graduate of The Royal Academy of Music.
70: Francis Newton, ‘The Man and the Boys,’ New Statesman, 25th March, 1966. Some readers may not be aware that Francis Newton was the pen-name of the jazz writer who was in ‘real life’ better known as E.J. Hobsbawm, the Marxist historian. His pseudonym taken from Frankie Newton, one of Hobsbawm’s favourite trumpet players.
71: ibid
72: Seymour Wright, online, The Wire at thewire.co.uk
73: Negating a negative situation is often an aggressively reactive response towards social harm. It is an action that does not of itself offer an alternative condition. It is vehement resistance. Not an offered solution. A productively transcendent answer has to supersede the offending condition with a solution structurally capable of bearing a totally different socio-economic settlement.

© 2020 Edwin Prévost

 

An Uncommon Music for the Common Man - A Polemical Memoir: Episodes of a Personal History Embracing Ideas of Autonomy and Supportive Social Conditions

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