Tuesday, August 2, 2011
AMM - The Crypt: 12th June 1968
It's been a while since my last AMM review--with The Crypt we move to the primary album outside of AMM's 1967 debut AMMMusic that points to the foundations of their immortality in the world of avant-garde music. Despite my passion for AMM and other free improvisation and avant-garde groups, writing about music like this is at once easier and more difficult than writing about traditional styles or genres. Easier because the lack of structure and outrageously long tracks usually demand considerably less writing, since there aren't any lyrics or a large number of individual "songs" to describe and evaluate, and more difficult because the music bears little relation to most traditional music and the vocabulary used to describe such music is of little use. It may or may not help to reference an earlier essay in which I tried to articulate some aesthetic concepts that more accurately apply to music like this. Either way, I'll do my best to describe in a meaningful just what it is that I enjoy in The Crypt: 12th June 1968.
By this time in the collective's history, the core group of Eddie Prévost (percussion), Lou Gare (saxophone), Keith Rowe (guitar/transistor radio) and Cornelius Cardew (cello/piano) were augmented by percussionist Christopher Hobbs; absent from the AMMMusic lineup is multi-instrumentalist Laurence Sheaff. It's not my primary focus in these reviews to chronicle groups' membership and instrumental roles--the main reason I mention it is because, when the music starts, there's really no way to discern who's making which sound and what the audible instruments even are. The concert begins with a couple of seconds of high-pitched feedback, a couple of seconds of dissonance not unlike the sound of an orchestra tuning, and then around the seven second mark, a thick howl is undeniably the center of attention, as it will be for over a half hour of this 90-minute set. "Noise"-haters, please exit through the wings--I'm not here to argue about whether or not this is "noise" or music, nor am I here to apologize for the characteristics of the sounds contained here; I wholly understand that most people probably won't enjoy how this sounds, but the validity of the assertion that someone can and does enjoy this isn't up for debate. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but one great thing about being an AMM fan compared with loving Captain Beefheart and Trout Mask Replica is, for the most part, you don't have a chorus of sanctimonious people telling you that you're lying about liking how it sounds--even fewer people give a shit about AMM.
When I think about The Crypt, it's this howling sound is the first thing that comes to mind. The sustained collective sound is the most purposeful study of timbre I can call to mind; it's not the note or pitch that attracts attention, but the quality of the sound. Hearing the undulating screech as the layered instruments blend and enfold only to compete again, the descriptors that come to mind pertain to the sense of touch--rasping roughness drags across the seconds, and a certain viscosity seems to govern the pace with which each instrument's sound slowly evolves across time, and the primal sense of vibration happening between the different sound sources shifts at what seems like a glacial pace between the miniature warbles of dissonance to the earthquake rattling of flagrantly high volume. Also particularly noticeable are definite spatial feelings--the music sounds at some points like it's expanding omni-directionally into an endless void and at other times it conjures a feeling of rapidly speeding through a narrow tunnel. In one sense, the collective sound is liquid in the way it seems to move within itself slowly and naturally, but there's simultaneously a dryness to the collective sound, as if every sound source is being scraped to produce the sound. When it comes to declaring that this is "good" (implying that there's similar music that isn't), my first instinct is to say that it's the collectivity that elevates this music above the quality of so-called "noise rock" for me. It's likely that Keith Rowe's prepared guitar and electronics account for the backbone of the sound, but without the shadings and constant flux of the other players (keep in mind there's a saxophone, percussion, cello and piano contributing, though, as the liner notes so eloquently state, "It was not uncommon for the musician to wonder who or what was creating a particular sound, stop playing, and discover that it was he himself who had been responsible") that separates the subtlety of this sound from just a couple of guys seeing how loud they can get their distorted guitars to feedback. Though the sound is ultimately inseparable and cohesive, all of the players' personalities are perceptible to an extent; like the best free jazz that came before free improvisation, each person leaves enough space for the others.
The dynamics of the epic howl ebb and flow past the half-hour point, at which time the proceedings become significantly quieter. It's pretty surprising, actually, how similarly the second disc sounds to the AMM of the 90's and 00's; the contributions of each member are quite a bit more audible, though it's not a lot easier to discern what the instruments are (percussion aside). Interestingly, the droning of the first half is still present, but in an attenuated form--it's almost like a different version of the same thing, more distant or more spacious. In this way, part of the magic of The Crypt is the way in which it plays with the experience of time. The music could easily be summed up thus: "A really loud screechy howling noise, then more quieter droning with a bit more space and silence with some intermittent crescendos." Thing is, it takes 90 minutes for all of that to happen--it's like the shriek of a hawk slowed to 5,000 times the original length of the cry. If you're not paying attention, time disappears and a limitless pool of sound is the only thing there is. I can only imagine how awe-inspiring it must have been to experience the concert live, in the moment, without the ability to replay the recording over and over. As anathema as recordings are to the AMM school of improvisation, albums like The Crypt bear repeated listening remarkably well. Beholding the sounds the group produces is like turning over a crystal in front of your eyes--there are innumerable intricacies and crannies to be found. There's also something to be said for the cathartic effect produced by the band's immediate sonic assault and the lengthy but punctuated denouement.
There are AMM albums with more variety, more changes in dynamics and diversity in instrument color and perhaps more relatable musical structures, but I'd be hard pressed to find one that's more intense or one that goes any deeper in pursuit of a single idea than The Crypt. In closing, I take enjoyment in recollecting the first time I realized that the track titles on this (as well as some on AMMMusic) come from my favorite Daoist text, and a major influence on In Not-Even-Anything Land, the Zhuangzi (the liner notes quote the part of the text that "Box Elder" is based on, though they call him Kwang-sze). Strangely enough I leaned heavily on the Zhuangzi when first attempting to wrap my head around music like AMM and Henry Cow's free improvisation--the text's exhortations to strip away preconceptions in pursuit of the gnarled beauty that lies in spontaneity and the natural state of things were key to my understanding of the music. Nice to hear that I'm not the only person who thinks the Zhuangzi might have something useful to say about music appreciation.
CD available here.