Wednesday, 28 October 2009
Listener as Operator by Howard Slater
Ornette Coleman was not alone in overcoming oxymorons. Whether this aim of his to play ‘improvised compositions' is a matter of an unwieldy language that doesn't quite articulate his experiential practice or an expressive practice that dismantles language by means of a ‘telling inarticulacy' could be a continuing point of debate. But, for me, this compositional improvising is representative of a defiance of the logic of language on the part of musical practitioners. How can these words fit together and make sense!? Is it, then, an indicator of ‘freedom' in music to be able to escape the confines of a language enforced logic and address affect instead? Did the use of notation in jazz represent a compromise between the two extremes of free-form and staved? Was notation a mediator that gave these internally exiled jazz musicians a sense of respectability? Did it assuage the sorrow in Eric Dolphy's voice? Or is it something much more simple. Richard Muhal Abrams, a founder member of the still-extant Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and active proponent of this liminal zone of compositional improvising, has said ‘ ... basically musicians are performers, composers and all, at the same time. You write music when you stand up and practice your instrument.'
For Abrams, composition seems to be something that musicians are instinct with, a form-making immanence, but it is also a co-operative and collective practice, a relational proximity of singularities. Following on from this what we have, then, is a further defiance of a language that can neither fully articulate collectivities (the personal pronoun) nor the ‘all at the same time' of simultaneities (too tense restricted). That the AACM, like Sun Ra, resuscitated the ensemble sound of the big band is, with hindsight, a step forward into a remaking of the work of the past. Here, after be-bop's softening up of the song, there was room for simultaneous collectivities that were a little out of time. Abrams, in an interview with Ted Panken in 2007, cites Ellington and Fletcher Henderson as his early guiding lights in composition (a black compositional tradition that would go back to a pre-jazz New Orleans and one that is overlooked as soon as the word ‘notation' is mentioned). The jazz approach to composition is tellingly different. As Graham Lock informs us: ‘Ellington composed solos that sound not only like improvisations but like improvisations characteristic of specific players.' A kind of composed singularity effecting a non-classical form of jazz composition. So, if we take Ellington's bands we not only hear a well-oiled collective as insistent as history will be, but we also hear ensemble tones backing soloists and soloists soloing in unison. The sound of a future mode of organisation. We hear dance numbers, but also the onset of mood pieces like ‘The Mooche' (1928) that struggle free of the form of the blues into something multicoloured and drenched in whatever-polyphony.
Abrams and the AACM took their cue from this autodidact jazz route of the big bands and in the mid 60s, as free jazz took a hold, they worked on a more measured and spacious sound that allowed, in the manner of ‘The Mooche', for a tonal palette to be created by, at times, unusual instrumental combinations. As Abrams told Panken, ‘sound precedes music itself' and it is the freeing of sound from a metered tempo and the need to interpret standards that marks not just the AACM but the Arkestra too. Abram's piece ‘Levels And Degrees of Light' pits a choral singer with vibes, brushed cymbals and clarinet to make an, at times, indistinct wave-like piece reminiscent of something much more akin to an avant-garde chamber orchestra. But, in not eschewing the dirty timbres of free jazz, their's is a punk classical that establishes a tension point between the more classically derived avant-garde musics of the '60s and this organic experimentation that took its off-centre approach into the jazz clubs of Chicago's South Side. Indeed, lacking the university backing of the former, the AACM (a musician-led self-institution that sought the creative and representational control of their music as well as an alternative pedagogy) was entirely financed by its membership to the degree that Val Wilmer says, perhaps over-effusively, that the AACM ‘engendered the idea of musical socialism'.
One of the most widely appraised of the AACMs records is Roscoe Mitchell's Sound (1966). This record prompted jazz writer John Litweiler to declare ‘Music is the tension of sounds in the free space of silence'. His is an apt description of a title track that is as unexpected as it is form-forming (here we can hear an antecedent of such contemporary players as Taku Unami, Mattin and Radu Malfatti who have made pieces that are almost entirely filled with the ‘free space of silence'). On ‘Sound' the musicians play their instruments in unconventional ways, puncturing the half silence with slides and slips of merging tones that range from a historically informed articulacy to a ‘telling inarticulacy': the ghost of blues and be-bop slide up to breath flatulence, spit, keys and blats, rasping flies, hi-hat shakes, arco cackle etc. There is, then, a dramatic element that doesn't so much unfold towards crescendo as hover immanently over the piece which makes the listener expectant and highly receptive to the range of expression on offer. The vulnerability of the unconventional playing as well as the fragility of incorporating silence and ‘inarticulate' proto-expression, receives its support in the players' mutual risk taking: wines, moans, whimpers, rumblings. There are no virtuoso solos to speak of but a kind of gut bucket turn taking. This backs up George E. Lewis' statement about AACM music that ‘individual style is radically devalued in favour of a collective conception that foregrounds form, space and sonic multiplicity'. Such a multiplicity is furthered by Mitchell's introduction of ‘little instruments'(chains, whistles, bells etc.) that would otherwise be inaudible but whose use also adds a kind of humility to the piece: the little sounds get to be heard as an inclusion of the voiceless as well as being an indication that music is beginning again from an enticing degree zero. So, was ‘Sound' scored? Was it notated? Was it mapped? I don't think so, for as Mitchell's later group, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, seem to demonstrate, such compositional improvising comes about by means of ‘affinity dynamics' (Anthony Braxton). All the players were members of the AACM, each was composing themselves and the resultant collective practice overcomes the oxymorons! The rift between theory (notation) and practice (improvising) is not only overcome, but both notation and improvising are practised and heard in a light that casts doubt on either term's coherence. With music we need not be the slaves of language....
Complete article here: