AMM says farewell, and keeps its secrets

THE BRITISH IMPROVISING GROUP AMM has had an impact as mysterious as it is evident on the world of experimental music. Formed in the mid-’60s by what founding member Keith Rowe called a group of “skinny white European street kids” influenced by African American free jazz, AMM grew out of series of workshops at London’s Royal College of Art, its early performances attended by the likes of Ornette Coleman, Paul McCartney, and Syd Barrett. Rowe, a musician and painter who’d played in Mike Westbrook’s big band, turned his guitar flat as Jackson Pollock had laid flat his canvas and also sneaked in unpredictable fragments from live radio broadcasts; Eddie Prévost fortified his drum kit to include a full array of percussion; saxophonist Lou Gare floated and howled. Deploying high-volume amplification and sprawling multi-instrumentalism, early AMM records like 1968’s The Crypt essentially invented modern-day noise music. Their sound was raw, enormous, and intensely collective.

Along with former bassist Lawrence Sheaff, who quit music entirely after the band’s 1966 debut, AMMMusic, the other coremember was composer Cornelius Cardew, a more established figure who’d worked as Stockhausen’s assistant for several years. AMM members also participated in the Scratch Orchestra, a socio-musical experiment initiated by Cardew and others in 1969 and dedicated—at least initially—to a kind of anarchist communality. Soon, however, Scratch and AMM split along political lines, with Rowe and Cardew turning to Maoism and denouncing the avant-garde. On a 1973 European tour, AMM functioned as two duos, with Gare and Prévost playing something approximating free jazz while Rowe tuned into Radio Peking alongside Cardew’s broadly tonal piano playing. Cardew left the band soon after, though there was talk of him rejoining before his death in 1981—rumoured to be a state assassination.

Around 1980, AMM coalesced into its enduring form: Rowe on tabletop guitar, Prévost on percussion, and John Tilbury, an important member of Scratch and a superb interpreter of Morton Feldman, on piano. Over the years, others have dropped in and out—composers Christian Wolff and Christopher Hobbs, Gare, classical cellist Rohan de Saram. But this trio has remained the core, despite a dispute between Rowe and Prévost that led to AMM becoming a Prévost-Tilbury duo for an entire decade.

Last month, amid a muggy heatwave and a transport strike, AMM played their final gig. The performance closed “Bright Nowhere,” a series celebrating Prévost’s eightieth birthday that had taken place at London’s Café Oto every Saturday of the month, each concert dedicated to the promoter and left Labour politician Victor Schonfield, who served as AMM’s part-time manager in the ’60s, and who passed away earlier this year. As it transpired, another absence was felt: For health reasons, John Tilbury was unable to perform, though Rowe made sure that he retained a virtual presence by sampling portions of his playing: bell-like, circling piano figures like lights flickering and dying away on the music’s horizon.

This final concert was both apotheosis and relinquishment. Rowe has had Parkinson’s for some years; able to use only one hand, his playing has had to adapt, an experience he movingly describes in What Is Man And What Is Guitar?, a short film released last year. That night, he worked almost entirely with prerecorded samples, including what sounded like his own guitar, Tilbury playing Morton Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus, the wheezy sounds of a reed instrument—alluding to AMM’s debut recording session for Elektra, accidentally double-booked with a gagaku ensemble—and Purcell’s funeral march for Queen Mary. At times, bent over the tabletop so that his upper body was almost horizontal, Rowe resembled a painting by the old masters he so admires: a CaravaggioRembrandt, or Dürer St. Jerome, a meditation on aging and creativity and continuance.

For the first ten or fifteen minutes, the music was weightily sparse, scratching around the edge of silence: Prévost bowing a tam-tam, Rowe providing crackling flickers and dim washes of Purcell that disappeared almost as soon as they’d appeared. The music was perhaps most “successful” when it reached higher density via Rowe’s layered samples and Prévost’s vibrating an electric toothbrush on a bass drum. But success is not the point. As Prévost once explained: “Ultimately, AMM will fail. There may be rare moments when we, or others, sense a kind of success, but there can never be ‘ultimate’ success . . . The paradox is that continual failure on one plane is success on another.” Of the album design for E.E. Tension and Circumstance (2011), on which Rowe and Tilbury paid homage to Rowe’s late mother, Rowe remarked, “I wanted it to recall a trace of old age and an increasing lack of facility: I wanted it to look shoddy, with errors, away from those slick images of conceit.” And perhaps AMM was truest to itself, and to that process of aging, when the music seemed at its sparsest and most impenetrable, those passages where the music seemed to have frozen, to have become lost inside a reverie of itself.  

The last music AMM made together was silence. After an hour or so, Rowe having fallen quiet a minute or so before, Prévost, too, came to a pause, and they both sat poised, the music, the musicians, and the audience alike all deciding whether or not it should continue, before the applause broke in. Heavily inflected by the framing, the history, the circumstances and the occasion of the concert, that silence was not just about absence or farewell. In the post-concert Q&A, Prévost and Rowe good-humouredly refused to divulge the secret behind the AMM acronym. “It stands for this,” one of them said, gesturing around the room. AMM is made up, not only of the music and those who play it, but also the space in which they make it, space which includes everyone else in that room. And in that closing silence, it felt as if AMM was opening up not only to everyone in the room, but to all the listeners and players not in the room, living and dead. Despite all the fallings-out, the often fractious disputes, the absences and endings, the ebullience of the Q&A channelled something more like collective joy—a joy that is not the opposite of public or private grief but its dialectical counterpart. This ending was not just an ending, but a holding space, in Prévost’s words, “marking a journey to a bright nowhere,” sometimes brighter and sometimes dimmer, but visible on the horizon still.


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