Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Spontaneous Music Orchestra - Plus Equals

Plus Equals
Emanem 2001
Reissue from A Records 1975


What do you get if you add more musicians to the improvisational, avant-garde Spontaneous Music Ensemble outfit? Well like this album says - Spontaneous Music Ensemble + = Spontaneous Music Orchestra. More members equals more sounds, more variety, more unusual juxtapositions as the rattling drums of group director John Stevens cut sharply into the wavering strings of Nigel Coombes' violin like a rippling earthquake. The only thing is whether or not all that extra improvisational madness adds anything to the mix that the previous musicians weren't capable of. Does it push the direction of free improvisation further into a cacophonic nightmare of trills, squeaks, squawks and drumbeats in a taking no prisoners, all-or-nothing grand finale? The beginning of the end, or perhaps the end of the end, because where else can you go? How do you get out of this mess, if you want to call it a mess?

On albums like Withdrawal and A New Distance SME retained some semblance of structure, improvising around central themes, converging and then wandering off in various directions as each musician played in their own space for a while, still of course, well aware of how the other musicians were playing in their space - there was certainly no horrible playground-esque crash of boyish football into girlish skipping into a naive game of awkward kiss chase here. But this kind of play, this understanding between musicians falling into place, merging with one another without thinking is what makes albums like Withdrawal so exciting - spontaneous being the key word here. Which is perhaps why when the ensemble grows, you inevitably feel as though it's bursting or worse still burst at its seams.

Plus Equals isn't so chaotic. It's simply a little messier - there's a lot more going on and you really have to pay more attention and stay focused to get any sense out of it - if that's not besides the point of the album. Free Improvisation is a great idea, it's one of my favourite forms of music - the clash between different instruments of opposing styles can be really exciting and despite the removal of rhythm and tempo, there remains a faint structure, or perhaps more appropriately, there emerges a faint structure almost at random.

What's so engaging about listening to SME is their knack for dramatic shifts, from exploding clicks and splatters of short trills and taps to longer, sparser, more droning sections which rise unexpectedly through Evan Parker's or Trevor Watts' quavering Soprano Sax or plunge into some darker depths through Ian Brighton's rumbling, electric guitar. The title piece is a 40 minute journey through these shifts, evolving slowly with high horn sounds as the less experienced workshop musicians play John Stevens' 'Search and Reflect' composition. Five minutes in the more experienced musicians filter into the mix, playing droning, sustained notes climaxing with Evan Parker's soaring Sax about half way through before erupting into a powerful climax, lead by Trevor Watts. Everything is in flux, stasis is completely destroyed as if a huge rock has begun a long descent down an initially shallow decline before picking up so much speed it becomes relentless, unflagging and unstoppable.

The second piece on the album tumbles headfirst into that cacophonic nightmare - a mixture of manic Sax and Trumpet blowing, trampling on the strings which struggle to find their place in the confusion. This is chaotic. What emerges isn't the same sprawling descent into maelstrom that gave the title track its somehow graceful beauty, but a restless brawl of hyperactive, where Stevens ends up pounding his drums almost in frustration. Maybe this one's a matter of taste, or a test of patience to discover those wonderful passages of unexpected layers of sound or noise or drone - there are some, they're just not as noticeable.

SME have, I've recently discovered, a huge discography - but they were after all, one of the seminal European free improv groups that emerged in the late 60s and early 70s and along with AMM have had a long history (with plenty of line-up changes) of pushing avant-garde music into evermore new directions. Sometimes they miss the mark, but mostly they've always been able to amaze and surprise, constantly exploring the limits of music and further still of sound.


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