Collective Improvisation

While ‘collective improvisation’ is only one of many terms used to describe the music in this guide, it strikes me as a particularly useful genre designation, indicating as it does both the group nature of most all the music explored here, and its grounding in improvisation as both a practice and a broader ethos. While there’s some overlap with ‘free music’ and ‘free improvisation,’ the collective tends towards groupings of broader membership than the usual trio or quartet formations that populate those fields. What’s common to the music here, then, is a tendency toward subsuming the individual and the ego to the group effort, a tendency towards deploying multiple, oft-unexpected sound sources, and a kind of ‘considered wildness.’

Collective improvisation crystallised as a genre of sorts in the late sixties, thanks to the explorations of groups like AMM, MEV, and Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza. Several factors informed the music. Firstly, many of the players came out of jazz and had been unshackled by the explorations of African American free jazz, but wanted to push things in a different direction. Secondly, there was often an interface with modern composition (particularly the work and ideas of John Cage) and the academy. Thirdly, an interest in multimedia arts and performance was instructive – some groups featured performative aspects; a few included members of art groups like Fluxus.

The conflation of several technological developments helped, too – greater access to amplification, consumer electronics, and in-the-moment sound processing all had a part to play. The music was also often informed by engagements with what would, then, have been blithely called world music; there was also some interest in improvisation as a ‘natural’ form of folk expression. Groups like AMM and The Scratch Orchestra would also go through political ructions that indicated some broader thinking around socialist and communist perspectives.

So, there’s a lot going on around collective improvisation. That it would gather momentum in the late sixties and seventies suggests an allegiance with broader, counter-cultural movements too, from student protest to psychedelia, drug use and hippie consciousness. Indeed, AMM shared stages with the early Pink Floyd, and were a noted influence on Paul McCartney. But those broader mainstream-cultural interfaces seemed the exception, not the norm, and the music was left to stew, ferment, and develop new, curious ways to explore the limits of improvisatory, non-idiomatic freedom, for decades.

This guides features key albums from some of the most important groups in the field – AMM, MEV, Nuova Consonanza, The Scratch Orchestra – along with some lesser-known, but just as significant developments, an exemplar from the space where this music intersects with free jazz (The Art Ensemble), and some contemporaneous music that shares a spirit, or some membership, with collective improvisation ensembles.

Jon Dale

Silver Pyramid

Music Now Ensemble 1969
Silver Pyramid cover

Not quite an ‘offshoot’ of AMM but featuring most of the group’s members at the time, Silver Pyramid is an eighty-minute performance from the Music Now festival, based on an Eddie Prevost score that took the shape of the titular object and an accompanying, abstruse text. The details of who exactly played what are lost to time, though you can definitely hear the likes of Prevost, Keith Rowe, and Cornelius Cardew here. What’s most impressive is how startlingly contemporary this sounds, a gorgeous, low-level scrum of clatter and hum that you could easily mistake for an electro-acoustic improv set from the past ten years. It breathes more slowly than contemporaneous AMM recordings, and glows with warm embers of noise.

Recorded Live (July 13, 1976)

East Bionic Symphonia
Recorded Live (July 13, 1976) cover

After his second free music ensemble, Taj Mahal Travellers, disbanded, Takehisa Kosugi formed East Bionic Symphonia with some of his music students. As a classroom project, then, Recorded Live is a pretty staggering achievement. It’s a spacey, mesmerising trip, made all the more compelling for its being a formative experience for a number of artists who’d go on to be significant in the Japanese underground: Chie Mukai (of folk group Ché-SHIZU), guitar improviser Kazuo Imai, percussionist and keyboardist Masami Tada (of GAP and Marginal Consort), the late Yasushi Ozawa (once the bass player for Keiji Haino’s Fushitusha), are all present here. It may seem slight at first, but give Recorded Live the time it deserves, and it becomes an expansive, riveting listen, with simple sound encounters placed in a line, adjacent to each other, in near-perfect consort.

Astreja

Astreja
Astreja cover

Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina formed the Astreja ensemble in 1975, with fellow composer Victor Suslin; in an interview, Gubaidulina has noted the significance of free improvisation to Astreja, saying, “again and again I bless this sudden idea… we had of playing unwritten music. Now it is like air for me.” Exploring folk instruments from Central Asia at the beginning of their time together, Astreja would morph into one of the most curious free / collective improvisation outfits of their time. While their other two albums feature early nineties material, this 1994 release digs into the archives with recordings from 1977, 1980 and 1988. It’s a beautiful collection, rich with micro-incident, the music sensous and tactile; it rarely works up a sweat, and benefits from its restraint, though there’s an ever-present tension running throughout, the musicians attentive, ensuring these constructions never collapse.

The Music Improvisation Company

Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Christine Jeffrey, Hugh Davies, Jamie Muir
The Music Improvisation Company cover

The Music Improvisation Company was a quartet featuring some of the best jazz and improv players from the UK – Derek Bailey (guitar), Jamie Muir (percussion), Evan Parker (soprano saxophone) and Hugh Davies (electronics) – whose first album, on ECM, chimed with a shift in European free music towards a form of ‘non-idiomatic improvisation’ that feels loosely aligned, in both membership and outcome, with the aims of larger-scale collective improvisations. It’s bracing stuff, the kind of playing for which the word ‘pointillist’ might have been invented, though that undersells the dynamic range here, and on “Untitled No. II”, the quartet works up quite a head of steam. The interplay between Davies and Muir is particularly fascinating, as they seem to act like shadow spirits of Bailey and Parker’s jousting. Christine Jeffrey’s vocal contributions on two tracks, including some delirious explorations on “Untitled No. II,” are never less than compelling.

Another Evening At Logos 1974 79 81

Max Eastley, Derek Bailey, COUM Transmissions, Logos Ensemble, Feminist Improvising Group
Another Evening At Logos 1974 79 81 cover

While the entirety of this four-sided set is worth hearing, Another Evening At Logos is here, primarily, for being one of the only available documents of the brilliant Feminist Improvising Group (FIG), who were formed by Lindsay Cooper and Maggie Nicholes in 1977, and featured among their line-up such deeply inspiring figures as Irene Schweizer and Georgie Born. Tbe performance here was recorded at the IXth International Multi Media Festival in 1979, and has FIG at a particularly inspiring juncture, with multiple vocal improvisations weaving around each other as instruments careen and crash in spirited, playful ways. There’s a full-length cassette, too, which you can hear on YouTube, along with some other live recordings, but this is a great half-hour performance to get things started.

Musikautomatika

Musikautomatika
Musikautomatika cover

Musikautomatika were a Venezuelan trio who existed across the late seventies and eighties. Their three members all came from divergent fields – biologist Luis Levin, graphic designer Alvise Sachi, sound engineer Stefano Grammito, artist Gabriela Gamboa – but what they achieved with this intersection of early electronics, musical instruments, and everyday objects was fascinating. It feels like most everything here gets processed – mulched, at times – into hypnotic waves of electronic disturbance, and there’s a dizzying array of textures here that are smartly stacked into abstract sculptures. It’s a very artful take on collective / electro-acoustic improvisation that still leaves plenty of room for unexpected developments.

The Crypt: 12th June 1968

AMM
The Crypt: 12th June 1968 cover

While they’ve released albums that are perhaps more approachable and less imposing, The Crypt, by the most important early AMM line-up, has always felt like the motherlode. The expansiveness that the double LP format allows is perfect for AMM’s music, and over these four sides, they navigate terrain that, at times, borders the uninhabitable. More often, though, it’s compelling in its vividness, from the wild flux of noise that pours through “Like A Cloud Hanging In The Sky?” to the tightly wound etchings that flutter across “Coffin Nor Shelf.” It’s a remarkable document of deeply expressive music (in all its responsiveness and sublimity) being created before your very ears.

Karyōbin

Spontaneous Music Ensemble
Karyōbin cover

Another angle on collective improvisation are these renegades from the jazz tradition. In Spontaneous Music Ensemble, the players work in micro-gestures – it’s insectile, miniaturist improvisation that feels incrementally detailed, as though each musician is tickling the other’s instrument with a feather duster. All the players here were heavyweights of the field, from leader, drummer John Stevens, who’d downsized his kit so he could play more quietly, to guitarist Derek Bailey, saxophonist Evan Parker, trumpet player Kenny Wheeler, and double bass player Dave Holland. It was probably the dream line-up of SME, and Karyōbin still sounds like their lasting masterpiece for the way it crystallised new ways of playing together.

1967/68

The Art Ensemble
1967/68 cover

An invaluable box set that pulls together formative recordings by the Art Ensemble (of Chicago), showing the heady interface between free jazz and non-idiomatic improvisation in some of its earliest blossomings. It pulls together a number of key albums – Lester Bowie’s Numbers 1&2, Roscoe Mitchell’s Congliptious, and Roscoe Mitchell’s Art Ensemble’s Old/Quartet – and adds some rehearsal recordings where you can hear the musicians feeling out the parameters of what they would do in future decades. It sits sweetly alongside Mitchell’s pioneering Sound as an example of free jazz exploding its own tenuous boundaries, and you can hear, in the address of spatiality and dynamics, some of what the European musicians drew from American free jazz.

Just Music

Just Music
Just Music cover

Another album that proves that in the 1970s, ECM were a much broader church than the sterile landscapes the label tends to produce these days. Just Music was an outfit headed by the iconoclast’s iconoclast, Alfred Harth; the music here is creaky, unalloyed, full of surprising pivots and shattering dynamics, though a good deal of the music is also given over to muted abstractions that weave intricate threads of cellos and double bass as a hammock for disruptive blurts of trombone, tenor saxophone and clarinet, while Thomas Cremer’s drums regularly rouse the music from its slumber.

August 1974

Taj Mahal Travellers
August 1974 cover

This four-sided monolith is one of the most beautiful, seductive sets of collective improvisation out there. Taj Mahal Travellers was formed by Takehisa Kosugi (Group Ongaku / Fluxus) in 1969; over the half-decade or so, they toured the world, and recorded several fantastic albums that documented their unique take on free sound. They tended to play outdoors, and would subject their sounds to electronic processing, which made for a curious sense of dislocation; the way they allow their music slowly to accrete around several shifting layers of drones makes their music, perhaps, the most genuinely psychedelic of the collective improvisation / free music ensembles formed in the late sixties and seventies. August 1974 takes its sweet time in saying a few profound things in a string of long, slow statements.

Iskra Nckpa 1903

Iskra 1903
Iskra Nckpa 1903 cover

Iskra 1903 were a trio of Derek Bailey (guitar), Paul Rutherford (trombone, piano) and Barry Guy (bassist). It’s a tight line-up, but mighty in its collective energy, and the playing here approaches a kind of platonic ideal for free music – if such a thing could be said to exist, or would even be healthy for free music. The power here is in the mindmeld between participants, with Bailey and Guy repeatedly melting into each other, Guy’s strained arco passages tangling with Rutherford’s disruptive piano, or the latter’s trombone carving multi-angled shapes out of the ascetic air of London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts, where the sessions were recorded.

The Sound Pool

Musica Elettronica Viva
The Sound Pool cover

The Sound Pool dates from the first, wildest manifestation of Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV), a multi-headed hydra that included composers Fredrick Rzewski and Alvin Curran, free jazz saxophonist Steve Lacy, and many others. Based in Rome, they were a more anarchic and unpredictable proposition than peers like AMM (with whom they shared a split LP, Live Electronic Music Improvised, in 1970), clearly informed by the countercultural ideas of the time: student protest, happenings, hippie-dom. The Sound Pool sits alongside works like “Spacecraft” as one of their wildest recordings, its incipient mayhem, all wild, declamatory voices and floods of clanking, tapping percussion, disrupted by brass and wind instruments that yowl like mating calls.

The Great Learning

Cornelius Cardew, The Scratch Orchestra
The Great Learning cover

Formed by Cardew, along with fellow composers Michael Parsons and Howard Skempton, The Scratch Orchestra was a large-scale collective that worked from graphic scores and embraced the possibilities of improvisation; they were also, at least in part, politically engaged, forming a Scratch Ideology Group in the early seventies to further their studies of socialist texts. Works like The Great Learning enact their collectivist politics at the level of sound – on the a-side, great masses of chorus voices sailing out across rumbling, plosive drums; the b-side resolves to something calmer, and those massed voices skirl and bob around in a sea of sound. Somewhere in there, you might hear the formative rumblings of folks as diverse as David Jackman of Organum, or Brian Eno.

Music of Group Ongaku

Group Ongaku
Music of Group Ongaku cover

An early landmark in the history of collective musical improvisation as a genre of sorts, Group Ongaku was formed in the late fifties by six student composers at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts & Music. They only lasted for four years, but in that time the group, which included Fluxus member Takehisa Kosugi and future sound art pioneer Yasunao Tone, decentralised the roles of instrumentation and structure, making compelling free-sound experiments with unlikely objects (dishes, vacuum cleaner, etc.), tape, and a panoply of musical instruments drawn from the university’s ethnomusicology department. There’s an energy and deep curiosity in the exploration here that transcends the group’s grounding in academic composition, and the whole set feels remarkably prescient.

Begegnung in Baden-Baden

New Phonic Art
Begegnung in Baden-Baden cover

New Phonic Art were a German free music ensemble with ties to radical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Their membership included composer and trombonist Vinko Globokar and saxophonist Michel Portal – they were yet another group that featured composers and improvisers, something borne out by the hesitant, yet compelling music documented on Begegnung In Baden-Baden. It’s clear-headed without being particularly demonstrative; the percussive tinkerings from Jean-Pierre Drouet tend to drive things, with composer-instrumentalist Carlos Roqué Alsina’s keyboards colouring the sidelines with detail, while Portal and Globokar sound across the sonic mesh with clarinet, saxophone, trombone, oboe, and alphorn. They’d later be compiled on Deutsche Grammophon’s ‘Free Improvisation’ box set, along with Iskra 1903, and Wired, a trio featuring Krautrock producer extraordinaire Conny Plank.

No Record

The Nihilist Spasm Band
No Record cover

Canada’s Nihilist Spasm Band are one of the most joyous groups in free music, for the way they collapse all kinds of music – free jazz, improvisation, rock’n’roll, folk – into an ungainly yet thrilling stew of not-quite-noise. While they’re the obverse of the more studious side of collective improvisation, they share its drive towards of-the-moment exploration of human interaction; on No Record, the Nihilist Spasm Band’s first album of many, their riotous clatter takes guitar, bass, percussion, violin, kazoos, and more, and smelts them into a seasick clamour. There’s even a thudding, disassembled non-rock song here, “Dog Face Man” – the Nihilist Spasm Band, it seems, could do almost anything.

Improvisationen

Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza
Improvisationen cover

The second album by this Italian collective, who included Ennio Morricone in their membership, found the right home on Deutsche Grammophon. The balance of austerity and playfulness here is navigated well, with great gusts of trumpet and sweeps of low-level percussion (from library music legend Egisto Macchi) giving way to entwining wind instruments and wheezy cello; the improvisations here repeatedly recede into, and then erupt out of, near-silence, and there’s a poised, avant-classical air to the proceedings, which is unsurprising given Nuova Consonanza, under the guidance of Franco Evangelisti, was constituted by ‘composer-improvisers.’ Soon they’d bring in guitar and drums and get psychedelic with it, on 1970’s The Feed-Back, but Improvisationen is a particularly pure exploration of Nuova Consonanza’s original intentions.

Tokyo 1972

Teletopa
Tokyo 1972 cover

Teletopa were an Australian quartet formed by composer David Ahern, who’d spent some time studying with, and performing alongside, Cornelius Cardew in the late sixties. Though they only lasted for a few years, Teletopa are notable for being perhaps Australia’s first assay into collective, electro-acoustic improvisation (alongside the contemporaneous Sunday Ensemble). The two near-hour-long pieces on Tokyo 1972 are stunning in their range and resolve, with Ahern clear-sighted about what he wanted to achieve with Teletopa, though also open-minded enough to let the members articulate their own voices, even as they repeatedly were subsumed under the variegated thickets of foliage that make for the music here. It’s often quite spare, with bowed drones arcing out into the NHK Studios, where the sets were recorded, and rustling, striated tones edging nervily around the parameters of the space. Bracing, inspiring stuff.

Viaje

It
Viaje cover

Viaje is a curious album indeed. A collaboration between Argentinian composer Horacio Vaggione and Spanish multimedia artist and electroacoustician Eduardo Polonio, it builds on earlier encounters with live electro-acoustic music, such as Polonio’s involvement with the Alea Música Electrónica Libre collective. Recognisably ‘electronic’ in design, Viaje is a beautiful, unpredictable spiral of synths, organ, electric guitar and bass, with Vaggione and Polonio regularly letting loose a dense electronic slurry into the recording studio, a wild, delirious flux of noise. There’s something strange and inscrutable about Viaje, though; it’s a hard one accurately to parse, which is part of its magic, of course.