The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, September 11, 2002
Conway Hall, London, 10 September 2002

Viewed from below, one could almost be looking at a 17th-century alchemist's laboratory. One reading lamp, placed back at the far left of the stage, though not directed at anything in particular - from Titian onwards, always the attribute of guidance, of Godhood. The light positioning in Citizen Kane is always staged in exactly the same way.

To the right of the stage, a Bosendorfer grand piano with two stools. Centre stage there is a drum kit, a huge gong and a large African drum, along with various small percussive devices. To the left of the stage, but with the light facing away from it, there is a table set out like a workbench. It is unclear from my viewpoint what is atop it, but there is certainly an electric guitar, positioned flat and horizontally, with sundry electronic devices, wires and plugs. Onto the stage come four middle-aged gentleman who could pass for off-duty philosophy lecturers. Their collective age is somewhere in the region of 250 years. One of them, the percussionist Eddie Prevost, greets the audience and explains that the musicians will start once the lighting has been sorted out. Keith Rowe, the guitarist/electronics operator, smiles affably at the audience and apologises for the delay. The two other gentlemen, John Tilbury and Christian Wolff, endeavour to squeeze themselves behind the piano. They start as they usually start - some static hiccups from the speakers, some light brushing of the cymbals; you still think that they're warming up but, no, they have started. Started to transport you, started to realign your attitudes to music, noise and silence, as they always succeed in doing.

They are tonight's incarnation of the group AMM, which has been in existence for almost as long as I have, which in its earliest days recorded their debut album AMMMusic for Elektra Records, shared management with Barrett-era Pink Floyd (for immediate confirmation of the effect that the former had on the latter, just listen to "Interstellar Overdrive") and had Cornelius Cardew in their line-up. There's a famous photo of the group in action from early 1968 - in terms of gestures and set-up, hardly different from tonight - with young Cardew, Rowe and Prevost looking the spitting images of, respectively, Joe Strummer, Arto Lindsay and Keith Moon. And they have stayed with it, where the Floyd didn't, where Can couldn't; possibly they manage to be both the most conservative and the most radical music group on the planet.

Wolff has been a floating "satellite" member of AMM since the Cardew days (originally on electric bass) and shares with Cardew a Cagean musical upbringing (he was a student of Cage's in the early '50s) which progressed into Year Zero musical radicalism ("all music is propaganda music") which somehow managed still to align itself with populism in a distant way (folk songs were regularly utllised in Wolff's '60s works; AMM, on the other hand, famously used to tape loops of then-current hits like "Lightning Strikes" and "Barbara Ann" 20 or 30 times in a row, and then attempt to drown them out with noise). Also in common with Cardew is his interest in making his music accessible to non-professional musicians - Carla Bley is on record as saying Wolff was a major influence on her approach when making Escalator Over The Hill. Unlike Cardew, though, he never let his art be submerged in misguided ideas of "what the people want," as, like Cage, he figured that if the people could find his music, they would want it. Tilbury has been associated with AMM for nearly 30 years, and is in himself a distinguished interpreter of Cage, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman et al.

To begin with it was difficult from my viewpoint to work out exactly how Wolff and Tilbury divided their piano duties. It seemed to me as though Wolff was at one point working the pedals and leaving the keys to Tilbury; at other times he would dampen the strings which Tilbury was hitting, while contributing an occasional meaningful low chord or cluster. They were both evidently good listeners, which in AMM you have to be - no room in this egoless music for grandstanding. Seldom do you see musicians being so quiet and unobtrusive in trying to make sounds and noises, and this is why improvised music can never successfully translate directly to record; you need to see the interaction between musicians, you need to see how they are responding, how they react to the environment in which they are playing, where, in moments of near-silence, even the creaking of a chair leg in the audience can carry considerable significance. In this sense AMM are the Harold Pinter of improv.

Prevost stared intently at his percussive assemblage, striking notes and sounding tones with great deliberation and caution. Frequently he will use a violin bow across cymbals, the sides of his snare drum and/or against the African drum itself, to engineer tonalities and drones. This is a similar approach to that of Tony Oxley, but unlike Oxley he doesn't use electronics; the acoustics are sufficient in themselves. He and Rowe are the two remaining founder members still in AMM, and their empathy was very apparent.

If you hear Rowe's guitar work on record without knowing anything about the group's approach you might assume considerable physicality, Thurston Moore-type scraping of the fretboard across the speakers. Well, no - the noises which he produces on stage are, in sonic terms, infinitely more radical than anything that anyone else could produce (even Hendrix), but he merely sits there, deep in concentration, purposely moving the screwdrivers up and down the frets, deploying odd little electric contraptions (was that a shaver I saw/heard at one point?), adjusting the sounds as needs be to integrate with what the other musicians are doing. Aural violence is usually indicated by some deft and rapid movement of his left arm, nothing more. Speaker static and crackle are also harnessed creatively, as are what must have been sampling trigger key pads. The legendary shortwave radio made just one brief but significant appearance.

The quartet only actually played for about the first 20 minutes of the 80-minute (CD length!) performance. Deceptively tentative textures, which reminded me of nothing more than George Crumb's Makrokosmos works for prepared pianos and percussion; plangent Debussy chords appearing as though they were the most natural thing on Earth. Unlike the AMM of even 20 years ago, tonality is never far away.

After that, Wolff left the stage for a break, leaving Tilbury in sole charge of the piano. This frequently beautiful sequence was a strong reminder of how, in a sense, AMM have "come back" to the listener over the last 15 years or so (a process best documented on 1987's The Inexhaustible Document) allowing perhaps a more subtle and lyrical approach to become prominent. The interplay between Tilbury's yearning chordality and the careful suspension of gravity by Prevost and Rowe was spellbinding to witness. Not that it couldn't get animated when it needed, as demonstrated by brief but punctum-filled sequences where Rowe cranks up the volume and makes his table howl while Prevost attacks the kit with his phenomenal offhand rhythmic technique. But the noise is never allowed to spill over into undefined chaos; these people, crucially, know what they are doing. And the calm returns.

Then Tilbury exits to make way for Wolff again, who assumes sole piano duties for the remainder of the performance. This section starts in a noticeably more muscular and dynamic fashion; Wolff's clusters are still a world away from Cecil Taylor, but that kind of ultra-rhythmic propulsion isn't really required in AMM's music. Even in their densest moments, they always somehow remain light.

And then, eventually, a long and transcendental closing section which unavoidably reminded me of Morton Feldman (who dedicated one of his last pieces to Wolff), specifically his final, considered, meditative microtonal pieces, above all Coptic Light (imagine the final chords of Ornette Coleman's Skies of America stretched into mathematical infinity, all numeric combinations worked out as precisely and as unhurriedly as Coltrane). To watch this tonal centre with its ever more gentle sonic abrasions slowly reach a compromise with silence was an experience which I will not easily forget - particularly right at the end, where phantom piano chords (straight out of Crumb's Makrokosmos III, final movement) materialised which were not being played by Wolff and could only have been triggered off by Rowe's sampling key pads. A graceful adherence to life and acknowledgement of whatever lies beyond it. It was the most quietly powerful music I have heard this year. They remain universes ahead of everybody else.

The concert was recorded and will no doubt be released on CD in due course. I'm not sure how much, if any, of the irreducible ambience of the physical performance will transfer onto record - this is something you needed to witness and ultimately be part of.

I don't know what "real" music is, am unsure whether such a thing could ever exist. But, beyond even the sort of music which was "real" because the pleasure derived from it was engendered by more than one person, there exists another remote territory - of music which I want to nestle close to me, music in which I can wander and hide myself when necessary. Music which belongs only to me. AMM come very near that territory, but they manage to do it for every individual listener who has ears with which to hear them. That is their great triumph and their deathless divinity.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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