John Cage, Variations III
John Cage: Variations III

I had heard that AMM used to stage performances various new music pieces at various times in their history (2). Of course Treatise was something they always did, finding a group of simpatico musicians to play that with was part of Cardew’s reason for joining up back in the ’60s.  But from what I understood they also played Wolff, Cage, Brown and others of the Experimental school.  The period where Tilbury first joined the group (early 1980s)  was one these periods, perhaps as a way to ease him into the groups dynamics.  So it shouldn’t be too surprising that at the point when de Saram was brought into the group they also performed those work from the 20th Century repertoire that he also might have been familiar with.  I’ve not managed to find any recordings of the early 80s AMM playing any of these pieces but recently a recording turned up from the Westfälisches Musikfest in Germany of the Rowe, Prévost, Tilbury, de Saram iteration of AMM performing pieces by Cardew, Wolff, Cage and Skempton.

Excepting the Skempton, these are all pieces that I love and have heard in a number of interpretations.  It is very exciting to me to get to hear AMM tackle these pieces. The Skempton, which I had not heard before this, is an amazing piece along with the Variations III is the highlight of this performance.


May 15th 1994
AMM play Cardew, Wolff, Cage, Skempton
Ravensberger Spinnerei, Bielefeld/Germany
first concert in the series: “Mobil – Offene Form mit Variations” within the “Westfälisches Musikfest, edition 1994”
recording from the original broadcast on WDR3, June 6th 1995

Set 1
Cornelius CardewSolo with Accompaniment for 2 instruments ad libitum
A real brooding interpretation of this piece with sounds struck and allowed to fade away. Especially quick bowed and struck gong which reverberates and fades away and either bow length strokes on the ‘cello or quick sequences of notes,  Rowe doing a fast brush over his strings or striking.  The piano is the solo here and it is sparse little figures and chords. This is an amazing take on this piece that you can hear in a much more formal version on the Matchless Cardew Chamber music disc. It shows how AMM, using nontraditional percussion and Rowe’s prepared guitar by musicians who aren’t classically trained can do a brilliant interpretation of this composition.

Christian Wolff: for 1, 2 or 3 people, any sound producing means
The piece opens right up with a circular attack on the head of a drum and some metallic percussive sounds. Little spurts and fits of sound from Rowe’s guitar with occasional outburst of swelled sound. This seems to be percussion, ‘cello and guitar with the characteristic sounds of Prévost: quick snare rolls, bowed metal, short metallic attacks, Rowe: filled strings, swelled attacks, spring-work and edgy bowed guitar and de Saram: scritchy bowing, col legno and short, sharp attacks. The nature of this piece leads to a spacious sound field with bursts of sound and density.

John Cage: Variations III for arbitrary number of players and arbitrary sound originators
This piece opens up with a crunching bit of over driven attack on the spring that evokes the initial moments of Tudor’s version of Variations II. After a bit of this de Saram works in almost a pure tone generated by slow deliberate bowing. Very spacious piece with long moments where you only hear incidental sounds. Quiet sounds such as Tilbury rubbing the piano strings and Prévost pressing an object into a drum head barely transcend these moments of stillness. Again and again though Rowe delivers the sharp attacks on his pickups.  Fantastic version of this piece, fill with space, single plucked ‘cello notes, crunching electronics, soft percussion and extended piano: the best version of this piece that I have heard.

Howard Skemptonfor strings (waves, shingle, seagulls)

“Shingles are little stones like very large grains of sand, that make a sucking sound as the tide comes in and out.” – Keith Rowe(1)

Thin wails from de Sarams upper register, and low gentle rumbles from mallets on Prévost’s floor tom open this piece. Tilbury joins in with what sounds like a two handed chord on the piano with the sustain pedal, but oh soft softly pressed so that the piano mallets just caress the strings. Rowe generates a very high pitched, very seagullish I’d say squeal from his guitar. The piece grinds on in this fashion evoking the waves shingle and seagulls for strings that the composition calls for. It ends as it begins, with gentle tapping evoking walking on a shingle beach, the high thin wails from the ‘cello and restless piercing feedback from the guitar. Calm yet sharp. A piece I’d not heard before, but came to immediately love from this performance of it. Slow paced, as of the sea on a calm day and filled with those sounds that can evoke natural processes but are miles away from the instruments from whence they came.

 Set 2
Cornelius Cardew February pieces for piano (#2)
Solo piano played by Tilbury. The February Pieces are transcriptions from Cardew’s supremely indeterminate Autumn ’60 and Tilbury has been playing it pretty much from the beginning.  Little clusters of chords and drops of single notes sprinkled amongst the background of these chords.  Short little pauses and a Feldman like attention to sounds duration and placement. A certain points it plays with traditional musical notions: fragments of scales, sections that evoke serialism, subverted near romanticism. It ends with listless wanderings up and down the keyboard leading into some quick muscular chording. It’s a whole musical world in a six short minutes. A beautiful little piece, perfectly rendered by Mr. Tilbury.

Right into full volume piano for this as if Tilbury just continued on from the February Pieces. Rohan de Saram jumps right in with short sharp strikes with his bow on the ‘cello strings and Prévost shortly adds in that circular sound of a bowed tam tam.  Only Rowe lays out initially though not too far into it he fades in and out with a mechanical whirr.  This improv, one of the shorter AMM pieces I’ve heard, seems highly informed by the music that preceded it.  It doesn’t quite have the laminal feel so typical of this period of AMM, it is built of short segments, cobbled together from fragments of the pieces that preceded it.

Almost as if compressing a typical AMM hour into it’s thirty minutes length, they do bring it together from the beginning described above. It becomes denser with more pronounced bowing, heavier mallet work on the floor tom and clear chords on the piano.  The alternations between densities that was so pronounced in the quartet AMM is shortly established though through the piece retains some of the flavor of the experimental compositions earlier performed. The piano is more dominate then normal and more Cardew like, Rowe, when he becomes more prominent is in the more fragmented attack and decays of Variations III and de Saram sounds the most Arditti-esque of all the AMM I’ve heard him on.  Only Prévost I’d say switched right to improv mode almost into the excesses of free improv at times with a quite muscular near drum solo-ish style; perhaps trying to create a clear break or perhaps due to being the furthest removed from the experimental tradition and the most heavily invested in improvisation.  The highlight for this piece for me is about half way through there is a low density section where Rowe lays in a quiet, slightly staticy
radio grab of a classical piece, a string quartet it sounds like, probably 19th Century.  An interesting bit of commentary on this classical festival and the tradition that they have been dabbling in. 

The very end of this piece is much more reminiscent of the previous recording reviewed from this quartet and is simply fantastic. It begins with this series of two note figures from Tilbury, to which de Saram adds some soft bowing and for a time it’s just these sounds.  Then Prévost drops begins this rattly metallic percussion sound and Rowe emits short growls and guttural scrapes from running a serrated edge over his strings. Tilbury moves to low rumbling sustained chords and the density builds into this glacial weight, slow and powerful and then it all just flakes away into it’s constituent parts and from these parts an urgency begins almost a frantic level of short, yet not dense activity. Then the announcer comes in and the piece is faded out, leaving us to question how they ended this from this rather active point and how much longer they played to arrive at that point.


Not the best of AMM performances I’ve heard, a bit too free improv, a bit too compressed and possibly due to wanting to break from the earlier music it seems to not be as in the moment as normal. Had it continued from how it began into an improvisatory exploration of the experimental tradition that would have been a pretty interesting piece of music. I’ve argued in previous installments that that is where AMM music lies anyway – their concerns didn’t entirely overlap but were in the same realm. So a natural progression from the experimental compositions into their unguided explorations would have made for a natural counterpoint and commentary instead of trying to force the issue.

While the short little section of AMMMusic in this performance certainly doesn’t reach the heights of that they have previously attained it is these performances of New Music compositions that puts this as one of my favorite AMM recordings. This marks the half way point of my transversal of my collection of AMM bootlegs and is the last of the quartet AMM recordings that I have acquired, from this point on it will be the trio AMM.

1) Keith Rowe interviewed by Gino Robair 1991, Transbay Calendar (11.07, 12.07 and 01.08)
2) Edwin Prévost, No Sound is Innocent, Copula, 1995
3) The Inexhaustible Document Liner notes. Paige Mitchell 1987
4) Rohan de Saram homepage


2 thoughts on “AMM play Cardew, Wolff, Cage & Skempton in Germany

  1. On the AMM version of Solo with Accompaniment Eddie Prévost is actually the soloist and the rest of the group is the accompaniment. The soloists instruction in the score is:

    “The soloist selects a note (any note) of medium-low register relative to his instument. His part consists of the following material: the selected note, forte, held as longs as possible and as constant as possible (no expressive vibrato, dynamic shading etc.), repeated a numbr of times; pauses for breath or quivalent pauses; the same note one octave higher, piano, as long and as constant as possible, repeated a number if times; an interpretation of one (any one) of the matrices given on pages 26 and 27. The time available for this single matrix is unlimited.

    For the soloist the execution of the piece falls into three phases. In the first phase he plays the lower note as described above over and over again. This phase is over when the accompanist interprets the blank matrix for the first time. In the seond phase the soloist has to make a choice amongst three possibilities: (1) to play the lower note as before; (2) to play the higher note as described above; (3) to interpret a matrix. He chooses from amongst the these three possibilities over and over again until such time as his choice falls on the third possibility (interpreting a matrix). Once he has done this the second phase is over. In the third phase he plays his higher note as described above over and over again until he hears the third interpretation of the blank matrix, which ends the piece.”

    The accompanists role is to interpret one of 24 matrices filled with number, letters, pitches or symbols for each of the notes the soloist plays. The matrix interpreted at a given time is agreed upon beforehand by the accompanists. One of these matrices are blank (number 6) and that is the matrix that marks the end of the first phase and of the piece.

    It’s a lovely piece with a very strong indentity, yet very open. I played it a few weeks ago in a duo and it was very challenging, and very nice to perform. Hope there aren’t too many typos above!


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