Eddie Prévost’s Journey to a Bright Nowhere
David Grundy

Keith Rowe + Eddie Prévost © 2022 Sean Kelly

Eddie Prévost turned eighty in June 2022 and to celebrate, Café Oto invited Prévost to convene four separate concerts, held every Saturday of July. Prévost named the residency for a line from Seamus Heaney’s “Clearances” – “its heft and hush become a bright nowhere” – which he took as a model for the kinds of utopia modelled in musical improvisation; the series was further dedicated to the late impresario Victor Schonfield, who died early in May. As curator of the Music Now charity in the ‘60s, Schonfield played a key role in bringing American jazz and free jazz musicians from Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra to Miles Davis to the UK. He also served as part-time manager for AMM, the group with which Prévost over the years has been most indelibly associated – to the extent that Schonfield was jokingly referred to as a member of the group. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Schonfield was active in left politics as chief trade union organiser and treasurer of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy: in his biography of Michael Foot, Mervyn Jones writes of Schonfield, Vladimir Derer and Jon Lansmann, later founder of Momentum, “they were unreservedly dedicated, they had no political ambitions of their own and they were in a position to work day and night for the cause without pay.” And though, during this time, Schonfield’s activities as a promoter had taken a back seat, in later years, he was a regular at Oto and a mentor to younger musicians.

The dedication to Schonfield highlighted the importance of those who, though not themselves musicians, are indispensable in facilitating and enabling the music and the culture it creates. It also harked back to that moment in the mid-‘60s of a counter-cultural London, where musicians of working-class backgrounds like Prévost and Keith Rowe were able to some sort of lead in reinventing what music might be, even as that music has tended to fly under the radar of national and international cultural institutions. All those decades on, the series, with Prévost himself in the role of curator and organiser that Schonfield occupied, manifested a continuing dedication to improvised music as collective, social endeavour. Its generational sweep reflected the various stages and facets of Prévost’s career and his firmly collaborative ethos, both centring and moving beyond his own individual role. As a music that is about collaboration, removing the format of the solo for an entirely collective music, free improvisation does not naturally lend itself to narratives of heroic, solitary genius, though sometimes those narratives inflect the way its history has been passed down to us. For Prévost, however, the approach to – or enabled by – improvisation, first discovered in AMM, and later expanded in his various theoretical books on improvisation, insists on the collective dimension first and foremost. As he wrote in the liner notes for the CD reissue of AMMMusic, “A preoccupation with ... with one’s own ego at the expense of the ensemble is destructive.”

Over the course of Bright Nowhere, watching each event unfold in its difference was watching process at work: not just a historical assembly, a chronological survey, or a potpourri, but a manifestation of the simultaneous openness and focus that can still be found in freely improvised music nearly sixty years since Prévost first began playing it. The figure of travel that Prévost added to Heaney’s phrase – “marking a journey to a bright nowhere” – might suggest progression towards a goal, but—as in the fascination with notions of wandering, errancy, and travelling in Luigi Nono’s late work – it instead complicates these ideas, blurring borders and boundaries, while refusing to give up on the hopes for better – political, social, human – brought to bear on aesthetic experimentation.

Variant Assemblies: Gathering

As a whole, Prévost’s Bright Nowhere traced a kind of cumulative trajectory, paradoxically, from energetic plenitude through to reduction, quietness, and farewell. Named for a previous Prévost project, Meetings with Remarkable Saxophonists, the first week was the most joyously explosive and excessive. Six different horn players came on stage in various combinations while a “house band” of Prévost, playing drumkit rather than his more usual percussion setup, bassist Marcio Mattos, pianist Veryan Weston, and guitarist N.O. Moore, functioned like a kind of free jazz version of – say – the Ronnie Scott’s house band of the sixties in which musicians like Stan Tracey and Tony Oxley cut their musical teeth. In itself, that setup seemed a reference to historical forms, or formats – blowing sessions, house bands, and the like – but with an entirely different musical content. Moore produced squalls of feedback, Prévost splashed out polyrhythms, and the saxophonists generally came on playing fortissimo and stayed there. In the first half, they came out one by one, relay style, briefly playing duos before the next players came from the wings: among them, Jason Yarde, fleet and melodic; Seymour Wright, worrying, abrasively riff-like, at a handful of multiphonic notes; the excellent Sue Lynch, offering studies in breath and control. The first half was loud: the second half got even louder, as two trios and then a sextet – Yarde, Wright, Lynch, Harrison Smith (restlessly inquisitive), Alan Wilkinson (throatily raucous), and Tom Chant (jaggedly textured) – blew to Borbetomagus levels. Infectious, joyous, and delightfully unsubtle, it may have been the less “sophisticated” of the four concerts, but it was also in some ways the most purely enjoyable, and all the more welcome for being unexpected.

The second week was given over to two sets by the intensely focused group that recorded the album Sounds of Assembly, released last year on Meenna, and is featured in the excellent short film Eddie Prévost’s Blood, currently available to watch through Film London’s online project London’s Screen Archives: Prévost, cellist Ute Kanngiesser, and saxophonist John Butcher, with the addition of pianist Marjolaine Charbin, and, as it turned out, the absence of Jennifer Allum on violin. The two long sets saw Prévost on his soft rubber beater, mallets, bows, and various sticks striking, rubbing and bowing tam-tams, cymbals, and drum surfaces: listening, pausing, reflecting. Butcher has long moved the saxophone – both tenor and soprano – into its own textural register, far removed from the instrument’s reputation as a vehicle for drama or narrative; likewise, Charbin approaches the piano from inside out, alternating from playing the instrument’s insides with a modest set of portable preparations – horsehair, small silver globes – though on a couple of occasions, as she switched to the more familiar outside, the keyboard, she settled into swelling, repeated figures that created ensemble coherence and build-up, architecture in motion.

Kanngiesser’s approach to strings has much in common with that of her contemporaries Allum and Angharad Davies, all of whom I associate with a particular approach to group playing that coalesced on London improvisation scenes around ten or twelve years, and whose principal characteristics are selflessness and restraint. As an approach, it’s not exactly a style, nor something that could be labelled, though in some cases it’s adjacent to the kind of playing indicated by terms like New London Silence that had some journalistic currency at a certain stage. Nor is it exactly generational: though Kanngiesser, Davies, and Allum are all relatively younger players, Butcher, now in his late sixties, would be a key presence, as well as Prévost himself. These days, the mild controversies that periodically swirl around labels, terminologies and approaches – fostered more, perhaps on pre-social media internet fora and blogs than amongst musicians themselves – seem almost entirely beside the point. But emphasizing the continuing strengths of this loose tendency is not to divide, conquer and categorize so much as to indicate the continuing expansiveness of the music.

Along with the Sounds of Assembly performance, another recent gig comes to mind. In April, the group Nodosus launched their self-titled album, released on guitarist Daniel Thompson’s Empty Birdcage Records, at Iklectik, the arts centre and venue in the Old Paradise Yard, Waterloo. Two members of the Assembly line-up, Butcher and Angharad Davies, joined Matt Davis, Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga, and Dominic Lash. Again, the group played two long sets, in which structure was built slowly and methodically, a calm and focussed flux. Nodosus’ performance didn’t sound particularly similar to what transpired amongst the members of Sounds of Assembly, tending as it did more towards drones and held textures, more important was shared: an attitude, an approach, what Prévost’s former AMM bandmate Cornelius Cardew, in a 1971 essay, called “an ethic of improvisation.” Astonishingly subtle and unshowy players alike, what characterizes these musicians is not a virtuosity of display but, once more, of listening. Within Sounds of Assembly, no one, perhaps, exemplifies this more than Kanngiesser. Often performing very technically difficult feats to little or no individual praise or display, in a manner utterly central to the collective passage of the music she spurs or insert herself into, her contributions exemplified the spirt of the evening: an unselfish and truly collective playing.

The Workshop: Continuance

Prévost tested positive for Covid the morning of the third concert, given over to members of the workshop he’s run every week for the past few decades, but he sent a message relayed by Ross Lambert, one of the workshop’s first attendees, who stood in as facilitator. In itself, this was appropriate. In recent years, Prévost has not always been able to make it to the workshop, currently held in the basement of the Welsh Chapel in Southwark: as an entity, it’s now evolved beyond the physical presence of its original convenor into a particular aesthetic of its own. “I decided to organise a regular workshop”, Prévost recounts in the short pamphlet Letters to Mirei [workshop participant Mirei Yazawa] distributed on the door. “I promised myself, I would do it until nobody came! Little did I realise that it would be me who would be unable to continue regularly attending the workshop.”

Derek Bailey used to use the word “playing” to describe his preferred approach to music: Prévost’s workshop instead encourages “listening” – or as he put it, “noticing” – whether or not one is playing. The basic format is a kind of relay, generally around a circle, in which musicians play in in duos, before the next musician joins to form a trio, the first player dropping out, and so on, until the circle is complete. Depending on the number of musicians, the process can last anything from twenty minutes to over an hour. Time permitting, following the circle, the workshop facilitator will pick groups of varying sizes, depending on the number of attendees, to play in separate, ad-hoc configurations. This format ensures that participants will spend only a small percentage of the time actually playing. Physical presence in a space, the focused presence of listening, creates a social bond, mediated and created through music, and that it is itself a part of the music. It’s an approach that, with its combination of openness and rigour, has proved attractive to many players: Prévost reckons that six hundred or more musicians have passed through since the workshop started over twenty years ago. (I’ve been attending on and off since earlier this year.) If proof were needed that free improvisation is a genuine community music – with whatever caveats about how the term “community” is defined – this was it, and the workshop concert was as much a tribute to Prévost’s commitment to and philosophy of the collective as his presence would have been.

The workshop’s focus is, in some ways, counter to “performance” per se: it is a structure to facilitate listening which generally operates on the idea that those listening are also all participants. When the approach is presented in a gig format, certain adjustments might impose themselves, consciously or unconsciously: even the simple fact that the presence of an audience necessitates playing in a line, or semi-circle, rather than facing each other across a circle, subtly alters the dynamic. Yet, in the event, the concert had the virtue of translating the experience of focused listening, what Prévost calls “noticing”: that collective ethos fostered, paradoxically, by the fact that only a handful of the musicians on stage will be playing at the same time.

On this night, those musicians were a combination of older and more recent attendees to the workshop: collectively, Mark Browne (saxophone), Ross Lambert (guitar), Emmanuelle Waeckerlé (voice), Iris Ederer (voice), Chris Hill (clarinet), Tom Mills (theremin), Mirei Yazawa (trumpet), James O’ Sullivan (guitar), James Malone (electronics), Keisuke Matsui (cello), Daniel Kordik (electronics), Ed Lucas (trombone), Gerry Gold (trumpet), Jamie Coleman (trumpet), and Tom Wheatley (bass). The evening was divided into two halves: the first featured seven players, the second eight.

The format makes it harder to give a capsule review: what matters, above all, is process. But some moments still spring to mind: Emmanuelle Waeckerlé singing “Eddie, Eddie” in duet with Iris Ederer; Kesuke Matsui, who’d rigged his cello up to a feedbacking amp, scraping over the strings with what looked like an oyster card; a passage for trumpets (Mirei Yazawa, Gerry Gold) and trombone (Ed Lucas) plumbing the depths. At the same time, a series of highlights is beside the point. The workshop is not a preparation for something else; is not rehearsal, practice, or woodshedding, the preliminary to a main event. Instead, it is a space – or, more accurately, an activity – conducted for itself, with no end goal in mind; practice, practising, not as rehearsal, but as doing, enacting, carrying out. And the most compelling moments of this workshop performance were not the most performative, the most gig-like, but precisely those awkward, quiet or anti-performative moments that the workshop facilitates: the virtues of listening, the practice of being together, for no sake other than itself – everything that moment encompasses and that, within that moment, reaches beyond it, compressed, expanded, and set free.

Keith Rowe + Original AMMMusic Cover Art © 2022 Sean Kelly

AMM: Ending

The final week drew the most attention and marked the inevitable stage to which the preceding concerts had been building: not only was it the final performance in the series, but the last ever gig by AMM, of which Prévost has been a member since 1965. Having missed the workshop gig due to Covid, he had, remarkably, recovered in time for the gig. As he announced from the stage, each gig had encountered some kind of hiccup: two of the eight saxophonists absent from the first gig, one musician absent from the second, Prévost himself from the third. And in the event, the AMM gig – sold-out, on a stiflingly muggy day, in the middle of a transport strike – transpired, not as the usual Prévost-John Tilbury-Keith Rowe trio, but as a Prévost-Rowe duo, the piano symbolically covered and moved to the side. As Prévost explained from the stage, Tilbury’s mobility issues and health vulnerabilities ultimately meant that live performance is no longer a sensible option.

Given this, and given the finality of the occasion, this was an event in many ways of ghosts and absences. Sombre and intense, the roughly hour-long performance that followed was characterised by a highly concentrated restraint in which past history spoke through the gaps, the breaks, the silences. Mourning has increasingly been a part of AMM and its satellites as the years pass. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Rowe and Tilbury’s two duo records, Duos for Doris (2003) and EE – Tension and Circumstances (2011), dedicated to the respective memories of their mothers, women of working-class origins, raised in poverty, who lived into the new century. And in the Q&A that followed after the break, Prévost mentioned that he still thinks of AMM music as “in dialogue” with the long-dead Cornelius Cardew: it was in looking for musicians to play his then-newly composed Treatise that Cardew came across the group, and that score has long been a source for those members who survived him. Now Tilbury, too, though still living, was absent, and Rowe made sure that Tilbury, too, retained a virtual presence, at times sampling portions of his playing: bell-like, circling piano figures like lights flickering and dying away on the music’s horizon.

Rowe has had Parkinson’s for some years: able to use only one hand while performing, his playing has had to adapt, as he movingly describes Bob Burnett and Alan F. Jones’ recent short film What is Man and What is Guitar? (2021), recently made available on YouTube by The Wire. Since his diagnosis eight years ago, he’s set aside his tabletop guitar, and on the night seemed to work almost entirely with pre-recorded and sampled material, including what sounded like Rowe’s own guitar playing, Tilbury playing Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus, sounds from a gagaku performance – alluding to AMM’s debut recording session for Elektra, which had been double-booked with a gagaku ensemble – the march from Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, and various sine-tone swells. Yet even prior to the diagnosis, Rowe had begun to move away from the chance mechanism of the radio and towards a more curated set of samples, often from classical music. The approach creates, more than ever, a compositional approach to improvisation: structured, sculpted from pre-existing materials, though one might argue that this is no different to the improviser’s practice of bringing an instrument, its history, and a set of resources – woodshedded, defined by the possibility and range of personal taste, placement within the history of the music, and of the instrumental means to hand.

Prévost, meanwhile, is less interested in referentiality, more in working with a range of materials in which percussion is treated as textural element: on this occasion, bass drum, snare, bowed tam-tam and cymbals. Prévost has tended towards this approach in recent years – compare earlier AMM performances, particularly when Lou Gare is present, in which broiling rhythmic bursts briefly invoke free jazz, to latter-day AMM, or to a record like Prévost and Jennifer Allum’s Penumbræ (2011), on which the duo conduct “investigations” into bowed surfaces, Prévost putting those percussive practices John Mowitt calls “drumming, beating, striking” entirely to the side. Bowed metal and rubbed drumskins form a sound that’s continuous yet jagged, pitched yet wavering, percussion treated somewhere between a rhythmic and a timbral entity. There are harsh edges – particularly when Prévost bows the cymbal, even though there is something lulling about the process. It at once emphasizes physicality – minute variations in pressure and strength of arm can alter the nature of the sound – while de-emphasizing the kinds of physical display associated with the drumkit and with percussion. At times, indeed, the percussion effectively plays itself: in this final AMM performance, Prévost left an electric toothbrush vibrating for lengthy periods on the bass drum, added a droning, continuous element in the spirit of AMM’s “laminal,” evolving textures.

Rowe’s and Prévost’s respective approaches certainly meshed, at times more than others, but that’s not really the point. If early AMM’s achievement was to create a group texture in which the lines between instruments and between individuals blurred, AMM as it has come down in history – that’s to say, in the Prévost-Rowe-Tilbury line-up – has been more about the negotiation, within certain collective parameters, of three distinct individual approaches. At the same time, the point of AMM is as a kind of holding space: as suggested when, in the post-performance Q&A, Rowe and Prévost good-humouredly refused audience requests to divulge what the AMM acronym stands for. “It stands for this”, one of them said, gesturing around the room to indicate, not only the musicians and the still-palpable presence of the music they’d made, but the space that music had been made in, including the audience in the room. There’s perhaps a paradox here: an identifiable style – “AMM music” – which has been established for decades now is also about the music as an opening up which is not limited to the musicians on stage. This might be the ghostly dialogue with Cardew, or the virtual dialogue with the sampled Tilbury, but it’s not simply a case of the literal inclusion of other voices through Rowe’s samples or radio. “AMM has influenced my musical life ... has influenced my life”, Prévost remarked before they began to play. AMM is about an approach to material, to liveness, to conceiving a group, that is highly specific to its members, but that also reaches somewhere else. Once more, we come back to “ethic of improvisation” that Cardew emphasized. Cardew quotes Wittgenstein: “To imagine a language means to imagine a form of life”. Or, in his own words: “My attitude is that the musical and the real worlds are one. Musicality is a dimension of perfectly ordinary reality. The musician’s pursuit is to recognize the musical composition of the world (rather as Shelley does in Prometheus Unbound) ... The subtlest interplay on the physical level can throw into high relief some of the mystery of being alive.” In his essay, written ten years before his own death, Cardew further suggests that musical improvisation is a way of reckoning with the fact of death – that “the performance of any vital action brings us closer to death; if it didn’t it would lack vitality”. But this reckoning – what Cardew calls “acceptance of death” – is not the same as fatalism.

AMM’s final concert was both apotheosis and relinquishment. Rowe performed with a cardboard tube on the tabletop: in the Q&A it turned out this this contained the original AMM “icon,” a painting that had been proposed for the front cover of their first album on Elektra Records, only to be turned down and replaced by Rowe’s now-familiar image of a yellow truck, making its own journey to a bright nowhere. As Rowe explained, the image—apparently a bright, Pop-Art style still life – was a kind of variant on the Annunciation scene, in this case announcing the inception of AMM. Things come full circle. At times, Rowe, bent over the tabletop so that his upper body was almost horizontal, his arm stretched out over his equipment, resembled one of the art-historical depictions he so admires: a Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Dürer’s St Jerome, a Rembrandt self-portrait, a meditation on ageing and creativity and continuance.

For the first ten or fifteen minutes, the music was weightily sparse, scratching around the edge of silence: Prévost bowing tam-tam, Rowe providing scratchy flickers and dim washes of Purcell that disappeared almost as soon as they’d appeared. The music was most engaging when it reached higher density: a point at which Rowe had in play four or five layers at once, the laminal thickness of texture at which AMM specialise, an emotive force, a denseness, a thickness, an open and opened area. But success is not the point. As Prévost once remarked in a profile of the group by the writer and composer Kyle Gann: “Ultimately, AMM will fail. There may be rare moments when we, or others, sense a kind of success, but there can never be ‘ultimate’ success ... The paradox is that continual failure on one plane is success on another”. If failure was a preoccupation of AMM’s from the beginning, as Prévost relates in the liner notes to AMMMusic, this concern has perhaps assumed greater urgency of late. In recent years, Tilbury has made a series of performances in which he recites Samuel Beckett’s text of gradual bodily collapse over sparse keyboard sounds. I saw him give a devastating rendition in the vast surroundings of King’s College Chapel a few years ago, an intensely moving meditations on bodily frailty and decay I’ve witnessed. Likewise, Rowe’s reckoning with the deaths of family members, and his coming to terms with his own Parkinson’s diagnosis, has reflected itself in how he conceives of the music he makes and the way it’s presented. On the live performances released as EE-Tension and Circumstance, on which Rowe and Tilbury paid homage to Rowe’s late mother, who’d raised him as a single mother in conditions of post-war poverty. Of the album design, in which Rowe mimics his late mother’s handwriting, Rowe remarked: “I wanted it to recall a trace of old age and an increasing lack of facility: I wanted it to look shoddy, with errors, away from those slick images of conceit.”

And despite the particular sense of focused intensity when the music thickened and opened out, in this final performance AMM was perhaps most itself when the music was most rebarbatively quiet or activity-free: Rowe bent over his equipment making almost no sound; passages where the music seemed to have frozen, to meander, to have become lost inside a reverie of itself; and, above all, the extraordinary silence that concluded the performance, and AMM itself. Rowe having fallen quiet and sat back a minute or so before, Prévost, too, came to a pause, and they both sat poised, for around a minute or so, the music, the musicians and the audience alike all deciding whether or not it should continue.

The last music AMM made together was that silence: a silence full, replenished, and drained out; an ending that was also an opening. This silence was heavily inflected by the framing, the history, the circumstances and the occasion of the concert and could not accrue the intensity and meaning it did outside those: and why should it? Instead, it felt as if AMM was opening up to us – everyone in the room, and all the listeners and players not in the room, living and dead.

Here it’s worth coming back to Prévost’s decision to dedicate the Bright Nowhere series as a whole to Victor Schonfield. Asked in the Q&A about the importance of Victor Schonfield to AMM, Rowe pointed out that Schonfield’s father, Rabbi Solomon Schonfield, helped organise the Kindertransport (as well as later housing Rowe when Rowe found himself homeless). These connections suggest an important historical connection all the more salient given the current government’s virulently anti-migrant policies which, as former Kindertransport refugee Lord Dubs has pointed out, would make the Kindertransport virtually impossible today. And though this detail might seem more circumstantial than directly influential, AMM have had a presence in the British cultural and counter-cultural landscape for the past sixty years which remains, I would argue, essentially dissident. Even beyond the tangled history of Cardew’s and Rowe’s Maoism and its ramifications within AMM and Scratch, their work participates in what is a working-class origin, vernacular avant-garde, informed by the work of John Cage, by pop art, by free jazz, and by radical politics, that is part of a neglected wave of British culture today increasingly under threat from the removal of government support and the attempted transformation of the arts sector into a class-specific activity, inaccessible to those from backgrounds like those of AMM. To point this is out is not to explain the group’s music, to turn it into a symbol or an allegory, but it is a not insignificant part of the story of the group and its continuing importance.

In the end, despite all the fallings-out, the often-fractious disputes and the absences and endings that have characterised AMM’s history, the ebullience of the Q&A channelled something more like collective joy, a joy that is not the opposite to public or private grief but its dialectical counterpart. And this is a spirit that continues to inform not only the now-closed chapter of AMM, but of all the other music presented in the series, from ad-hoc collaborations to long-lasting configurations, in different ways. Music here is not so much as playing or performing as it is listening, noticing: an activity that, like any other activity, changes and is changed by what’s around it, that starts and stops again, to be taken up or abandoned – a holding space, an opening, a bright nowhere, sometimes brighter and sometimes dimmer, but still visible on the horizon.


© 2022 David Grundy


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