Founded in London in the mid-60s, AMM is unquestionably the longest-running band devoted to free collective improvisation. As befits a group devoted to spontaneous creation, it has often been in flux, although from 1980 to 2004 it maintained a core personnel of percussionist Eddie Prévost, guitarist Keith Rowe (two founding members), and pianist John Tilbury.
Apogee chronicles both a first-time meeting of AMM and MEV (Musica Eletronnica Viva), and one of the last performances of that longest-running version of AMM. It's a two-CD set. The first CD is a studio recording of the two groups together; the second pairs performances by each individual group: a thirty-nine-minute piece by AMM entitled 01.05.04, and a thirty-six-minute piece by MEV, also entitled 01.05.04 (perhaps mere date, but also May Day), both recorded at London's Freedom of the City Festival. MEV includes Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, and Richard Teitelbaum. The CD (no doubt quite deliberately) doesn't list the musicians' instruments, though not because they're self-evident: you'll likely have difficulty sorting out the parts. Each group includes a virtuoso pianist (Tilbury and Rzewski) whose improvising style takes in the instrument's vocabulary as redefined by Cage and Feldman. Curran is employing a sampling keyboard and Teitelbaum a synthesizer, while AMM's use of close miking, electronics, and bowed cymbals and guitar can thoroughly disguise the sound sources. Trying to sort out identities is certainly one way of listening, but I think it misses the point. An alternative method might be that of poet Harry Gilonis' liner notesâ€”an intense politico-philosophical discourse involving Bloch, Adorno, Jameson, and the writings of Prévost and Curran (a method perhaps best suited to musicians who can write the same language and who are, in effect, sponsoring it). This ardent intellectualizing is germane to a music in which the political histories of the musicians loom so large (Rzewski's compositions include The People United Can Never Be Defeated; Rowe once departed AMM to form the rock band People's Liberation Music). In a sense, this music is preoccupied with the potential of the collective to arrive at a piece that is a kind of abstract consensusâ€”though perhaps heard as aerial map or tectonic history. It is noteworthy that each group has a member who specializes in the intrusion of the worldâ€”Rowe by means of radio; Curran by means of sampler (in the sextet: I've got the world on a stringâ€¦; the MEV piece begins dramatically with Curran playing a shafar, a trumpet made from a ram's horn, but the notes fail to say if he's playing it with his mouth or via sampling). The sextet performance (and, for that matter, the two trios) has the deliberateness and the formal inevitability of classical music, a term here used as period specific to describe the elementary shuffling of harmonic blocks in early Haydn or the political allegories of Mozart or Beethoven. The pieces are realized as their own deconstructions, and if we experience sound as liberated, that freedom may arise in the very complex ambiguation of motives. Ultimately, the music is a triumph of the spontaneous and collective: there are moments of such gorgeous, gradually evolving, dense, sonic beauty that they demand to be heard.
Music Works 04/11/2006