Thursday, June 24, 2010

AMM | every noise has its note

keith rowe's guitar rolled out over jackson pollock's lavender mist x 3. montage by ib.

I stumble into a crash-course introduction to AMMMusic not through any intellectual aspiration to po-faced theory, but through a far more immediate appreciation of El Syd's Pink Floyd and the visceral living walls of Paul Jackson Pollock. I am slow witted and often require a prompt.

From the outset, let it be said, Rob Chapman's hugely illuminating addition to the mountain of words bandied over Syd Barrett, "A Very Irregular Head", throws out some unique perspective; probably the most painstakingly researched and unadorned document on the Floyd I have ever come across. You may be familiar with Chapman as one-time vocalist in the first incarnation of Bristol based punk outfit Glaxo Babies, or through his contributions to Mojo magazine; not least his 5,000 word obiturary for Syd in 2006.

Twelve-years-old when Barrett's preliminary excursions into otherwordliness - through an all too brief reign of singles - transported him to a realm only hinted at previously, the ambition to catalogue the missing parts to the jigsaw has infected Chapman for more than forty years.

The story of Syd Barrett and the band he coined needs no embellishment, but given the proliferation of so many received inaccuracies the record screams to be set straight.

A former contributor to Terrapin before it went into hibernation, the sheer weight of detail Chapman unearths in pursuit of that end is astonishing. Almost securing an interview with Barrett in 1971, his best intentions came unstuck when Syd promptly set down the phone and left him dangling there for the next thirty minutes. Chapman may have hung up then, but he refused to let go.

That surviving members of Pink Floyd refused to grant him postmortem access is largely irrelevant.

Where Chapman scores heavily is in not just joining those dots that connect Barrett's childhood in Cambridge to his migration to Camberbwell Art College and Ladbroke Grove and back, but in setting out the vivid recollections of those with whom he came into contact. Observations both casual and intimate. While their memories of him prove indelible, neither was he the centre of their universe. Or they his. For the vast majority, the Pink Floyd phenomenom was merely the popular adjunct to a more entrenched underground which very nearly succeeded in overturning the status quo for a few weeks between 1967 and 70.

Or not, as some are equally keen to protest.

And that is where AMMMusic enters stage left. The fruit of a deconstructionist movement led by English artist, Keith Rowe and Eddie Prévost.

W11, London in 1966 was a Dickensian wasteland of slum tenements and bricked up shop fronts. A "plague spot" and "a square mile of squalor" itching to be concreted over in the trend to establish whole sections of flyover and motorway, most notably the Westway, ten years later immortalized by The Clash.

A Peter Rachman haunted warren of woeful rented rooms referred to by whites as "The Gate" or "Rotting Hill"; "The Grove" by its vocal Afro-Caribbean population.

It was here that The Notting Hill Free School was established, a politically motivated experiment partly rooted in Alexander Trocchi's "The Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds". And here - between the comings and goings of Kate Heliczer; R. D. Laing; and sundry activists - that AMM sought to employ the same precedents in making music that visual artists like Pollock pulled out the hat in moving painting away from the easel and its static window.

If there was magic in evidence, there was a bucketload of perspiration too.

Rowe's singular vision in deconstructing the traditional guitar in response to Pollock's laying the canvas directly on the floor clearly had an impact on Barrett. Between March 1966 and February 1967, Chapman records, AMM played "several significant gigs with Pink Floyd": the 'Spontaneous Underground' events at the Marquee Club in Wardour Street, and performances at All Saints Hall in the heart of Notting Hill.

The Spontaeous Underground was a series of Sunday afternoon events staged by Steve Stollman, brother to the Bernard Stollman who founded ESP-Disk in New York, home to Ornette Coleman and Pharaoh Sanders; crow's-nest to The Fugs, The Godz and the great Sun Ra.

Rob Chapman's "Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head" ? Buy a copy if you can. Decamp to the nearest public library if you can't; before the very concept of public lending, too, becomes a distant curiosity.

The original LP - the sole release on Peter Jenner's DNA label - comprises just two pieces, spread over each side: "Later During a Flaming Riviera Sunset" and "After Rapidly Circling the Plaza". The following piece is one of six related experimental segments recorded during the same sessions in 1966, unreleased, so far as I can gather, until the CD repackage was made available through ReR Megacorp in 1989.


Keith Rowe: electric guitar, transistor radio;
Eddie Prévost: drums, xylophone, bells, cymbals;
Lou Gare: tenor saxophone, violin'
Cornelius Cardew: piano, cello, transistor radio;
Lawrence Sheaff: celo, accordion, clarinet, transistor radio.

Recorded at Sound Techniques, London.
Produced by John 'Hoppy' Hopkins; Peter Jenner; Ron Atkins; Alan Beckett.



m4sk22 said...

When I was an art student the college invited Keith Rowe in to do a demo of his prepared guitar, I had never heard of him and AMM, it was an ear opening event that was lifechanging in many ways, I shut my eyes and tripped out to his sounds. He was very giving in the Q&A afterwards and incredibly encouraging. This meeting really provoked in me the idea that music and painting are the same thing in some ways and I decided that any paintings I did after that would have the same fleeting quality, they would be loud or painfully quiet as necessary, but most importantly they would never be still and frozen. I stopped making paintings for walls and started seeing the process as product. This also introduced me to Cornelius Cardew and his graphic scores..wondrous stuff!

ib said...

I am vaguely humbled that util very recently AMM remained an unmined seam. To me at least. It was only through reading Chapman's account that I connected the dots.

It's heartening to learn that Keith Rowe was so encouraging. Students, too, can be unbelievably unforthcoming in these Q&As. From what I remember.

When I was a teenage art student there was precious little serious attempt to promote the correlation between making noise and marks. A lot of things were consigned to boxes. The foundation was fine, with a genuine opportunity to move between disciplines, but two years in I found myself quite dismayed to find I had not only painted myself into a corner but swapped brush and twig for a Rotring Pen and Letraset back catalogue.

The trend toward specialization, I feel, is fraught with peril.