Note from Jack: This blog started off as a means for me to talk about all kinds of music that I enjoy, but, as I’m sure many of you have noticed, I have mainly focused on the avant-garde. This is not to say I enjoy this area of music more than any other, but instead that it is more enjoyable to write about in detail. I also think (correct me if I’m wrong) that my style of writing lends itself better to this type of stuff anyway. On that note, here’s a little thing I wrote about one of my favorite musical groups, who also happen to be one of the most influential creative forces of all time. I hope you enjoy.
To think of AMM as a band or single artistic unit is difficult; the mysterious initialism more accurately represents a unifying philosophy. The inconsistency of membership quickly makes this clear; the only truly defining element is the method in which AMM improvises. Their ideas about instrumental conversation, “meta-music”, and the importance of silence are fascinating but arcane; it would be pointless to try to explain here, entirely because even as a huge fan I’m convinced I don’t understand it either. Instead, I will detail the history of AMM, attempt to describe how each record sounds on its surface, and occasionally touch on relevant elements of their musical paradigm. I hope everyone who reads this can come to love their music as much as I do, or at the very least find their existence interesting.
Early Period (1965-1966)
AMM was founded in 1965, the lineup originally consisting of drummer Eddie Prévost, guitarist Keith Rowe, and saxophonist Lou Gare. Each musician had a background in jazz, but had become burnt out on playing it; in Rowe’s words, they were “inspired by what American musicians had done, but [found] the jazz form terribly limiting.” This dissatisfaction manifested differently among each artist. For Rowe, the breaking point came when working with Michael Westbrook did not allow for what he wanted to do; he left the band after, among other things, interpreting fruit pie packets instead of given scores and making a New Year’s resolution to stop tuning his guitar.
The musicians began to develop the unique style of improvisation that would frame future endeavors. An emphasis was placed on reservation and silence, as well as responding to what the other musicians were doing; though the actions of each player in an AMM performance are much more rigid than in most other free improvisational groups, they were always listening to their fellow performers. The setting of these early sessions was described as more of a laboratory than a stage, as the group explored new sounds and found their footing. However, spectators were welcome, as long as they did not interfere with the performance. Paul McCartney attended a few times, and legendary jazz musician Ornette Coleman was once asked to leave because he was talking too much.
AMMMusic & The Crypt (1966-1970)
In 1966, cellist Lawrence Sheaff and experimental composer Cornelius Cardew joined the group, and more of its defining idiosyncrasies were developed. In recordings of performances from this era, especially 1967’s AMMMusic, it is very difficult to tell which individual or instrument is making each sound due both to the poor recording quality and the unconventional methods of playing that were utilized. Rowe’s tabletop guitar setup included everyday objects such as screwdrivers and pieces of metal, which contribute harsh, clattering noises; some of the others would use contact mics around the stage to magnify usually inaudible sounds, and Prévost often bowed his cymbals instead of striking them. The result is a cacophony, but one that moves and breathes with surprisingly fluid dynamics, as the musicians listen and react to their colleagues. It also highlights Rowe’s uncanny skill with his radio; the essentially random interjections somehow falling into place perfectly, with even an instance where a chance commentator fittingly states, “We cannot preserve the normal music.”
Sheaff ended his stint with AMM and, allegedly, music in general soon after. The lineup was rounded off with the joining of Christopher Hobbs, who provided additional percussion. This quintet recorded perhaps AMM’s most praised and most infamous performance on June 12, 1968, released as The Crypt in 1981. In my opinion, it is one of the most impenetrable musical releases of all time, and sees the group at their most uncompromising. The abstract sonic paintings range from unfathomably chaotic, mechanical clouds of noise to sparse periods of silence juxtaposed with bursts of sound. It’s also an incredible example of unparalleled unity among the musicians, revealing each seemingly unintelligible construction to contain careful layers. In “Like a Hanging Cloud in the Sky?”, Rowe’s monstrous guitar sounds finally retreat to expose subtle cello and percussion, and in “Coffin nor Shelf” amazing harmonies are achieved when each musician plays with lingering feedback.
Transitional Period (1971-1980)
In the early 1970’s, membership became less concrete. Hobbs left in ‘71, Rowe in ‘72, and Cardew in ‘73. Prévost and Gare played sparsely as a duo, yielding At the Roundhouse, recorded and released in ‘72, and To Hear and Back Again, recorded in ‘74 and released in ‘78. Both recordings sound very different to both AMMMusic and The Crypt, the more limited palette of drums and sax abandoning the noisiness and shuffling drones of those releases. Both Prévost and Gare play (relatively) more conventionally, their sporadic flurries bearing slight resemblances to many free jazz recordings with similar instrumentation.
Rowe and Gare then switched places, the former rejoining in ‘75 and the latter departing in ‘76, again restricting AMM to a duo. Rowe and Prévost went on to record It Had Been an Ordinary Enough Day in Pueblo, Colorado, which even further approached a sound similar to free jazz; for the most part, both musicians utilize conventional techniques, and as such it is probably their most accessible record. Whether or not these duo recordings should be released under the name ‘AMM’ is somewhat controversial among the members. According to Rowe, the group is only AMM proper if it contains three or more participants, which is why It Had Been…was credited to AMM III. Prévost seems to have a different view, however, as all of the duo records without Rowe (At the Roundhouse, To Hear and Back Again, and the yet to come Norwich) have all been released as AMM.
Trio Era (1980-1999)
In 1980, the joining of pianist John Tilbury marked one of the most enduring changes in the group’s history. He would go on to become AMM’s most consistent member aside from Prévost, and rounded out the trio lineup that would last until 2004. Tilbury’s uniquely sparse playing style, which often involved prepared pianos, helped bring about a noticeable stylistic change in the group’s output. The trio’s first record, Generative Themes, already displays uncanny improvisational harmony. Prévost’s drumming is busy yet reserved, the arrhythmic rolls and cymbal touches painting amazing textures amidst Tilbury’s almost equally percussive prepared piano and Rowe’s objects. As a whole, there’s a lot going on in Generative Themes, but it also points toward the quieter, more nuanced style of improvisation that the trio would explore later. This is certainly apparent on 1987’s subtly tense The Inexhaustible Document with guest cellist Rohan de Saram.
The group continued to perform consistently throughout the 90’s, releasing six live albums and a compilation, Laminal, that collects multiple recordings from varying eras. AMM’s output during this decade ranges from the emotional and sublime Newfoundland to the almost infuriatingly subtle Combines + Laminates to the fantastically organic Before Driving to the Chapel We Took Coffee With Rick and Jennifer Reed, each record equally displaying the versatility of the musicians and their incredible interactions. Every member is reliably great; Tilbury always letting his achingly fragile chords to have the space they need to fade and decay, Prévost seamlessly transitioning between quiet droner to virtuoso, and Rowe coaxing jaw-dropping sounds out of his guitar that seem to breathe and sigh in your ears.
The beginning of the 2000’s saw two more live releases, the gloriously textural Fine and Tunes Without Measure or End. These, especially Fine, are among my favorite AMM records, with beautiful, exotic timbres rising and falling back into silence. Rowe’s contributions are especially fascinating, his increased focus on electronics and frequencies foreshadowing his work after his departure from the group in 2004. Tilbury and Prévost remained, performing as a duo, and recorded surprisingly some of the group’s best material. Records like 2005’s Norwich and 2010’s Uncovered Correspondence make no attempt to fill the absence of Rowe’s noisy interjections, and are the quietest and sparsest throughout AMM’s discography. The two continue to perform as AMM today, collaborating with various improvisers such as John Butcher and Evan Parker.
Despite the fact that AMM’s catalog is massive on its own, the group also provides a gateway into the wonderful world of modern improvised music. Labels like Editions Mego, Improvised Music from Japan, and Erstwhile regularly release innovative recordings and work to create a global community of like-minded creatives. There is so much great stuff out there in this vein, and it’s a tragedy that it is enjoyed by so few people. To help, I will include both a list of great AMM albums I did not talk about in my summary, as well as various related projects that may provide entry points into other experimental music. Ideally, one who desired to get into AMM’s music would either just go through chronologically or listen to Laminal, which collects live performances from different eras of the group, and go from there. But these records are also long, exhausting, and difficult. So I would personally recommend starting with either AMMMusic, Generative Themes, or Live in Allentown, and then work backwards or forwards based on what you did or didn’t like. It Had Been… is also probably the group’s most accessible album, and could also serve as a good starting point.
- MEV / AMM – Live Electronic Music Improvised (1970) I really enjoy AMM’s contribution to this split. MEV’s, not so much.
- Organum / Eddie Prévost – Crux / Flayed (1987)
- AMM – The Nameless Uncarved Block (1991)
- AMM – Live in Allentown (1996)
- Evan Parker & Eddie Prévost – Most Materiall (1997)
- MIMEO & John Tilbury – The Hands of Caravaggio (2002)
- Keith Rowe & John Tilbury – Duos for Doris (2003)
- Keith Rowe – The Room (2007)
All pictures can be found at The Wire’s AMM Gallery.