Monday, February 27, 2017

Spontaneous Music Ensemble - 1995 - Summer 1967

Spontaneous Music Ensemble 
Summer 1967

01. Listening Together 1 4:41
02. Listening Together 2 8:41
03. Listening Together 3 4:44
04. Listening Together 4 4:26
05. Listening Together 5 7:18
06. First Cousins 14:38
07. Second Cousins 11:15
08. Echo Chamber Music 1 5:05
09. Echo Chamber Music 2 3:04
10. Echo Chamber Music 3 2:12

Double Bass – Peter Kowald (tracks: 6, 7)
Percussion – John Stevens
Soprano Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone – Evan Parker

All analogue recordings made in London
1-5: 1967 August 16
6-7: 1967 August 1 (?). Recorded at Les Cousins coffee bar.
8-10: 1967 September 17

LOOKING BACK. I interviewed EVAN PARKER in 1997 for the magazine Opprobrium, and asked him if he found playing with the SME restrictive at all.

I didn't feel particularly restrained. I felt a lot of what John was talking about, or the kind of method, such as there was one, was based on several quite simple rules: (1) if you can't hear somebody else you are playing too loud, and (2) if what you are doing does not, at regular intervals, make reference to what you are hearing other people do, you might as well not be playing in the group. I mean I've put it in my own language, but those were maybe the two most important lessons that John wanted people to learn when they played with SME. And so there was what you can call a compositional aesthetic which required musicians to work with those two kind of rules or ideals in mind.

A CONTEMPORANEOUS VIEW. The following review of an SME (John Stevens & Evan Parker) performance at the Little Theatre Club in London, was written by VICTOR SCHONFIELD in 1967 September. It was first published in the 1968 January 11 edition of Down Beat, and is reprinted with permission.

Stevens began presenting free improvisation sessions several nights a week at this club nearly two years ago. Since then, the club and the various editions of his Spontaneous Music Ensemble have been the focal points of the new freedom in Britain. The SME does not employ themes, frameworks for improvisations, regular tempos, or passages where a single player dominates, and melodies are of the a- or pan-tonal kind one would expect.

The current group was formed some months ago, and has been concerned with eliminating not just dominant individual contributions but individual parts as such. Each man plays responses to the other's work rather than his own and seems careful to avoid either imposing his own pattern on the music or using the other's playing as a background for a self-contained, self-expressing statement.

Both Stevens' and Parker's phrases are short and asymmetrical in themselves as well as by comparison with the phrases before and after, and although Stevens' rests are far briefer than Parker's, the two parts overlap in such a way that neither can be isolated and studied for long.

The surface of the SME's music is austere and varies little from moment to moment or piece to piece, the pieces being roughly 15 minutes of sound and silence, defined by longer silences, during which the musicians stop listening to each other. The noise-level rarely rises above moderate, and the textures of short-noted phrases are sparse and lucid.

Stevens has a marvellous facility for coining successive contrasting figures, each with its clear and lively speed, shape, and melodic colour. Currently, however, he intersperses these with less-defined equally spaced or eddying rolls, which do not move to a new part of the kit with each stroke, so that his work has calm, as well as nervous activity.

In addition to a fairly conventional grouping of drums and cymbals, his kit includes a stand to which are attached bongos, cowbells, and small cymbals in rows of four, and also a gong that, when given a slow tattoo, yields a sound in which three pitches are prominent at once.

Stevens often places his sounds in contexts that give them an explicit pitch, and his attention to detail (fine shadings of dynamics and timbre, different cycles of growth and decay, all from one basic sound) is exquisite.

Parker's style is unique, and I find it harder to describe than any other conception I have heard in the new music. His sound is flinty and rather staccato; variations of character between notes are restricted in range; his rhythms are fitful, and his melodies suggest a minor key. The outline of every phrase is both forbidding and similar to every other phrase, yet neither of these factors seems to be the key to his music.

The temptation is to say that his work is immature, or maybe a case of discontinuous improvising within preposterously narrow boundaries. The fact that inexperienced listeners hear every new player like this, plus the unmistakable purity and individuality of his work, makes me certain that any serious listener must persevere with Parker just the same.

Parker and Stevens seemed to break through to a deeper level of hearing, where a sound was not set against other sounds but rather against the silence around it, so that one gained heightened awareness of its growth and decay, its special colour, and of the vibrant stillness in which it took place. The outward sign of this was not silence itself, but very quiet sounds, sounds that were not cut off but allowed to decompose in their own way, in their own time, before being replaced.


Early in 1967, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) (1966-1994) was a septet comprised of Kenny Wheeler, Paul Rutherford, Trevor Watts, Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Barry Guy and John Stevens. They mainly used compositional frameworks and much instrumental doubling to make music with a large variety of colours, but had already moved a long way from the world of jazz in which they had started. On their recordings (issued in 1997 for the first time as WITHDRAWAL on Emanem 4020), Parker's presence is hardly noticed - he says he felt overawed in such company.

During the spring of that year, Stevens took over as sole leader, and instigated a change of direction towards a conversational type of free improvisation which put everyone on an equal footing. The emphasis was for each musician to listen to the contributions of the others rather than concentrate on their on their own playing - the antithesis of most of the then (and now) prevailing trends in music. This required Stevens to move from a conventional drum kit to a quieter collection of small drums and cymbals and other percussion - allowing other instruments to be able to converse on the same level.

Not all the other musicians immediately went along with this change of direction, and by the start of the summer the only full time members of the SME were Stevens and Parker, with Wheeler and/or Bailey added from time to time. In the autumn, Barre Phillips (on an extended stay in London) was often added, and in the winter, Dave Holland joined in, resulting in what was the second published SME recording - KARYOBIN (reissued on Chronoscope CD CPE2001-2

This disc contains the only known recordings of the duo of John Stevens (1940-1994) and Evan Parker (b. 1944) made during the nine months or so they were a trailblazing working duo. They subsequently made excellent duo records for Ogun in 1976 and 1993 - but that is another story. The first duo session here is superb in both contents and sound (albeit in mono). The second is a concert recording with ghastly echo, but the music manages to shine through.

The trio session with Peter Kowald (b. 1944), who was in London for a short vacation, was recorded at Les Cousins coffee bar. It also suffers somewhat, this time from an imperfect recording of the bass, and from a noisy audience. What were they talking about? Was it really more important than the music? Again, one has to live with these defects in order to hear the only known recordings of this significant meeting - the occasion being the first time the three played together.

1 comment: