Vol. 28 Issue 2 Reviews
David Toop, curator: Not Necessarily “English Music”: A collection of experimental music from Great Britain, 1960-1977

Compact discs (2), 2001, Leonardo Music Journal CD Series Volume 11/EMF CD 036; available from Leonardo, MIT Press Journals, 5 Cambridge Center, Cambridge MA 02142, USA; telephone (+1) 617-253-2889; fax (+1) 617-577-1545; electronic mail journals-orders@mit.edu; World Wide Web mitpress.mit.edu/Leonardo/; also available from Electronic Music Foundation, 116 North Lake Avenue, Albany, New York 12206, USA; telephone (+1) 888-749-9998 or (+1) 518-434-4110; fax (+1) 518-434-0308; electronic mail emf@emf.org; World Wide Web www.cdemusic.org/

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Milledgeville, Georgia, USA

CoverNot Necessarily “English Music” is an admirable two-CD archival collection of a little documented chapter in English experimental music from the 1960s and 1970s. Composer, improviser, percussionist Chris Cutler has called it “an invaluable window on a good part of the fringe music that enlivened the UK music community 30 years ago.” The set includes pieces by well-known composers such as Cornelius Cardew and Michael Nyman, and improvisers including Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. David Toop (a Visiting Research Fellow at the London Media School), curator of this collection, is a musician, composer, and writer. He also performs on several tracks and is cited as a collaborator on several others. Having been a part of the English experimental music scene since his teenage years, Mr. Toop was well placed to provide recordings and contacts from this important time in English experimental music.

In his introduction to the Leonardo Music Journal CD Series Volume 11, “Not Necessarily ‘English Music’: Britain’s Second Golden Age,” Leonardo Music Journal editor Nicolas Collins writes:

The British experimental music that emerged in the mid-1960s owed as much to… Pop sensibility as to the dominant European modernist style… Composers got on stage to play, rejecting the classical distinction between creator and interpreter; they drew on musical material outside the high-art canon, including Pop and World music; they appealed to ears raised on Pop because they made use of Pop instruments and Pop sounds… their rhythms were often closer to Bo Didley than to Boulez.

It seems to me that Mr. Collins’s comments underscore certain contemporary myths often found in discourse about experimental music and improvisation. The first is that experimental composition or improvisation owes a great debt to pop music. For example it might be said that experimental musicians employ pop rhythms (i.e., more Bo Didley than Boulez). Second, experimental composers or improvisers are thought to have collapsed the artificial boundary between high art and pop. And third, experimental performance is often assumed to be non-virtuosic.

Many pieces on Not Necessarily “English Music” profoundly contradict these assumptions. It seems obvious to the ear that the composers and improvisers from this collection owe a great debt to John Cage, Christian Wolff, and Earle Brown, but also to European high modernists such as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Iannis Xenakis. Yes, they use electronic instruments that are also used in pop music. But equating the instruments with the genre is like saying that the saxophone is solely a “jazz” instrument. Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett once said that he was influenced by Keith Rowe’s approach to guitar playing. It is fairly easy to locate experimental moments in early Pink Floyd, but difficult (if not impossible) to hear Pink Floyd riffs or rhythms in an AMM performance. The experimental composers and improvisers on Not Necessarily “English Music” owe much more to the avant-garde, modernist tradition than to the postmodern pop tradition.

It is also telling that some of the recordings from this collection took place at British universities, and that several important contributions were organized by professors at these universities. Also, some of the performers on this collection met each other while attending classes as university students. This brings up another myth about experimental music (in both the UK and the USA), that it is hostile to academia. The recordings on Not Necessarily “English Music” seem to suggest a different possibility. Certainly the subtle, sometimes frail nature of improvisation or experimental composition can be squelched by university protocol, but it can also greatly benefit from the university’s freedom of discourse and pursuit of non-commercial experience. This is also true of the connection between the BBC and experimental composers represented in this collection such as Cornelius Cardew, John Stevens, and Daphne Oram. Since the pioneering efforts of Gavin Bryars, John Stevens (the first musician in England to run a class on improvisation, according to Derek Bailey), and Christopher Small, colleges and universities in the UK and the USA have added classes on experimental music, including free improvisation. In the USA alone, there are over 100 universities that offer students this kind of experience. It is also not unusual for these classes to be taught by practitioners in the field, notably Yusef Lateef, George Lewis, John Fonville, and J. D. Parran.

Strangely absent from this collection are works by experimental British composers and improvisers that did incorporate pop rhythms, melodies, and harmonies, in addition to using electronic and ethnic instruments. The shortlist of significant omissions might include: Chris Cutler, Fred Frith, Lindsay Cooper, Tim Hodgkinson, Georgina Born, Robert Wyatt, Xentos Jones (a.k.a. L. Voag), and Jamie Muir. By far the most important omission is that of the band Henry Cow and its various members. In response to this very issue, Chris Cutler has written: “it strikes me as strange how thoroughly Henry Cow and its members have been airbrushed out of this particular history. This was our period, much of what we did was as experimental as anything else going on at the time—and indeed we organized concerts, and performed with half the people on this compilation” (personal correspondence). To be fair to Mr. Toop, he made his decisions according to the limited space allotted, but there are duplicate entries by certain composers and much stylistic overlapping. The making (or illustrating, if you will) of retrospective history is a tricky business, perhaps better left to those without anything at stake.

According to the curator, the recordings from this two-CD set are “imperfect documents of a volatile, fugitive, now quite ancient history.” Audio imperfections abound in the forms of distortion, hiss, rumble, and dropout. Unfortunately these intrusions mask much of the music beneath. “Faded” recordings, like photographs, have lost their luster, or, in this case, their high- and low-end frequencies. But the worst thing about these recordings is that almost all are inelegantly and prematurely attenuated (faded out) in an effort to conserve recording space.

Of the 27 works included on Not Necessarily English Music the high points are discussed in the remainder of this review.

The Judith Poem (1973) by abAna, features the fluid and imaginative vocals of Bob Cobbing, the guitar of David Toop, and the percussion of Paul Burwell. The group’s name was derived from a misprint in a program that “stuck.” Accepting and embracing chance results (a very Cageian idea) could also serve as an emblem for this piece, and indeed many pieces from this collection. The text for this track was from Mr. Cobbing’s Girlie Poems, a poetry collection written between 1969 and 1977, published by Good Elf in 1982. The poem was constructed from the letters in the name Judith. Mr. Cobbing’s performance is a virtuoso demonstration of extreme ranges and styles that would fit comfortably within the Downtown New York scene of the 1980s or 1990s. Mr. Toop's guitar is especially noteworthy because of his ability to convincingly imitate the multiphonic and squealing sounds of a saxophone. This track is also one of the few that sounds clear and relatively undistorted thanks to the deft digital conversion by Dave Hunt.

As It Were (1971) is an improvisation by reedman Evan Parker and percussionist Paul Lytton. The recording comes from a rehearsal tape they made and is characterized by complex textural exploration and lightning fast “conversational” response. One hears two virtuosic, free improvisation pioneers having a fairly good day. If you are at all familiar with their approaches to improvisation you may be surprised by how current this work sounds. In other words, the performance date could have been 2001 instead of 1971. Mr. Parker has been working within a consistent, easily identified musical space for over three decades. The same cannot be said for the vast majority of folks who also practice the ancient craft of “making it up on the spot.”

John Stevens’ Solo (date unknown) showcases his multitasking ability, performing on percussion, cornet, and voice. His background was in avant-garde jazz (Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, etc.), but the polyrhythmic outbursts and irrational rhythms on this track resemble those found in the work of the previously mentioned modernist composers. This is about as far from Bo Didley as you can get!

Ron Geesin’s Duet for One-String Banjo and Water Cistern (1971) is a unique exercise in sound exploration. It was composed for broadcast on the BBC in an attempt to stretch the boundaries of radio music. Mr. Geesin used sounds from a storage tank in his attic and an adapted instrument which he describes as a “talking” banjo. The cistern seemed to be “furiously stuttering some kind of message.” The banjo was used to engage the cistern in a musical dialogue that carries a degree of speech resemblance. The banjo sounds fluid. In combination with the cistern one hears water-taut melodies.

Instant Composition No. 1 (1971) by Rain in the Face (Paul Burwell, drums, and David Toop, electric guitar) incorporates the nervous energy of free jazz with Frank Zappa-like musings. Mr. Burwell cites “Iannis Xenakis, free jazz, avant-garde classical, Sun Ra, and Albert Ayler” as major influences. This piece showcases the anti-Pop nature of these styles and musicians.

One of the best tracks on this collection is Derek Bailey’s Improvisation 5 (1971). For 40 years, Mr. Bailey has demonstrated a keen sense of sonic and rhythmic subtlety on his instrument of choice—the guitar. His approach to improvisation is distinct. One can almost hear his cognitive processes at work in this track’s diverse textural material. No doubt about it, Mr. Bailey is one of the masters of free improvisation. His book, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, is highly recommended for those at all interested in this subject.

The Scratch Orchestra’s Pilgrimage from Scattered Points on the Surface of the Body to the Brain, the Inner Ear, the Heart and the Stomach (1970) is an important document of a pivotal ensemble. The Scratch Orchestra grew out of Cornelius Cardew’s composition class at Morley College in London in 1969. Mr. Cardew’s manifesto for this group was published in The Musical Times, June 1969, and reads as follows: “From time to time a journey will be proposed (journey to Mars, journey to the Court of Wu Ti, journey to the unconscious, journey to West Ham, etc.)… A date can be fixed for the journey, which will take the form of a performance.” According to Bryn Harris, “the pilgrimage included four popular classics (Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, Terry Riley’s In C, the Eurovision Song Contest winner “Boom Bang-a-Bang,” and Piotr Illych Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture), representing the four organs of pilgrimage, respectively.” Each classic appears in sonic and/or conceptual form in this composition. The included track is an excerpt from the middle, improvisatory section of the piece. The Scratch Orchestra was an ensemble of varying sizes initially devoted to playing experimental and improvised music. After Mr. Cardew’s “conversion” to Maoist politics, it began to unravel.

Not Necessarily English Music has both documentary and pedagogical functions. I have used some tracks as source material for an improvisation course I teach as well as an advanced theory course that covers minimalist composition. The title of this collection serves to remind us that, in English experimental music from the 1960s and 1970s, one can hear the preservation of, and breaking with, tradition, sometimes in the same piece. In his introduction, Mr. Collins admits that “this music abounds with paradoxical juxtapositions.” Indeed it does, as I have attempted to point out. Ostensibly, the conservative forces that are usually associated with the concept of English music are nowhere to be found on this collection.

In the end, English music is an elusive concept, yet there must be some reason why many of the pioneers and practitioners of free improvisation, progressive Art Rock, and the New Complexity are English-born. Perhaps there is a political connection. Angular, thorny, and high-minded are terms that might be used to describe the British parliamentary system, as well as the aforementioned approaches to music-making in the United Kingdom. One of the reasons that Cornelius Cardew repudiated his roots in experimental music in favor of the folk and 19-century art song traditions, is that he located what he thought were politically reactionary aspects of the former music, and sought to distance himself from their “imperialist” nature. This unpopular view (that experimental musicians serve the forces they pretend to oppose) still grates against sensibilities today. It is of course unfair, but also partly true.