‘Into the Maelstrom’


Accompanied by bird song, traffic, the conversation of roofers two doors away and a piece of heavy duty garden equipment from beyond the fence I sat in the shade at the end of our garden yesterday afternoon and finished reading ‘Into the Maelstrom; Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom’, David Toop’s new book. The book sets out an incredible network of associations and connections and has alerted me to a good deal of music that I will explore in the weeks and months to come. This is the first volume of two and covers the evolution of a set of ideas ‘before 1970’. But it is not a linear history and the narrative swoops and dives in time (up to the present day) and genre. Amongst its many strands the one that preoccupies me on finishing is ‘listening’. The importance of listening and the balance between listening and playing to the improvising musician is central to Toop’s exploration.

As a determined audience member I have been trying to sort out the relationship and/or the differences between the way musicians listen and the way that an audience listens. In these (mostly) small spaces the symmetry of performers and audience can suggest a yin and yang of activity and passivity. But this is simplistic and I am always brought back to Duchamp’s statement: ‘The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.’ In the case of the Large Glass this happened most obviously through reflection on the material of the work itself…with the viewer’s image literally transposed onto the surface of the glass. Something similar happens in that communal space of listening in relation to improvised music.

Then last night, five minutes walk away down that road that generates so much traffic noise, was the launch of ‘Into the Maelstrom’ at Cafe Oto. Some months ago David Toop asked if he could use one of my drawings next to a section he was writing about a performance by Angharad Davies and Lina Lapelyte. I realise that I have come to insert myself into the space of the performance (and the performance itself?) through making these quick, ‘blind’ drawings…last night Toop talked about my drawing (and those of the others in the book by Geoff Winston and Ross Lambert) as a parallel act of improvisation. The performances that formed the central part of the launch at Oto exemplified three distinct approaches to improvisation: long exploratory group work with five musicians, short concise duets with Toop reading and each musician playing in turn and then an unplanned hybrid of reading and four musicians playing. The juxtaposition of the structured (the text) and the wholly improvised (the music) highlighted the dichotomy that lies between control and freedom that is at the heart of ‘Into the Maelstrom’ and its rich netherworld.

into the maelstrom001

Performing with David Toop at Cafe Oto were (from left to right) Steve Beresford, Sylvia Hallett, Evan Parker and Elaine Mitchener.


And, to steal an idea from the Fife Psychogeographical Collective, I am now listening to David Toop, ‘Entities Inertias Faint Beings’.

At Cafe Oto 23. ii. 16 (remix)

The last time I posted this was ‘live’ from Oto, photographed by candlelight on my phone. So here is another version and some other drawings from the second half. Plus a late addition of a drawing of Peter Brötzmann from his gig at Oto with Heather Leigh.


Evan Parker and Seymour Wright


Sebastian Lexer at the piano


Steve Noble (the ghost of Sebastian Lexer manifesting itself in the background)


Lexer and Noble


Peter Brötzmann

Listening, Looking, Not Looking. (Evan Parker at Vortex, 22.i.15)

Improvisation transcription - fragment.  About 4 seconds. 58 x 102mm.

Improvisation transcription – fragment.
About 4 seconds. 58 x 102mm.








I have no idea what it is like to be a musician. I don’t know how they think, what decisions they make when they are playing. And particularly I don’t know how they interact with one another when they are playing. This sense of the distance between listening as a member of the audience and playing as a member of a group has occurred twice this week, on Tuesday at the PJ Harvey fish tank recording session and last night at the Vortex at one of Evan Parker’s regular Thursday night slots. Accompanied by Steve Noble on drums and Marcio Mattos on double bass this, from a listener’s point of hearing, was exemplary improvised trio playing. The two sets were beautifully balanced with each player responding to subtle inflections in the music while making their own distinctive sounds. It seemed that two players could stop at any moment and the third would carry on without taking breath, following the track upon which they had already set out. And when they all played it was as a unity. This notion of the individual within the group was emphasised by the body language of the performers. Parker remained fairly motionless, his eyes closed while he played. Noble hardly glanced up from the drum kit, his concentration at odds with the apparent ease of his playing. Mattos, in contrast, allowed his gaze to roam around the room or at least around middle distance, occasionally bowing his head over his instrument and closing his eyes. From time to time he raised his hand from the strings up to shoulder level and brought it back down in something like a theatrical flourish. But in all of this, and like his fellow performers, he made no eye contact, neither with the other musicians, nor with the audience.

So the closeness or proximity between performers and audience was brought about by listening. (At the end Parker thanked the audience for ‘listening so hard’). But, on the other hand, a distance or separation was brought about by looking. For me (but not, I suspect, for all the audience) this separation was compounded by my not knowing how the musicians interact…how they communicated. They were clearly doing another kind of listening which was not just a matter of degree (from ‘easy’ to ‘hard’ say) but was some parallel to how I was listening.

Does this performance listening separate the sounds being made by the others and allow (create?) a space into which the players insert sounds of their own? Or is it that individual players can anticipate a synthesis of sounds a few seconds into the future….the actual noise of the instruments always running slightly behind their knowledge? I noticed I slipped into saying ‘space’…is this why trying to work out what happens here is so difficult for me? Is improvisation between musicians not a spatial practice at all? When I experience this music it is very much within particular environments…both musician and sound are sited. The performance takes place within a room, a zone within the room, a stage. When I draw the performers, though sometimes no element of the room appears, they tend to be located…even if it is only a location defined by them and the spatial relationship to their instrument.

Maybe my listening practice, unlike that of the musicians, needs to be spatial as this takes the place of their intuitive experiential communications.


Evan Parker

Evan Parker

Marcio Mattos

Marcio Mattos

Steve Noble

Steve Noble







Evan Parker

Evan Parker

Marcio Mattos

Marcio Mattos

Steve Noble

Steve Noble

ECM – A Cultural Archaeology

Don Cherry ponders and asks his toy trumpet to be quiet on the exhibition poster

Don Cherry ponders and asks his toy trumpet to be quiet on the exhibition poster.

I’ve been thinking a good deal about what stuff and ideas should be turned into exhibitions recently. In the last couple of months I have had to deliver two talks – one dealing with exhibition design and the other with house/museums and I began to wonder if the documentation and communication of some ideas just work better as books or blogs or records. This was going through my mind when I visited ECM: A Cultural Archaeology at the Haus der Kunst in Munich earlier this month. I was also thinking about the Touch event staged in London at the end of last year and about Jon Wozencroft’s heartfelt naming of a significant part of the Touch project as an act of sociability – reaching out to a community. I knew that the ECM display would be cooler…a longer history, a huge catalogue…with far more cultural baggage to be opened up and pored over.

The exhibition guide offered a ‘sensory field’…I liked the sound of this.  There are many pieces of music that have been recorded and released by ECM that I have hugely enjoyed over the past 37 years (I came ‘late’ to them…their first record was released in 1969)…but I have also appreciated the less obviously musical releases such as Jean Luc Godard’s sprawling soundtrack for Histoire(s) du Cinéma. Maybe the exhibition would be an attempt to extend the aesthetic of ECM rather than just document it – I guess I was looking forward to some kind of a Gesamtkunstwerk.  It was maybe with this in mind that I had suggested to my companion, Jon, that we visit the Asamkirche on the way to Haus der Kunst. This is a Baroque church squeezed into the busy Sendlinger Straße in central Munich. Architecturally it is a fairly straightforward oblong with 2 long, high galleries and an apsidal end…but its decoration is where it moves into extreme baroque – dripping with gilding and sculpture, trompe l’oeil painting and draped fabric rendered in stone. As if to order there was an organist practicing as we entered the church but whether it was the repertoire of the musician that seemed to just slide over the surface of the building’s interior or the museum/mausoleum like air of the place, the experience didn’t have the resonance that I had hoped for.asam

The exhibition began with a film from 1971 by Theodor Kotulla: See the Music. This featured Marion Brown and Leo Smith on a winter trip to Munich with Manfred Eicher playing bass. Long thought lost, this was a gem of documentary filmmaking showing the band in rehearsal and walking in one of Munich’s snowy parks. It heralded the best of what was to come in the show…the surprising effect of film in this context. At the same time it was a pre-echo of another dominant theme of the exhibition – the presence and drive of Manfred Eicher as the founder and head of ECM. As if to get it out of the way, the next exhibit dealt with the great behemoth that is Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert album. This was the record that cemented the ECM image, making its way into thousands of homes in the 1970s. But it was clear at this point, looking at carefully selected photographs and LP sleeves, that we would not be taking a journey into the socio-cultural nexus of ECM…even at this stage there was a sense that this was edited history…all control and, somewhat perversely, no improvisation. The real delights in this room turned out to be a number of TV programmes with interviews with Jarrett and Eicher, a very staged wall of master tapes from the ECM vaults and the wonderful film by Anri Sala, Long Sorrow. When I saw this film in London at the Serpentine Gallery it was from time to time accompanied by a live saxophone improvisation by Andre Vida…here it was presented on its own…a rather drier affair but worthwhile nevertheless. The film shows the saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc playing outside the window of a tower block…the camera roving first around the room and then in space in the open air. The mystery of the levitating musician is never revealed despite the incredibly close examination on film of his face as he improvises.

The other film that impressed me was commissioned from the Otolith Group expressly for this show – New Light. This was a collage piece using documentary images of the group Codona (Collin Walcott, Don Cherry and Nana Vasconcelos) from the 1970s, mixed with a text from Gertrude Stein and a piece of cinema magic in which moving images are filmed projected onto rapidly moving drumsticks. This seemed like a true piece of archaeology…digging up something largely forgotten and bringing it into (new) light as the title suggests. The long wall outside of this installation was covered in album sleeves in serried ranks…letting the eye drift over these was a pleasant enough experience but ultimately it had the look of an over-scaled stamp album. Opposite the LPs was a row of headphones on which the music of ECM played in endless loops. As a ‘sensory field’ this was disappointing…look at the record sleeves, listen to the CDs. There is no doubting the edifice that Eicher has constructed…an edifice that is composed of many individually beautiful building blocks – but I craved a little more generosity. One of the notes I made just after visiting the exhibition was ‘Nothing outside of itself…’ This seemed to sum up the whole experience…there was no sense here of reaching out to a community…it felt like the hand of a rather benevolent corporation was at work. This was a world built in order to exclude rather than include. So this was not the exhibition it could have been. I am sure there is still the possibility of an immersive examination of sound and place through the eyes and ears of an influential producer and his record label but maybe there has to be a bit more letting go. Some of the influence of all that musical improvisation has to creep into the exhibition space…

(Part of?) An essay by the exhibitions co-curator Okwui Enwezor is available here:



Tim Berne's Snakeoil. Matt Mitchell, Oscar Noriega, Ches Smith, Tim Berne. 12. i. 13

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil. Matt Mitchell, Oscar Noriega, Ches Smith, Tim Berne.
12. i. 13

On the evening of my visit Evan Parker performed as part of the Electro-Acoustic Quartet in the Haus der Kunst’s concert hall. Like the following night’s performance by Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, this was a beautifully judged improvisation set…a perfect balance of restraint and energy and impeccable ensemble playing. These concerts gave a vitality to the ECM project that was missing from the exhibition. Speaking to Evan Parker four nights later after his set at Café Oto in London he told me how Manfred Eicher introduced some interesting and unexpected reverb into the live mix at the end of his set. I said – ‘Doesn’t that bother you?’ and he replied – ‘No, when Manfred is around you have to accept that he is the 5th member of the band…’