In the Presence of Greatness? (Part 1 – Christian Wolff, AMM)

Saturday 23 May 2009

A friend has just been visiting and travelling around Europe, seeking out ageing and obscure musicians and filmmakers from the previous century, meeting them and, if possible, interviewing them. I wonder if there’s a similar impulse in what I’ve been doing since I arrived in London – catching up on history. I’ve been more interested in seeing old, established artists than in seeking out something new.

I’m starting to feel like a type of collector. I tell myself I’m going there as a witness, but I’m not sure what it is I think I’m witnessing. Personality? Magic? An insight into how they work?

A couple of weeks ago I went to Conway Hall to see Christian Wolff, last survivor of the co-called New York School. He was performing selections from his series of Exercises, a set of pieces begun in the early 1970s, which allow musicians to find their own ways to follow each other through a common set of shared melodic material. It is, in effect, music born out of consensus.

Accompanied by the Post Quartet (reduced to a trio due to illness) and occasional percussionists, Wolff sat at the piano, balancing a melodica on his lap, and… did nothing, except make sounds. His onstage personality was as self-effacing as his music. The material is so “poor” and undistinguished it directs attention away from itself, toward the gently ragged, meandering sounds produced by the ensemble. At worst, the Exercises are bland and lulling, at their best (as in the spare, ephemeral piece for microtonal sounds) they unfolded like a benign force of nature – affirming John Cage’s belief that art should aspire to nature. Wolff, however, achieves this through social interaction, rather than through Cage’s reliance on the impersonal*.

Later that evening AMM played, in their current lineup of John Tilbury and Eddie Prévost, accompanied by Wolff, John Butcher on saxophone, and Ute Kanngiesser on cello. They improvised for an hour without a break. At first, Wolff sat beside Tilbury at the piano, making small noises in the highest realms of the keyboard, before moving to an electric guitar resting on a table. And, of course, there was the melodica.

A feeling of stasis and troubled quietness was maintained for the hour, yet with each musician producing occasional passages of restless activity. It was a far cry from the witless freneticism that has become a cliché of free improvisation, but it never found a period of the sustained immobility which has become prevalent amongst many improvisers in recent years.

These later static-and-silence musicians are the descendants of the style AMM developed over forty years ago. At Conway Hall the musicians were very skillful, but the music never lifts me the way the greatest moments of improvisation can do. Should I be disappointed? Of course not, no-one expects every gig like this to be transcendent; but on the other hand should I feel privileged to witness this particular grouping of musicians playing together? Why was I sitting there listening to it? For a sense of history, or for the music?

* Wolff did impose at one point to suggest they all start over on his latest piece, which came adrift early on. The impersonal interposed during the last piece, when the cellist’s microphone toppled over the edge of the stage and crashed to the floor, where it remained for the duration. Watch out for this if you find a recording.