Some thoughts on a history of improvised music in Europe
With this lecture I would like to talk about the developments in improvisation mainly with acoustic instruments since the beginning of the 1960ies. Some motives and conclusions of the musicians who were involved will be illustrated by some facts and musical examples.
The beginning of an european improvised music development was very much influenced by the afro-american free-jazz movement in the USA around 1960. The beginning was carried by individuals mainly from a non-academic musical, sometimes non-musical background. Musicians who found a way to express themselves through music based on improvisation, did this of course in many different ways. Influential for the style of improvisation was and is the individual musical environment which builds the personal interest in music or models in music over the years.
Peter Niklas Wilson and Bert Noglik, were two important german writers on the history of improvised music. Bert Noglik wrote in his book ‘Klangspuren’ about several impulses for the developement of an european identified improvised music.
Impulses such as – seven examples:
1) in the early 1960ies improvisation in american jazztradition began to stuck and free jazz florished. The new soundspectrum of players like John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman,or Albert Ayler of course also influenced european musicians.
2) Some musicians combined the sound language of the US american free jazz players with european compositional methods. They were inspired by materials and compositions of composers such as Stockhausen, Cage, Berio, Xenakis, Messiaen, Lutoslawski, Pendercki, Kagel, Ligeti or Webern because of the similarities of the used material. It is interesting that Pierre Boulez said about Anton von Webern’s work: “He gave back the meaning to the sound”. To connect the sound language of US american free jazz with the mentioned composers was a major step in the development of an european identified improvised music.
3) some musicians broke with the american free jazz improvisation style, because they got aware of an european heritage in improvisation f.i. improvisation in Baroque and Renaissance music.
4) musicians in Great Britain started to work on non-ideomatic music based on free improvisation
We are still talking about the impulses for the developement of an european identified improvised music
5) european musicians critizised the american jazz educational tool imitation, they set more value on authenticity
6) the interest of european musicians in different musical traditions based on improvisation increased
f.i. the interest in indian or oriental music styles
7) last but not least there was a discussion amongst european free improvising musicians, how much they see themselves related to the jazz tradition in the USA
All these issues inlfuenced the developement of an european identified improvised music.
In the mid 1960ies small ensembles like the british ‘AMM’ or ‘Joseph Holbrook’ worked on the combination of improvised and composed music. At these times the term ‘instant composition’ was created to describe the situation when a compositional idea is immediately realised within an improvisatoinal context.
End of the 1960ies larger ensembles for improvised music working on the combination of improvised and composed music gained more popularity (such as): Alexander von Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity Orchestra, Misha Mengelberg’s Instant Composers Pool Orchestra, Tony Oxley’s Drum Workshop Orchestra, Barry Guy’s London Jazz Composers Orchestra or the London Improvisers Orchestra.
The sounds of electronic instruments developed in the 50ies and 60ies (f.i. Buchla or Moog) were an additional inspiration for the musicians to work on new structures of sound.
Now I would like to mention some notes on european geographical developments – five examples:
1) Wuppertal, – a small town in the coal-mining region of Western-Germany got famous as one of the cradles of europe’s development in improvised music. Peter Kowald and Peter Brötzmann started their collaboration in 1960/61, performing there every Monday at the same club – two to five listeners were the audience in the beginning.
2) In Eastern-Germany musicians like Conrad Bauer, Ernst Ludwig Petrowsky or Günter Sommer started to play free jazz mid of the 1960ies. In the 1970ies they developed a vivid community of improvising musicians within the country and collaborations with musicians from Poland and Hungary started, followed by invitations from musicians all over Europe. The invitations from western countries made it possibility for the musicians, to leave Eastern Germany and to travel, which was very difficult at these times.
3) In Russia the Ensemble ‘Archangelsk’ made their living by playing dance music for the guests of hotels. Archangelsk is the name of a city at the White Sea, close to Scandinavia. At the end of such parties they sometimes played free improvised music. Beeing more or less isolated from the other musicians in Europe or the USA, they developed over twenty years a very personal style in eclectic improvisation.
4) Hungary composer and pianist György Szabadosz was one of the key figures in terms of combining composed and improvised music with local/’ethnic’ music. In the 1950ies he started to listen to jazz music via radio broadcasts from the USA and started beginning of the 1960’ies to play his own style of free improvised music mostly independently from the improvised music movement in the USA and Europe.
5) South African ensembles like the ‘Blue Notes’ with Christ McGregor, Louis Moholo, Johnny Diyani, Mongezi Feza and Dudu Pukwana or bassist Harry Miller were invited to play in Europe beginning/mid of the 1960ies. The ‘Blue Notes’ were a modern jazz ensemble with african and white musicians. This was not legal in South Africa at these times. Though they were appreciated by the audience in South Africa, they decided to migrate from Apartheid Sout-Africa to England / London where some of them became requested partners of european and american musicians in improvisational contexts.
Now again in general:
From the mid 1960ies on one can see two streams of development in free improvisation in Europe:
On the one hand were the group of musicans following the U.S. free-jazz movement. To name a few:
in Germany Peter Kowald, Peter Brötzmann, Sven-Ake-Johannson, Günter Sommer, in The Netherlands Han Bennink, Misha Mengelberg, Willem Breuker, in Belgium Fred van. Hove, in Switzerland Irene Schweizer.
The other group were musicians following a non ideomatic path from the brithish islands like Derek Bailey, Tony Oxley, Keith Rowe, Evan Parker, Gavin Bryars, John Stevens.
These two streams could also be described as
– a european continental stream following the traditional sound of the instruments, the traditional melodical musical syntax of jazz and free jazz
– the stream of musicians from the british islands working more on new playing techniques of the
instruments, non-ideomatic music.
And now lets come to some remarks on the 1970ies, 80ies and 90ies:
In the 1970ies improvised music got wider recognition by being more and more involved in regular jazz festivals with musicians from Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Poland, France and Great Britain. This attracted listeners of jazz music. So also festivals for exclusively free improvised music found more interest and audience.
The new listeners produced a new need for communication. New magazines, radio-shows and institutional ressources were generated and so an additional small market could be established, which garanteed a small financial income for few people involved.
End of the 1970ies and in the 1980ies some of the musicians from the 1960ies established their names as trade-marks in terms of content and recognition, mostly still not in terms of earning money. Especially Wuppertal and musicians from the Brithish Islands could establish themselves as key figures. Connected to this fact is the question how the efforts and benefits are shared among musicians, organizers, journalists and the music industrial infrastructure since then.
The organizers in the 1980ies saw an increasing interest in musicians from formerly communist Europe (f.i. the Ganelin Trio from Russia, Zbignev Seifert from Poland, György Szabadosz from Hungary). Also the combination of local/ethnic music and free improvisation gained more interest.
The 1990ies brought the Personal Computer/LapTop as a new instrument, showing new possibilities and techniques in sound production. Since a few years the performances of only LapTop players, formerly highly appreciated at festivals for improvised music decreased, partly because of a lack of performance. In the meantime performers use the LapTop more as a supporting tool, as an extension for acoustic or electro-acoustic sound generators.
From my point of view at present there is a tendency of standardizing the improvisational musical material.
Improvised music still is not very popular in Europe, though some european states support improvised music – f.e. the music industry and government in Norway and Sweden put a certain amount of money in the development of a creative music infrastructure in the last 15 years. This model succeeded in establishing a more or less new brand of creative music. The improvising musicians in Great Britain were active not only in musical terms, they also worked and established Europe’s best infrastructures for improvised music. Unfortunately many musicians in improvised music stay unknown – but those unknown musicians are building a communication and interaction infrastructure like f.i. in Great Britain. Some musicians are working within local and international web based networks to stay more independent from the established infrastructure of the flow of information in the music bussines.
Let me come to an end with some thoughts on the significance of improvised music:
Free improvised music would not have been attractive till present times if it could not prove as a lasting versatile tool for a common exploration of different musical visions. Derek Bailey, one of Europe’s most influential improvisers once said: “You can approach the unknown with method and compass but not with a map”. Improvised music is still developed as a method and a compass that enables musicians to exchange ideas within different social-, cultural and musical-educational backgrounds. Further it was and is a diplomatic tool for international understanding.
For me the most interesting musicians were always those who communicated an existential need to play this kind of music; musicians who shared their experiences and motivations as a part of their social environment.
One of the beautiful things about improvised music is that it can be played by everybody and it can be a very helpful tool to create interest in the unknown and a responsable and emanzipative society. And this could be the basis for a prosperous community of beeing on this planet.
Thank you for your attention.