Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble
This article was written by Steve Lake, producer of the Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble's ECM releases.
It was first printed in the programme for the 2004 Free RadiCCAls festival at Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow.
One windy and wet summer's night in 1997, I found myself at an outdoor gig in Klagenfurt, watching the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble open for the Dave Holland Quintet. They were playing, amid the colossal stone slabs of Günther Domenig's Steinhaus (I guess you could describe it as a free-form architectural "folly"), to a mystified audience comprised largely of Austrian bank personnel bussed in for the occasion and promised a "jazz party" by the shores of Lake Ossiach. Such things can still happen on the European mainland.
Midway through the gig, Paul Lytton, soloing on objects obscured inside a flight case that was part of his tabletop percussion array, began to assault a piece of polystyrene with a bow. An abrupt, rough sound - ugly beauty, Thelonious Monk might have said - rendered dreamlike by a reverberant halo that interactive computer maestro Walter Prati created for it. Trying to place the associations the sound triggered, I suddenly found myself, twenty years younger, in the cavernous space of Waterloo Station after midnight, running for the last train to Twickenham, with Evan Parker, black-bearded and bearlike, puffing beside me and chuckling - "Don't panic! We can do it!" - polystyrene beakers of British rail coffee, unpleasant to the touch, rustling in our hands, pounding desert boots slap-echoing in the emptiness of the big hall. This story, which is in part about space- and time-lag, and memories and visions, might as well start there, mid-70s.
I've known Evan Parker for quite a while. By the time I became his near-neighbour in Middlesex, I'd already been following his music for seven or eight years. I'd bought his debut recording, "Karyobin" with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble while still a school kid, picked up "Machine Gun" with Peter Brötzmann a little later, witnessed various permutations of the SME in concert, and been mesmerized and intimidated by the Parker/Lytton duo, which established new benchmarks for confrontational sonic weirdness, an experience like being ambushed by junkyard dervishes.
I spoke with Evan for the first time in, I think, 1969 or 1970. He had just lectured at the South Bank, one of several speakers predicting the Future of Music. John Tilbury, I recall, envisioned a glorious workers' revolution, a vast army of bright-eyed factory hands, Mao's red book in the pockets of their dungarees, storming the palaces of culture. Evan, for his part, predicted the end of composition. That old master-and-servant musical relationship, no longer tenable in the 20th century, was doomed. The future was going to be improvised.
In the 21st century - September 10th, 2004, in Munich - I watched Evan Parker conduct a composition he'd just written for the Transatlantic Art Ensemble, a group assembled for the occasion with fellow saxophone innovator Roscoe Mitchell. The piece, said by its composer in an unguarded moment to occupy a territory "somewhere between Gil Evans and Luigi Nono", unfolded so naturally and logically, and with such astute use of the soloists at his disposal, that a newcomer could easily have believed Evan Parker had been doing this all his life. For the debut of a composer of quasi-orchestral experimental big band jazz it was extraordinary. The Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, too, has grown from a group that improvises freely, using electronic and acoustic instruments, to a group that also plays the compositions of Evan Parker.
Evan's compositions primarily propose guidelines to the improvisers; Parker's pieces could also be described as group improvisations unfolding inside a signposted environment. So while "freedom" must include the freedom to change your mind, Evan Parker has really changed his emphasis. In speaking as he does now, of improvisation as a compositional method, Evan Parker has moved from a position of "either/or" inflexibility that continues to defeat many an improviser (see for instance the ultra-minimalist school of improvisation currently painting itself into ever-tighter theoretical corners) to a much more expansive "both/and" position.
Having said that, it should be added that the range of Parker's interests has always been much broader than his music may have indicated in the 1970s or 80s, when he chose to put much of his attention, especially in solo performance, on the honing of his innovative saxophone technique, returning again and again to specific instrumental resources to chip and drill at the physics of sound.
An articulate man, Evan Parker may have been the first musician I'd met who spoke in well-turned paragraphs - as opposed to the discontinuous Pinteresque half-sentences favoured by most London jazzers which just, y'know, sort of, trailed off. On the Twickenham-bound train, on many occasions, he would hold forth on the most disparate subjects at length, intensely or with humour, often testing his own enthusiasms as if they were hypotheses, to see if they could withstand scrutiny from multiple angles. I remember an unbroken solo, all the way from Waterloo to his front door, on the topic of "insect music". An unfriendly critic had intended to insult the SME's improvisational murmurings with this description but Parker decided to consider it positively - hailing the sound projecting capacity of the grasshopper's stridulations and the vibrating membranes of the cicada, the weather-influenced congregational songs this or that bug sang, its ticks and whines and buzzes and courtship dances. That night, I had nothing to contribute beyond an occasional "uh-huh", but it was fascinating, and a great performance. Another night ride home, Parker might zig-zag between the fiction of Borges, the blues-assuaging soulfulness of Booker Little, Robert Ornstein's theories on the nature of time, the joy of playing with Chris MacGregor's groups, the inspirational architecture of Mies van der Rohe, Dionne Warwick singing the songs of Bacharach (an enthusiasm I still haven't understood), and the petty jealousies and back-stabbing threatening to rip apart the still-tiny free scene at any moment. I listened and learned, a young journalist soaking up information, quite often wishing I had a tape running.
One of the matters often under discussion, then and later, was the business of recording improvisation, the contradictions inherent in it, et cetera. It was a source of annoyance to me that so much improvisation, in and out of jazz, has been so badly represented on albums. Musicians who work for years to find and define their own sound, their own voice, have often appeared to care very little - or maybe could not afford to care - about the way it is conveyed on disc. This has been going on for so long as to be a tradition, almost, and there are too many examples to list. But as late as the late-1990s you could read Leo Feigin and Hartmut Geerken insisting, in liner notes for a Sun Ra album - a wretchedly murky audience-recording - that bad sound equals good sound in the avant-garde, and that good sound, anyway, automatically signifies inferior music tarted up! Perhaps this argument for selling shoddy product has a romantic ring for the gullible.
One improvising ensemble of a few years back was called News From The Shed. Nothing against the band, which had its moments, but the name summarized and symbolized for me the ambience of much documented improvisation, implying something bone-dry, muffled and muzzled at the bottom of the garden. The Wire, I recall, approvingly applauded the "scratching in the kennel" aesthetic of the group's debut album. An even more claustrophobic address: as if the shed were not dismal enough, now we should volunteer for the doghouse as our preferred performance space.
In concert, many improvisers show great sensitivity to the rooms in which they play, and work to incorporate any natural acoustical advantages or idiosyncracies of a venue into the music. Put the same players in a modern studio, without adequate production support, and you often get more news from the shed. Why? Because most modern studios are acoustically neutral; they have no room sound worth talking about. This means that an appropriate acoustic space for the music has to be sculpted, shaped, invented.
In popular music, this is old news. From Phil Spector's wall-of-sound to dub reggae to ambient music, a defining characteristic has been the creative expanding and contracting of the space in which the music is perceived, through use of reverberation. For a long time it seemed to me "wrong" that improvisers were not including the potential of the studio soundboard in similar ways and as an improvisational tool, in the making of their music. But, of course, most free albums being made effectively on the run, improvisers have rarely had the budget to experiment in the studio. In the analog era especially, it was an expensive habit to cultivate. So the purist position, often accompanied by wistful talk of "objective" recordings, was also a defensive one.
I was surprised and cheered by two albums Evan Parker made in 1990 and 1991 - "Hall of Mirrors" for soprano saxophone and live electronics, with Walter Prati, and the solo-with-overdubs album, "Process and Reality". Together they amounted to a ritual burning of the hair shirt. At last one of the key figures in improvisation was looking, fearlessly, at the potential of the recording process as part of the work. About time!
Some of his contemporaries and friends were, predictably, aghast. Alex Schlippenbach roughly dismissed "Hall of Mirrors" as a new age album and Eugene Chadbourne, a proudly lo-fi improviser, wrote a scathing review. It could be argued that there's not enough music on "Hall of Mirrors", but as a catalogue of possibility for the future making of music, as Prati subjects Parker's soprano to a variety of electronic treatments, it is fascinating. And when I heard that Prati and his associate Marco Vecchi were part of the new Evan Parker Electronic Project (as it was originally called) along with Paul Lytton, Philipp Wachsmann and Barry Guy, I was immediately very interested. Evan Parker kept me supplied with concert tapes of the band through this early period - recordings from the Bochum festival in 93 and Fylkingen in 95 were particularly intriguing.
Meanwhile, I had renewed an association with ECM, as staff writer/producer, and in this capacity made an album with Paul Bley, Evan Parker and Barre Phillips in Oslo, in 1995. During the many breaks in that session (Mr Bley required a capuccino every half hour), Evan and I talked a lot about how the recording of the electronic band might be approached, and in the Spring of 1996 were able to realize "Toward The Margins" at Gateway Studio in Kingston, the debut album of the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, with keen-eared engineer Steve Lowe on the sound desk. Despite familiarity with the concert tapes, I was floored by the beauty of the sound up close, by the detail that was constantly being illuminated in the digital reverberations and sound transformations fashioned by Prati and Vecchi and by Philipp Wachsmann, who at that point was responsible for electronically manipulating Barry Guy's playing.
Later some critics would speak of an "ECM sound" applied to free improvising, which is not only simplistic but erroneous. The rich resonance and spatial depth in the music is created in the band and is for the most part shaped in real time. My job as producer of this project has been to help reveal what is already there, and to keep the focus on the most unique aspects of the improvising and the electro-acoustic interaction in each instance.
The group in 1996 was still a double trio, with each member of the long established Parker/Guy/Lytton group matched with a sound processor: Parker with Prati, Guy with Wachsmann, Lytton with Vecchi - those were the basic acoustic/electronic relationships. Walter, Phil and Bill (as Marco Vecchi is known to his bandmates) all had the choice of transforming the sound or "playing electronics", using sound sampled from the acoustic players to solo or to interact in group improvisation. This model was already starting to unravel however. Not to use Wachsmann's great skills as violinist and violist made no sense, and some of the most moving playing on the disc is his. The piece called, retrospectively, "Trahütten" (all the pieces on the first two Electro-Acoustic Ensemble CDs are improvisations) is some profound chamber music with Philipp Wachsmann at its dark centre.
To make the music work on the first album, it was sometimes necessary to point out that less is often more in this band. The reflex-quick interaction that characterises the Parker/Guy/Lytton trio could have only a limited role to play, if the blossoming electro-acoustic sound transformations of the electronic team were to have space to breathe. The priority, this time, was not to document the hyperactive virtuosity of the acoustic trio: that had been adequately addressed elsewhere. And as the musicians slowed down for a moment, some deeper listening seemed to be taking place.
The challenge is a complex one. The musicians play, and their sounds are sampled by the treatment stations and fed back to them (think of encountering a duplicate of yourself from a parallel universe, almost you but not you). There are many more unknowables than in "normal" improvising. The players have to see the whole soundscape unfolding and contribute to it tellingly while having no idea of what may happen to the notes and phrases they are generating. Those phrases might be returned to them immediately, back-to-front or upside down, or come back to haunt them half an hour later. Paul Lytton might pluck at the strings of his humble homemade live electronics frame and suddenly find his sounds reverberating in an acoustic space the size of Chartres. One keypunch makes you larger, and another makes you small. A casual dragging of sticks over drum heads and scattered tabletop paraphernalia might precipitate a growling response from one signal processor - the same gesture slowed to a slur - and be returned simultaneously from another "treatment station" speeded up a thousandfold, like the merry chatter of cyber-sprites. How to play inside this dreamscape of sensory impressions, how to react?
"Toward The Margins" was made in four days, from loading in and setting up the electronics (a time consuming undertaking in the early days of the band) to final mix. I stayed awake nights with a DAT machine, poring over rough mixes from hours of improvising to find where "the album" might be, reviewing shortlist selections with Evan each red-eyed morning. New questions arose in the mixing. Not only was it more difficult than usual to tell who was playing what - constant surprises on that front - but there was always the question of which perspective to view the music from. You could choose to sit in the listener's seat and hear the ensemble music as it might unfold in concert, you could follow a single instrumentalist at any time through the electro-acoustic maze, or you could hear the band from the vantage point of one of the treatment stations. All of these perspectives are visited in the course of a unique album. There is a weightless and hushed quality to the sound, and a kind of surreal poignancy. (The brooding, transparent quality of Walter Prati's sound transformations, in particular, can make you feel like you're free-floating down the empty avenues of De Chirico's metaphysical paintings.)
I was especially glad to have aspects of Paul Lytton's playing - what he calls the "automatic writing" or anti-technical aspects of his drumming - back in the picture. Some grit and grainy texture amid the reverberant sheen is also important. Where Lytton had been on standard drums in most playing contexts of the previous decade, "Toward The Margins" reintroduced his amorphous scrapheap kit as well as some of the wayward unpredictability of the old duo with Parker. Parker himself and Barry Guy were as consistently amazing as I expected them to be, but I wasn't prepared for the variety of ideas that Philipp Wachsmann brought to the project. I'd never heard him project as much emotional feeling as he does on the "Margins" disc and that was just one part of his contribution. Through all the subsequent recording sessions with the Ensemble, Wachsmann, despite his self-effacing manner and his moments of self-doubt, has unquestionably been the most resilient improviser of them all (I have the outtakes to prove it!). Beyond a few characteristic gestures (the rasping bow that seeks to negate the lyrical moment), he rarely repeats himself and, no matter how weird the sound environments become, he finds his place, absorbs the strangeness and makes art out of it. He understands the processes of sound transformation so well and has an uncanny sense for appropriate responses.
In 1997, Wachsmann and Lytton made an album for ECM, "Some Other Season", which I'd have to regard as another personal Desert Island or Lonely Planet choice. The decision to spotlight these two players came directly out of the "Margins" work and I think of the recording as part of the continuing Electro-Acoustic Experience. But it is just the two of them - Paul with three trestle-tables piled with percussion, scrap metal and buckets of water, plus his trusty electronic frame and "very prehistoric" ring modulator, and Phil with his violin, viola, and digital processing tools, computer strings, MIDI devices - bouncing sounds and ideas off each other. There's a strange lurching almost-swing by way of a pulse, a distant hint of early jazz, that comes and goes throughout the disc. If it's possible to be friendly and radical at the same time, this record is. It was taped in Winterthur, using analog equipment which seemed to contribute to its warm aura.
Meawhile, Evan Parker had been working intensively with Lawrence Casserley. One of the pioneers of electronic music in Britain, Casserley had given his first electro-acoustic concerts already in 1969. In his duo collaborations with Evan, he proposed the most extreme treatments of the Parker sax to date, often obliterating completely the acoustic tone of the soprano. Evan loved this, and brought Lawrence into the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble for the album "Drawn Inward" (whose palindromic title was borrowed from an essay on Christian mysticism by dom Silvester Houédard). With Casserley's arrival, the internal dynamics of the band changed completely. Lawrence redesigned the electronic rig for the Parker band, and on "Drawn Inward", it was possible for any of the processing musicians - up to four of them at a given moment - to take sound from any other player at any time. The whole "machine of the group", as Wachsmann called it, accelerated. Everything was more manoueverable, and also more complicated. And no one was faster than Casserley, drumming on the pads of his Signal Processing Workstation like a scientific congalero, on his way to becoming a bona fide soloist inside the ensemble.
Throughout "Drawn Inward" the balance of electronic and acoustic forces is continually realigned. On two pieces, the title track and "Spirit in Sky", Evan's acoustic soprano is banked by what sounds almost like a chamber orchestra - the strings of Barry Guy and Phillipp Wachsmann heavily treated by Cassserley, Prati and Vecchi. Celebrating the 30th aniversary of Parker/Lytton collaborations, Evan dusted off the khène, a South Asian reed instrument comprised of bamboo pipes, like the "ethnic" instruments he sometimes played in the duo's early days. Back then Parker would sometimes thicken the live mix by integrating cassete recordings of earlier concerts. With this in mind I proposed using a tape of the "Towards The Margins" release concert (in Milan a year earlier) as part of the backdrop of a new piece, "Collect Calls". Why not? It was just a matter of sampled sound coming back for reappraisal after a longer delay than usual. It was "in the tradition", and, unlike the pop guys, we weren't outsourcing for material.
Evan Parker subsequently made the use of pre-recorded material one of the almost subliminal threads running through his commission from the Huddersfield and Ultima Festivals: "Memory/Vision", a composition subtitled "Staring Into The Time Cone". Recorded in Oslo in 2002, with music taken from soundchecks and rehearsals as well as from the premiere concert, it was again quite different from its predecessors.
On "Toward The Margins" and "Drawn Inward" the production process had itself been highly improvisational, a matter of listening to available material and following its implications. Although Evan Parker didn't actually finish the score of "Memory/Vision" until more than a year after the recording of it (!), he had a much clearer idea of what he was after than on the previous discs, vigorously conducting the band through rehearsals, giving much more attention to the shape of the piece than to his own playing.
The band had grown again - with the addition of Agustí Fernandez, brilliant Barcelonan pianist, and yet another sound transformation man, American computer musician Joel Ryan, who had already toured Japan in a pocket version of the group, the Electro-Acoustic Quartet, with Parker, Lytton and Casserley (album due soon on Evan's psi label).
There was some good-humoured dissent in the ranks about the need for such massed electronic forces. Paul Lytton realistically pointed out that with four treatment stations (and sometimes five) now targeting his kit, he could hit a gong and go for coffee, leaving them to it. But the roles were changing. To keep chaos at bay, the larger group needed more direction, hence Parker's conductional input. Marco Vecchi still intervened in the transformative processes, but was increasingly responsible for sound projection, maintaining an overview of the whole ensemble sound and the balance of electronic and acoustic elements, especially in concert. Lawrence Casserley, following his own muse, seemed to be favouring furiously scribbled white-noise in his treatments. Sometimes, when we soloed his channels on the mixing board, he sounded like Sonny Sharrock.
Joel Ryan is a very subtle sound colourist using sensitively realized gradations of light and shade in electro-acoustic sound transformations that seem to gleam and glimmer. If you want a painterly analogy, he is like a Klee to Casserley's Pollock. I felt he brought a lot to "Memory/Vision", contributing to the splendid architecture of sound that is this band's unique achievement, in which you can hear - and in the best moments almost see - not only the interweaving of instrumental lines but the meshing and intermingling of the very harmonics themselves. All bathed in the radiant glow - like cathedral light - of overlapping, ever-changing, and mutating reverbs. In these moments the music merits the epithet "visionary".
But these notes began outdoors, in the rain, let's end them there, too The CD release of "Memory/Vision" was baptised with a concert outside the Museo d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea at Rovereto in Italy, last October. A big concrete space with the sound whirling around a circle of loudspeakers. A very difficult space to play and very cold. Scattered on benches, groups of Italian listeners huddled together for protection against the gathering wind. Philipp Wachsmann abandoned the filigree phrasing of his opening statement in the first "region" of Parker's composition to riff fiercely and angrily and the sound bounced off the concrete walls, inspiring the rest of the ensemble to play with similarly aggressive vigour. Ryan's treatments of Lytton marked a crescendo. At the apex of this wave of sound a thunderstorm broke out. Great flashes of forked lightning in the sky. Thunderclaps were picked up by the sampling microphones, and Casserley, Ryan and Prati began incorporating the storm in the group interplay, tossing it back and forth between them. Simultaneously, Kjell Bjorgeengen had his interactive video running, responsive to the music in real time. Storms of images on the video screens, storms in the music, storms in the sky. Finally, a group that could embrace and contain the very elements... In that moment, and in such austere conditions, the potential of Evan Parker's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble seemed limitless.
It's been a privilege to have been able to monitor the group's progress so closely over the last decade. I'm looking forward to what comes next.