This book was published this past autumn, In time to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the group AMM, a small group of experimental improvisers sharing a common goal â€” to re-discover and re-create music afresh with every performance. In 1965, the group consisted of drummer Eddie Prévost, saxophonist Lou Gare, guitarist Keith Rowe and bassist Lawrence Sheaff. A year later the composer Cornelius Cardew joined the group around the time they were performing his mammoth graphic score Treatise. The American composer Christian Wolff joined in 1968, for one year. Since 1980 the core has been Prévost, Rowe and pianist John Tilbury, with a few others joining in from time to time. The staying power of AMM is remarkable considering the fact that it was destined, almost by definition, to lurk on the fringes of the music scene. Countering the tendency of our technocratic society to make music into a definable, measurable commodity, AMM musicians shun the conscious repetition of "successful" musical configurations for commercial end. "The intention is making music, and listening to it, as if for the first time." Sounds are Investigated, meanings explored, but intentions, hierarchies and goals are avoided. As with the "cloaked but pregnant acronym" AMM, meaning is left open and undefined. And as for form:
...an improvisation has no perfect form to which it can aspire. If a commensurate sense of perfection exists for a free improvisation, then it Is in the clarity of musical perception and execution. For the musician it is like being in the eye of a storm, a subtle stillness within a maelstrom â€” -an assured presence of mind at the point of playing."
Besides an historical introduction and two previously published essays (one by the British Journal of Music Education), the main part of the book consists of a series of short "Meta-Musical Narratives", organised into nine chapters. The tone is sometimes humorous, sometimes biting and angry, sometimes plain and practical, sometimes whimsically poetic. Prévost manages to maintain a delicate balance as he treads between the inevitable contradictory aspects of freely improvised music making. A musician practises to achieve skill. The nature of a skill is to be able to repeat a task effectively at will. But in "meta-musical" improvised performance, the musician aims not to repeat what he has learned to do, but rather to "make music as if for the first time". This is a central paradox for the improvising musician. (Can we will not to will?) He answers such questions in a Zen-like way â€” declining to answer them with rational argument. Instead, he works his way back to the same problems over and over again, from different angles, until some sort of truth starts to emerge. In fact, the method of writing itself serves as a metaphor for the investigative dialogue ("dialogical heurism", as he puts it) of AMM music making.
Lines are drawn, nevertheless, when it comes to certain ethical questions. And here is where a lot of readers who value the tradition of the "work of art" may get upset. He argues that there are "lurking contractual relationships and moral imperatives" underlying the performing of written works, reflecting the consumerist, technocratic society in which they are (/were) written. This may sound, on the surface, like Marxist jingoism â€” especially when quoted out of context, but Prévost's thinking is more independent and open-minded than that. I urge classical musicians, (who I venture to say lie generally more to the right of the political spectrum), not to flee in horror, but to consider the arguments. Concerning the question of composed music vs. Improvised music, I would argue that it is partly the way society views works and not the works themselves, or the act of performing works that is the problem. Compositions, "fired into the future" (as he quotes Cornelius Cardew) also have the potential to liberate. The idea of the performer of a written work as technical executor, or as a kind of curator (as Brendel puts it), precludes the possibility of free dialogue. If musical works could be perceived less as marketable or sacred objects, and more as possible views of the world on which to reflect, greater freedom might develop. Eddie Prévost's book, with great skill and imagination, provokes the reader into contemplating such questions.
Piano Journal May 1996