Eddie Prevost With Ken Vandermark & Michael Zerang

at 6Odum, April 13

Keith Rowe

at 6Odum, April 14


at International House, April 15

Ever since Edison, our perception of music has increasingly been shaped by recordings–neatly organized packages of sound fixed in time. For most forms of music, this system seems to work pretty well, but maybe we simply can’t imagine it otherwise. After all, no matter how great the captured moments seem, they’re only a taste. This is particularly true in free improv: that disc you can hold in your hand contains but a quasi-random sampling of a vast number of could-have-beens, left behind like pixie dust as Tinkerbell spirals off into the ether.

To really truly know any kind of music, it’s best to be playing it; the next best thing is to be there. But in certain circles even those approaches fall short. Just before he began a solo set at 6Odum on April 14, tabletop guitarist Keith Rowe–one-third of the current lineup of the legendary free improv group AMM–told the crowd a little nervously that he was uncomfortable with performing, had no idea where he was going to start or stop, and that he wanted us to feel free to move around, please. Oh, he added, and don’t feel obligated to applaud at the end, because you wouldn’t feel obligated to applaud after any other ambient sound. By this he didn’t mean that people shouldn’t listen, but that rather he hoped they’d begin to consider all sounds with the sort of attention they were about to devote to his.

AMM formed in 1965 as a reaction against the tendency of sounds to codify themselves, to stick to established forms even after those forms are no longer new or revelatory–bebop, for instance. Taken to extremes, this line of thinking led the musicians to the conclusion that anything that can be heard exactly the same way twice has already lost something the second time around. In his 1995 book, a sort of memoir-manifesto called No Sound Is Innocent, drummer Eddie Prevost repeatedly refers to what AMM does as “meta-music,” and by that he means in part that he wants to keep music forever out of any place where the ear registers familiar patterns and thus tunes out.

With an agenda like that, the group is obviously anticommercial, and it has at times also been stridently anticapitalist–Rowe and founding member Cornelius Cardew nearly drove Prevost and cofounder Lou Gare out of the band during a Maoist phase in the early 70s. But AMM also strives to be populist, drawing cultural lessons from its musical MO. As pianist John Tilbury writes in the liner notes to the 1996 box set Laminal, “In AMM’s improvisations, to the richness and diversity of the sound material is added an even more potent source to draw upon: one’s fellow musicians. And this accords, felicitously, with my own conviction that the relation of the individual to the collective is not antithetical, that individuality is achieved and refined not in spite of, but through others. There are moments in collective music-making when I recognize the virtues of selflessness, of understanding and forbearance, to which Cornelius Cardew referred: ‘Improvising in a group,’ he wrote, ‘you have to accept not only the frailties of your fellow musicians, but also your own…overcoming your instinctive revulsion against whatever is out of tune (in the broadest sense).'”

The role of the audience in AMM theory is integral. In his liner essay, Tilbury continues, “Music can be, and often is, gloss or mere embellishment, its function to entertain and to pacify in a burgeoning culture industry; but it can also be much more, and much different: at its best improvised music is a commentary on society, or rather, what it is like to live in that society. The test is the degree of authenticity of the commentary, the depth and psychological consequence of its impact on the audience, for the listener’s role is not just message reception but comparison for re-use.”

But in reality, though audiences want to please as well as be pleased, they don’t come to a concert with the training and discipline of a performer. They seek to be moved, roused, even manipulated, and are rarely encouraged to bring their own ideas to the table. They are not used to conceptualizing their role or looking for new ways to free it from cliches. Practically speaking, at Rowe’s 6Odum performance, the room was crowded with rows of chairs, leaving little space for meandering about–not that there’s anywhere to go there except the bathroom. And at the end of the performance, everyone applauded, albeit sheepishly.

While I’m sure they’d prefer we not refer to anything as a “final result” until they’re all dead, being quite devoted to process, AMM have definitely merged their techniques and philosophies into a challenging, heady brand of improv that can’t help but inspire a traditional sort of admiration. I hesitate to call it a “sound,” but it is distinctive: lots of musicians can improvise, but only these guys can play AMM music. They have trained themselves together for decades–Rowe and Prevost since ’65, Tilbury since ’82–and seem to read one another’s thoughts. By the same token, when they play with outsiders, they’re bound to wind up with something entirely different–as in Prevost’s show of duos and a trio with Ken Vandermark and Michael Zerang on April 13. His approach to his borrowed drum kit at times sounded rather like free jazz drumming in its groove and antigroove, and damned if Prevost didn’t look a little gleeful to be proving himself in that realm.

But when AMM proper took the stage two days later, in the formal and elegant International House auditorium at the University of Chicago, what spontaneity there was had to be generated from within the trio. They produced a sound world as coherent and unified as though it were the work of a single musician, trusting themselves to a state of collective flow that accepted and absorbed all decisions made and random factors introduced, from the rich stroking of Prevost’s gong to the plucking and whistling of Tilbury’s partially prepared piano to the honeyed interjection of “The Way We Were” coming from Rowe’s radio. Beautiful and engaging as the music was, there was no discussion of the audience’s role in this rather stiff room. AMM shows past have inspired such extreme reactions as dancing or sleeping, but here the musicians were the pilots and the listeners the passengers, their greatest perceptible challenge to accept the long Cagean silence at the very end of the set–at improv shows, audiences rely on the “we’re done” glance between the musicians as their cue to clap, and AMM held out on us intentionally.

Their vision of utopia is a hard sell in the U.S., where mass marketing is seen as the essence of populism. How can music that doesn’t ship units in the tens of millions–can’t even be represented accurately by units–possibly be anything but elitist? Since the American media have succeeded so thoroughly in defining a revolutionary moment as that which affects an entire generation at once, it’s also a moment that must be mediated by those media. Where were you when you first heard Nirvana (and what label were they on at the time)? Where were you when you saw the Challenger explode on TV? The four or five corporations that determine what is and what isn’t “mass culture” set up a nifty privilege for themselves, and far too often it is accepted unquestioningly. Because only certain music is pumped into the commercial distribution network to be sold in heartland Wal-Marts, that’s the music assumed to matter to “the masses,” whoever they are. Those who have the mobility to choose to live in a big cultural center and move about within it have a wider range of options for sure, but there’s still a culture gap across which suspicious stares are exchanged.

There’s a problem with a populism whose definition stops at the home entertainment center–call it the trickle-down theory of creativity, where music is something already made by someone else and dispersed along a chain of command. What AMM hint at seductively–for the lucky few who get to hear them or even hear about them–is that the most revolutionary moment for music is the present: not “this era” but really and truly now, in the moment of its making. The wall they hit is that very few people are ready to act on this information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.