“Since there can be no absence of form, in free improvisation form must be self-organizing. The process is intrinsic to life. Coming now to definitions of organization, we will say that functional organization at some given level is equivalent to thermodynamic coupling (utilization of information) at the same level. It would seem also that a structure could be called organized if its existence were either necessary for the maintenance of some functional organization or dependent on the operation of some functional organization. Without reference to functional organization it seems to be impossible to define structural organization in a useful way.” – Paige Mitchell (3)

It is worthwhile to consider the structural nature of AMM performances, to ponder to what degree AMMMusic had codified. There are two fundamental aspects of AMMMusic that are immediately apparent even upon cursory listening: The laminal nature of the work and an oscillation between densities.  AMMMusic is often defined by this laminal structural agent, layers of sounds creating an entity that at its best exceeds the sum of its parts.  However in what can arguably be called the most creative period of AMM, the 1960s, we find much less of a reliance upon this method. Or more accurately we find less use of complimentary sounds then in the later AMM.  By complementary I mean sounds that work toward this end, they may in and of themselves seem absolutely incompatible, but when layered with the others create a unique floating world.  The ’60s AMM I would say was far more interested in sounds in opposition, not just to each other but to the situations of the times, the individuals and to conventional notions of music.

It is more or less the same process but refined and perhaps more oriented toward creating a specific sonic environment. It was refined to the point where it could pretty easily absorb new elements (though not always, see the recording with Gare a couple of reviews back) as is the case with de Saram. As this set of four recordings that I have with de Saram displays he is often providing a bed of bowed tones upon which the others place their sounds. Likewise the others often work with layers of sounds built up through repetition, for instance in this recording Prévost works extensively with mallets on the floor tom adding a low level rumble to the others sounds.  Tilbury and Rowe have their own laminal methods – bowing, fans, electronic rumbles from Rowe and repeated chords, minimalist styled repeated notes and Feldman-esque broken chords floating in the sound space.  But these two often add the disruptions that make up the an essential part of the laminal sounds – radio from Rowe cutting through the amniotic fluid of the layers of sound, or a melodic phrase from Tilbury providing an anchor of familiarity amongst the alien soundscape.

“We move in the delicate experience of sound as cooperatively shaped and developed material of encoding and in the experience of sound as energy. Among the successes of AMM in the formal challenge of self-organization are the expansiveness of reference and variety of articulation achieved through this ranging of source sounds from noise to microtonality.” – Paige Mitchell (3)

Even with all of the activity of four members the piece is pretty spacious, running from open to dense as was often the structure of AMM pieces. A common critique of Free Improvisation is that there is a cliche of oscillating from loud to soft with each existing solely to emphasize the other.  AMM in the 60’s was not trapped in this structural cliche – they might do an entire hour at a crazed level of energy. Or by utilizing extended silences (rumored to be up to 20 minutes though I’ve yet to hear a recording that contains one of these) undercut any sort of emphasize of energy through periods of quiet.  They even actually would alternate between soft and loud but not as a rule but as another tool.  But as they continued on and developed the refined AMM sound of the 80s and 90s they settled into a structure system of sparse and dense.  These could be of varying volumes, sparse and loud, dense and soft and so on but like their free improv brethren they tend to oscillate between these two extremes.  This piece is a good example of this with the shift between densities occurring a good half dozen times throughout.  It is interesting to note that at the very end AMM broke out of this dichotomy achieving at time a degree of stasis that pointed toward an evolution of the AMM sound. But the group was not to last in a recognizable form past that point.  Anyway we will examine that further as we get to that period.

AMM 1993, BBC Broadcast. England, UK

Opens with a gentle piano chord a few notes and then silence. Nearly inaudible is the rumble of Rowe’s guitar.  A few more piano notes come in and then a dry sawing from de Saram.  Slow, molasses like sawing with no affectation creating a rustling bed that the piano drops notes and broken chords upon. A very quiet, high thin wail comes in, Prévost bowing some metal perhaps. A dull thud. Repeated. A careful density is reached then abandoned leaving only the bowing, which takes on a more cutting tone now. Low register notes from the piano here and there the briefest strike on a cymbal.  This delicate brooding balance is reached, of quick sharp bow work, very spaced out piano chords and something being rubbed on a drum head.  The beginning of the piece though is so uncertain so unlike anything else, it feels the most like contemporary composition but it doesn’t behave at all like any examples of that I can site. It is the palette deployed in the service of atmosphere.  Prévost begins to use mallets on a floor tom creating an off kilter tattoo against which the uneven piano work and the schizophrenic bowing contrast. I think Rowe is also bowing his guitar there is a much more saw like bowing the effect of the bow on wound strings in contrast to the sharper bowing of the ‘cello.

The density is now thick with the guttural bowing, mallets and the swirling sharp bowing creating a thick stew of sound. It doesn’t last though, it all fades away for a second and then there is just sharp attacks on the ‘cello and a disconcerting background rumble. As the bowing declines, Prévost returns with the mallet work and perhaps a distant chatter of radio.  The sounds of pickups being abused come into play. Things become a lot more uncertain now, with the bowed ‘cell back but not creating a drone but more like banshee wails as disconcerting groans and grinding sounds are evoked from Rowe’s guitar. Heavily distorted radio comes in with unintelligible speech sounding like an alien Orwellian broadcast. De Saram switches to pizzicato playing which layers into Prévost’s deep rolling mallet work against the muffled radio broadcast. This darker section basically fades out from all of the musicians and very quiet piano chords are heard and some sweeet bowing. Its all brought way down but never quite stopping. A nice long section of just drums, muffled electronic thumps and a very high thin bowing sound.

From the space de Saram starts a much rougher, scratchy bowing sound akin to the kind of sounds Lachenmann often gets from his string players.  This leads to more aggressive drum work and hard attacks on Rowe’s guitar and the denisty and volume come up. Some big piano events here, sometimes sounding like inside piano work other times big low end chords.  After this explosion of sound it opens up with big sounds still but less of the density.  Short bowed attacks on the ‘cello, brief drum rolls and simple chords on the piano. Prévost drops out and it becomes even more spacious. Distant, noodley bowing from de Saram and mid range piano chords spaced so that the sound is nearly fully gone before the next. Very quiet is a bit of a hum from Rowe. The piano becomes very soft and the bowing a bit less erratic. Rowe brings up a grinding sound that fades in and out. A gentle passage of rough sounds.

Almost melodic piano now, with only a quiet swirling bowing sound and a background hum from Rowe that almost sounds like an electric organ with a note held down. Fan work from Rowe, still pretty gentle but adding a metallic oscillating sound against which the increasingly soft piano playing fades away from.  With the bowing from de Saram and this part it is a really interesting sound field of tones coming in and out.  Prévost begins to drop a few louder percussion bombs, answered but a short burst of radio and then more aggressive attacks right on Rowes pickups. Bowed metal in the distance as Rowe takes prominence. Fast screeches from the ‘cello as if the bow is just whipped across the strings. Then it all quiets down and just the nearly inaudible bowed metallic sounds remain. Muffled sounds as of something pressed on pickups buidling back up now. Rattly percussion is added in, the attacks on the guitar becoming pretty strong like rumbles of thunder.  Swirling bowing now with drum rolls and strikes on the tom from Prévost. Sounds of things scrapped against the guitar strings, the piano with muffled chords evoking some preparations. Things build up to a pretty high level of intensity and then drop down reveal just the component elements: thin bowing, sparse mallet work and then Tilbury starts with fast runs on the piano. De Saram echoes these.

Almost a pure tone now cutting through everything which one by one drops out. Then a simple rhythm is developed on the floor tom and the cutting bowing fades away.  Sounds like eBow on the guitar with that characteristic buzz as it hits strings.  It rises to a crescendo and then is gone. And all that remains are soft two handed chords on the piano. Very beautiful piano in the space. Short aggressive bowing comes in and out but nearly inaudibly. Almost sounding like solo piano improvisations now, mostly chord based by spacious and with hints of melody. Then the electronics are brought up, and echoy, hollow buzz that takes over the space along with the slapping of strings. This fades out and a near silence falls, but it keeps coming back never quite going completely away. Bell like sounds come in, perhaps from percussion but it sounds more like prepared piano to me. Rowe keeps bringing up the buzz but never very loud. Drums come in, proving the bell like tones to be piano after all.

The piano develops now almost sounding like a section of the Sonata’s and Interludes for Prepared Piano as the drums and hums fade out. Very background is an electrical hum that sounds like a motor being picked up via a telephone coil.  Prévost brings back the drums and Tilbury keeps working the prepared piano now sounding like a percussion suite. He manually fades this out as a whiny bowing sound comes in and amongst this Prévost hits his gong or tam-tam a couple of times, softly but definitely there.  Chunks of pickup sounds, buzzes and rips from Rowe. Things are building up to a head now with cymbal crashes, single loud piano notes and rhythmic staccato bow work from de Sram. The spring puts in an appearance on Rowes guitar as de Saram falls into a regular sawing pattern. A confluence of scattered sounds from Rowe over this and regular drumming build up and then it ends.

The period of time that Rohan de Saram played with AMM is interesting in that the dynamic of the group shifted greatly toward that of a classical chamber group.  The balance between immediately recognizable sounds- the piano and ‘cello, against the alien sounds coaxed from metals, electronics and the aether, shifted toward the former. Even with extended techniques on the ‘cello and preparations on the piano at times this iteration of the group sounds very classical but in a modern sense.  For it isn’t the chamber groups of a Mozart or even a Stravinsky that they evoke, no it would be more the sounds of Cage, Wolff, Cardew – continuing the experimental tradition.

1) Rohan de Saram homepage
2Notes on AMM: Entering and Leaving History Stuart Broomer, CODA Magazine no. 290. 2000
3) The Inexhaustible Document Liner notes. Paige Mitchell 1987
4) Meta Machine Music, Rob Young, The Wire #132 (February 1995)
5) Keith Rowe interview by Dan Warburton at Paris Transatlantic
6) Edwin Prévost, No Sound is Innocent, Copula, 1995
7) Keith Rowe interview in Monk Mink Pink Punk no 12 (July 2007)