PERCUSSIONIST IMPROVISOR COMPOSER
Wedneday, april 18, 2001
THREE-DAY AMM FESTIVAL
By Bill Meyer
Musical styles generally evolve gradually, and without conscious intent. The English improvisational ensemble AMM is an exception to the rule. Prior to convening in 1965, the original members of AMM (what the letters stand for is a secret) had been composers and jazz musicians. Frustrated by jazz's formal limitations and disillusioned with the symphony orchestra's authoritarian power structures, they determined to make a new, collectively improvised music. Inspired by Eastern philosophy, socialist ideals and radical visual artists like Jackson Pollock, AMM threw all prescriptions about relationships between instrumentalists and their instruments, and among the musicians themselves, out the window. They developed unconventional techniques. For example, guitarist Keith Rowe plays his instrument by laying it flat on a table, and percussionist Eddie Prevost (who, like Rowe, is a founding member) is as likely to use a bow with a cymbal as to strike it. Pianist John Tilbury, who joined AMM in 1982, prepares his piano by placing objects on the strings to change their sound. No one solos; instead, each player contributes multiple layers of textural or timbral activity. AMM last played in Chicago five years ago, but the non-profit organization LAMPO made up for this extended absence by sponsoring three performances. The first two took place at 6ODUM, a performance space in Ukrainian Village, and the last transpired at the University of Chicago's International House. On Friday night Prevost played duos and trios with two local musicians, drummer Michael Zerang and saxophone and clarinet player Ken Vandermark. Prevost demonstrated his mastery over the drum kit. He made finely grained abrasions by rubbing his fingertips on the drums' heads and extracted an extraordinary variety of sounds by varying his attack on the rims. Prevost and Zerang obtained reverberant, bell-like tones by striking cymbals set on top of the drum heads. Vandermark used circular breathing to sustain long tones and intricate phrases. Although their music sounded much more jazzlike than AMM's, the three men adhered to AMM's ethic of collective creation, which doesn't compromise the unique qualities of each player's style. Rowe's solo concert on Saturday was a distillation of AMM's commitment to finding new sounds by using unconventional techniques. Seated behind a folding table covered with files, rulers and effects boxes, the guitarist performed an hour of music without playing a single note in the traditional manner. By vibrating the instrument's body with small electric fans and striking springs that he had threaded into its strings, he generated layers of hums and rumbles that functioned as a sonic canvas. He slashed at that auditory surface with savage scrapes and ear-piercing pitches and eroded the sound texture by playing a radio through the guitar's pickups. All three members of AMM convened on Sunday evening. Prevost's percussion was spread out in between Tilbury and Rowe on a stage that was lit only by two floor lamps. Their performance lacked theatrics, but their gorgeous music never wanted for drama. The improvisors adhered to the composer Morton Feldman's dictum, "Do not push sounds around." Instead they followed the sounds as they unfolded in a contrapuntal dialogue between strata of consonant and dissonant textures. Rowe approached his instrument as he had the previous night, only with more restraint. Prevost made his cymbals shimmer and screech, and coaxed low moans from a huge parade drum by drawing a mallet across its head. Tilbury made some very un-pianolike scrapes and resonances by playing directly on the strings with his hands and a drumstick. Sometimes a player would stop, not so that another could solo, but because he was waiting for the sounds the others made to invite him back in. These silences were a vital and active contribution to the music's complex and vividly colored fabric.