AMM - Biography

The number of groups who formed in the 1960s and remain active today could probably be counted on one hand. To that end, most people would be hard-pressed to think of one band that fits the description besides The Rolling Stones. But there is another group from England who, despite some changes in membership over their 40-plus years together, are still together, touring and recording.

AMM have had no platinum-selling records, no singles on the Billboard charts, and no videos on MTV. Though they did share bills with Pink Floyd and Yoko Ono in the late ‘60s, they never achieved the mainstream success of the former or the infamy of the latter.

The first incarnation of AMM formed in London, England in 1965. With the line-up of Eddie Prevost on drums, Keith Rowe on guitar, and Lou Gare on saxophone, one could be forgiven for thinking this looked like a fairly traditional jazz group. While all the members were initially influenced by jazz, they all agreed the formality of what people think of as jazz was too restrictive. On the surface, this would seem to be an oxymoron. After all, jazz is supposed to be about improvisation, and how could a musician possibly feel restrained by that? This is where understanding context is essential.

Much in the same way bands like The Rolling Stones took American blues and gave it a distinctly British twist, jazz groups across Europe were absorbing the influence of American jazz and adding their own unique perspective. At a time when musicians like John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Charles Mingus were pushing the boundaries of jazz into something more free, players like Evan Parker, Derek Bailey and Peter Brotzmann were beginning to make waves with their own unconventional sounds.

But whereas other European jazz musicians developed on a more closely parallel track to their American counterparts, AMM sought to explore their own tangents. Taking cues from contemporary classical, Fluxus, and indeterminate composers like John Cage and Morton Feldman, AMM’s modus operandi was simple—no rehearsals, avoid rhythm and melody, and no solos. This belief in improvisation in its purest form required a commitment from the musicians to listen intently and to cancel each other out should any single part threaten to break through. For this reason, most AMM records are nearly ambient with occasional outbursts which, though sometimes violent, are always controlled. The band also insist on complete silence during their shows. They famously asked Ornette Coleman to leave because he was talking, and at a show in Houston, Texas in 1996, Prevost stopped the show after a few minutes to ask that the air conditioner be turned off.

The problem of what to call this strange music was answered by the title of their first record, AMMMusic (1966 Elektra). The group are joined by pianist and composer Cornelius Cardew and cellist Lawrence Sheaff on this outing and when it first appeared, few knew what to make of it. Neither jazz nor classical and not even really anything in between, it was literally shocking. Since its release, it has become a revered and referential recording, influential to bands from Pink Floyd to Nurse With Wound. Odd as it may sound, this is also perhaps AMM’s most “normal” sounding record.

AMM’s second recording, The Crypt, (1968 Matchless) is more indicative of the directions the group would take in the coming decades. Though it originally consisted of two long performances, the CD re-issue contains a third, and the set is not only one of AMM’s masterpieces, but it’s a crucial document of what was then called “new music.” The three various sets provide an exploded view of the facets that would come to define the group. “Like a Cloud Hanging in the Sky?” showcases the band’s abrasive side. The walls of squalling feedback, bowed cymbals and other brutal sounds predate the industrial music of Throbbing Gristle and Einsturzende Neubauten by a decade. “Coffin Nor Shelf” is much more subdued and even elegant in comparison to the full-on assault of the previous track. But it is “Neither Bill Nor Axe Would Shorten Its Existence,” the performance which went unreleased for so long, that would come closest to embodying the sound AMM would strive for. It is largely a combination of the two previous performances, more sparse and contemplative with otherworldly noises that are unlikely to emanate from a piano, drums, guitar and saxophone.

Though AMM is best thought of as a collective, it is important to understand the individuals behind the enigma. And make no mistake, AMM are an enigma—no other band embodies the Zen axiom of impermanence better. Musicians come and go with no hard feelings. Whether the group consists of two, three, four or five players, it is all “AMMMusic.”

Of all the musicians involved with AMM, Eddie Prevost is the only consistent member. Born in 1942 in Hitchin, England, he started off as a traditional jazz drummer but quickly grew tired of the formalities of the genre. While at the Royal College of Art in London, he went to weekend experimental music workshops also attended by Lou Gare and Keith Rowe. After the group coagulated into AMM, he founded Matchless Recordings as an outlet for the groups work. In addition to playing with AMM, he has played with most of the big names in European improv, including Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Paul Rutherford, Barry Guy and has recorded with experimental group Organum and Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3. He is also the author of two books, No Sound is Innocent and Minute Particulars. Matchless Recordings still issues AMM records as well as Prevost’s recordings.

Keith Rowe was also there at the beginning, but has left the band twice, most recently in 2005. Born in 1940 in Plymouth, England, he is probably best known for pioneering the technique known as “table-top guitar.” A painter whose work appears on many AMM album covers, his style was, unsurprisingly, inspired by visual artists. As he looked for new ways to approach his instrument, he thought of Jackson Pollock laying his canvases flat on the ground. He laid his guitar flat on the table and uses a variety of methods to “prepare” the instrument in ways not dissimilar to the ways John Cage would prepare a piano. Using springs, paper clips and transistor radios, he coaxes rumbles, buzzes, squeals and moans that are in large part responsible for the eerie undercurrents that pervade AMM records. He, too, records on his own and in 1997 founded the band M.I.M.E.O. with ten other improvisers, including Fennesz, Phil Durant, and Kaffe Matthews.

Cornelius Cardew was a composer of some renown when he joined AMM. Born in London in 1936, his musical career began in the Canterbury Cathedral School choir. In 1958, he saw a series of performances by which would have a profound influence on the pieces he would later write that incorporated improvisation. AMM freed him completely from the restraints of composition. Though he only appears on the first two AMM recordings, his ideas undoubtedly shaped the band’s direction early on. He formed the Scratch Orchestra in 1968, mostly as an outlet for performing his composed work. Cardew was killed in a hit-and-run accident in 1973.

Lou Gare was born in Rugby, Warwickshire in 1939. Like Rowe, he was a member of Mike Westbrook’s band and then became interested in abstract art and music. He remained a member of AMM through the 1970s, usually performing in a duo situation with Prevost.

It was during the ‘70s that AMM was least active. Members of the band had philosophical differences concerning socialism and whether or not these ideas should be reflected in the music. In fact, only two recordings document this period, 1972’s AMM At the Roundhouse on Derek Bailey’s Incus Records and To Hear and Back Again (1974 Matchless). Both feature the duo of Gare and Prevost, and while both are fine records, they lack the rakish dynamism of the previous recordings.

The 1980s started off with the dubious It Had Been an Ordinary Enough Day in Pueblo, Colorado (1980 ECM/Japo). Appearing under the name AMM III, the record sees Prevost and Rowe recording in a studio (AMM recordings are typically live events) and while it is undoubtedly improvised, it sounds more pre-planned than past or future efforts. Perhaps the name change was a good idea.

John Tilbury joined the group later that year and AMM would enter what most would consider its classic era. Tilbury was a member of Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra and very much influenced by Morton Feldman. It has been said his approach tempered AMM somewhat, but its undeniable that when he joined, the band entered a period of unparalleled productivity during which they made several fantastic albums.

Generative Themes (1982 Matchless), Combines + Laminates + Treatise ’84 (1984 Matchless), and The Inexhaustible Document (1987 Matchless) are all highly regarded records that served to cement the group’s reputation as unique in the realms of experimental sound, jazz, and modern classical music. The addition of Tilbury’s piano is a revelation. While in some sense, it serves to ground the listener by convincing him that these are sounds produced by musical instruments as opposed to field recordings of a haunted cog and sprocket factory, Tilbury’s playing is equally mysterious, in turns foreboding, supple, crashing, and spectral.

The ‘90s were even more productive with five releases, including the 3-CD set, Laminal, (1996 Matchless), a 30th anniversary commemoration which includes recordings from 1969, 1982, and 1994. It also includes what is most likely the best introduction to AMM, Newfoundland (1992 Matchless).

As the band’s 40th anniversary loomed, new players were brought in to collaborate. The like-minded group MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva) joins AMM for Apogee (2004 fibrr) and they teamed up with the young French quartet Formanex to tackle a score by Cardew on AMM/Formanex (2003 fibrr). But the past few years are most notable for the departure of Rowe in 2004.

AMM continue on in the form of a duo between Prevost and Tilbury. Those disheartened by Rowe’s absence should find solace in the fact that AMM is always evolving. The fact that incarnation lasted as long as it did is incongruous with the band’s history. Perhaps there will be another incarnation. Perhaps there will even be a 50th anniversary. Whatever it is, it will be AMMMusic.

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