Percussionist Eddie Prevost has been a prominent figure in UK improvised music since the mid-1960s when he was a member of the group AMM. This group quickly jettisoned the legacy of free jazz and concentrated on experimental techniques of sound production using both conventional and electronic instruments. In 1966 composer Cornelius Cardew joined the group and helped give the group a higher profile than many of the more ‘ghettoised’ Little Theatre Club musicians at that time grouped around John Stevens. Since the mid-seventies he has also led a quartet whose music is jazz-inspired free improvisation and plays in a number of other groups. In addition to his work as a drummer Prevost is interested in theorising the role improvised music as a social and political force. He has written several essays and articles presenting his views. In The Aesthetic Priority of Improvisation he stressed the specificity of free improvisation to industrial societies and characterises it as, ‘the reflection of the legitimate aspirations of people who want to live free from the irrelevant and irrational dictates of the market society,’ arguing, ‘in choosing our art we choose a model for life’. The interview was recorded on 30th October 1987.
Clearly the sources of free improvisation are, in a way, socio-economic. If you find you have even the time to think about these things it presupposes you’ve got the wealth, relative though that may be, to do it. I think in the late 1950s and early 1960s – in Britain anyway – people clearly did have more freedom. Maybe they didn’t have ‘Freedom’ but they had more of it than they’d had before; more time to think, more education, more liberation than their parents had – on a working class level anyway. Because of that there was more exposure to diverse and exotic things… music, ideas in general. I mean, the ’60s are bound in that whole myriad of exotica; things were being thrust at you day after day. It’s bewildering really to think about it. That was a very exciting, albeit superficial, time to live through.
I would argue that the strength of the improvisation movement in the 1960s was precisely because it came from the non-established sector of music making; it was basically something, which came from people with quite ordinary backgrounds. The traditional way for a musician who was serious about music, up until the late ’50s was to play jazz of course. After all, what other serious music was there as an alternative to classical music? There wasn’t any; there was the whole dreadful area of pop music, which didn’t even have the vitality of the youth culture which came in the late ’50s and early ’60s with Buddy Holly and Richie Valence and all that stuff. I think people of my generation, though they were quite young when the youth popular music thing began, still couldn’t take it that seriously and so they tended to get involved with jazz. Jazz was a way to make a serious non-established kind of music, you know, you studied your music and had quite serious thoughts about it. Even though you might feign some kind of street-wise persona people were certainly very serious about what they were doing. But up until this whole plethora of ideas which was floating around it didn’t really to occur to many of the British jazzers – and this is obviously hindsight speaking – that much of the music that they played, much of the music they emulated, was very kind of provincial in response, they were always aping. I don’t mean that in a pejorative way, I should use ’emulation’ as a more respectful description. They were emulating what they perceived to be happening in New York, for example, via the record primarily. And so we were always a bit behind, and always weren’t as good as, and the response was always second hand.
I might be wrong about this but I would have thought that that was the situation until the mid ’60s, until ensembles like SME, Josef Holbrooke, Music Improvisation Company and I suppose AMM. In Britain these were the first breakaways from the models that had gone before. Even the Mike Westbrook Orchestra were still very wedded to the Charlie Mingus/Duke Ellington tradition – alright, John Surman might have been quite influenced by Albert Ayler, but it was still emulative, using that as a model to go from. That emulative stream still went on, and that, and I do mean this pejoratively, provincial response still goes on. In the ’60s people semi-felt that it was wrong to be speaking in a voice that was really an echo of another culture, another land and another time.
We used to live in Bermondsey as a kid and when I went to school I was interested in music. And their response to me, it was an old grammar school, when I asked to play music was, ‘Have you got a piano or a violin?’ That was like asking to go to the moon or something, it was impossible, financially there was just no chance. So they said, ‘Well, I’m afraid you can’t have music lessons’. So I was already alienated to music because they wouldn’t let me in the door, they slammed it in my face. So what I had to do was to join the boy scouts to get in the band. I mean that’s what you do when you’re a 12 year old and there’s no other way.
I had a schoolmate whose parents were rather more affluent than the rest of us and he had a record collection, which had some jazz in it. It was Sidney Bechet I heard first, and then when I got into my later teens I got more interested in the Hard Bop school, the early Blue Note stuff, and all that. It was all records, the only band that had an actual physical influence on me, who I used to go and hear amongst the British jazzers, the only group who I have to admit really had something, was the Jazz Couriers with Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott. A very strong band, very powerful. But as I got to about 18 I co-led a hard bop band and I had a review, which described me as the Art Blakey of Brixton! And it was quite a salutary piece of criticism to have because it sort of made me stop… like I was uneasy… I saw it and thought, ‘There’s something not right about this’. I didn’t know what it was, but it was the first inkling I had that it couldn’t be quite right. Art Blakey was a black American and… I mean I’ve rationalised it since, obviously. I’ve recognised that he had certain kinds of experiences and it couldn’t be transposed so easily to Brixton 20 or so years after, with my life experiences. I mean I didn’t rationalise it, I didn’t think about it like that then. In that band there was a tenor player called Lou Gare who also happened to be in the Westbrook Orchestra – this is all anecdotal not the kind of stuff you want but – in that band was also (guitarist) Keith Rowe. And almost inevitably, because of the way Keith was disturbing the inner rhythms of the Westbrook Orchestra, the three of us plus their bass player at the time started making our own music. There were some bitter elements to that really, which are rather sad… ostensibly Keith was poles apart, he did not fit into the Orchestra as the Orchestra saw itself, or as Mike saw the Orchestra. He had at one point being compatible but there was a growing feeling of unease between them all and in the end he had to leave.
We did what most young musicians have to do which is try and find somewhere to play, which was as difficult then as it is now, I guess. Occasionally we played The Little Theatre club but it was a rarity for us really. We weren’t part of that regular turnover that occurred there… I think there were and are definite stylistic and aesthetic differences. So although one felt a certain kind of rapport it wasn’t the kind of rapport of people travelling on exactly the same line. We definitely were going in a slightly different direction and I think that meant, almost by definition, that the milieu in which we operated was also likely to be different too. Also, our performance area requirements were different. What we looked for, and found over a period of time was a regular venue that didn’t have a kind of normal musician/audience relationship. We played for a long time at the Royal College of Art, we just happened to get a room there, and there and other places that we found, we generally had long tenures, and we’d be there every week of more than once a week for a long period of time. There’d be no pieces as such, there’d be a long performance and people might actually stop and go out and come back into it again. They were very often done in the dark as well, in complete darkness. There was one (man), who ended up being one of the producers of our first record, and he would come along and almost invariably bring his blanket and cocoon himself in this blanket and just lie on the floor. Do you see what I mean? It was a different kind of ambience.
In the ’60s we were part of the intellectual main current I suspect. Though it didn’t seem like it at the time. There were lots of poets and writers who were very active in a kind of sub-cultural way, maybe they didn’t reach any great high profile in the public mind but they were very active. And there was a lot of openness. So maybe people would pick it up and put it down as quickly, but there was a sense that people were at least willing to examine this, for a while. That’s sadly less true today…
It’s still subcultural. Improvisation has been something which has run concurrently with other more dominant strata’s, in terms of artistic culture, the official culture. That sounds woolly… What I mean by that is if you think of the philosophies, or the musical ideologies, if you like, that prevailed in the ’60s, you’re thinking really of the modernist philosophy. The very monolithic, mathematical basis of serialism, for example, which claimed to be democratic because all the notes were equal! If you can believe that! If you think of that and then of post-modernism, which in many ways is very whimsical, very superficial and skin deep, it doesn’t fit into any of those. It continued to exist despite the intellectual climate that was prevalent when it was formed and it still manages to survive sub culturally despite the attacks on it as an idea. In effect in can survive because of its subcultural status.
And it is one of the very few things we have to hang on to really. The actual process of playing is one of the few areas where you can actually feel freedom. You can feel your being, you are allowed to be yourself and allowed to cooperative with people in a way that is infinitely preferable to the way you’re forced to cooperate and relate to other people in other forms of life. In that sense it’s a very precious experience to have. Certainly that’s why I would want to continue doing it. In this current climate it’s one of the few realms of sanity we’ve got left. It is continuing, it is prevailing, it is expanding.
In essence the reason, I suppose, that it has survived is because it’s got this inner-strength, a perpetual diversity. The thing, which worries me about the way jazz has gone, is that most jazz has become increasingly classicised. This has happened for all kinds of reasons, most of them to do with the way that the establishment, the market, has picked up certain identifiable models of jazz, examples of jazz, and said ‘we will propagate these because we can make money out of these’. This encourages that provincial response, to use a cliché, there is this Coltrane cloning going on. That model is so dominant that it became classical, young players picking up the model of John Coltrane and treating it as reverently, as classically, as they would do if they’d gone to a conservatory and being taught classical music. The ramshackle virtue of improvisation is that by definition it creates and allows plurality, by definition each player is expected to bring his own personality, his own being, his own modes of expression to the music. If anybody is quite clearly copying anyone else eyebrows are raised, you’re expected to try and become creative in you’re own way.
The thing that I like about it is that its warts-and-all, its the whole person. And that, that humanity, is what I enjoy. I like to see someone’s expression as much as possible. The richness of that, the diversity, the quirkiness of it. Most improvisers have many imperfections, in a sense it’s those imperfections, which, I suppose perversely, those of us who like improvised music, actually quite like and admire.
-No, I wouldn’t call myself a jazz-player. The older I get the less I understand what the word means. And I treat it with caution. I get angry when people claim for jazz things that I don’t want to accept as jazz. If jazz hasn’t got something related to your own time and place then it can’t be real. I just find that very emulative response to jazz is, in effect, anti-jazz, because I do think that unless the music relates to our own place and time then there’s something unreal about it. There are times where there have been paradigm shifts, the bebop thing is one. I think those things are important because they relate to the time and place and the politics of those people that made that kind of music. It is inevitably going to be an enfeebled version, which continues to play the form of that music without having the guts, the impetus, and the underlying features, which stimulated it in the first place. It’s inevitably going to be a diluted form in some way or another. I heard Branford Marsalis’s quartet recently and I think there’s no doubt that they play that music better than their fathers did. But at the same time there’s something missing, although they were very playful with it they weren’t experimental with it. They knew where the perimeters were and they played within them. They seemed to be able to do anything with those forms. But for their forefathers those perimeters weren’t set before, they were actually pushing out and feeling where they were, setting those perimeters, and that’s the difference in a way. And I think that process is really jazz… That’s what jazz is. Of course you can’t expect musicians with long careers to go on doing that, but I think you have every right to expect a young musicians to actually do a bit of that. It may be that you can’t make seminal leaps but at least you can expect to push, to refresh it. It is associated with one’s life and politics and if you have a responsibility to your community it is to somehow refresh your music and thereby give your whole community some kind of way of seeking out more freedoms and more… to liberate your whole society in a way. It is a small way of doing that.
Part of the problem we have is that we live in a psycho-linguistic world. Ideas, words… like we’re doing here, we’re trying to discuss, to describe a process which, by definition, doesn’t use any of these things. Much of the understanding – and this is where it gets embarrassing sometimes – is quite intuitive. Much of the understanding defies conceptualisation, indeed the reason you’re doing it is because you need to work through it to come to an understanding, which can later conceptualise. But at the same time I’m not very happy with the idea of somehow wanting to keep it kind of simplistic; the idea of being anti-explanation and wholly intuitive. Because I’m not a wholly intuitive being. Intuition is a very important part of my being, but my analytical processes are equally important. Sometimes in us all we get out of balance with one or the other, what we’re looking for is a happy medium between the two where one can engage the other and feed the other. I’m very unhappy with this idea that music somehow shouldn’t be explained, that’s stupid.
So the theory comes out of practice. It isn’t a manifesto. It doesn’t say, ‘this is what we want to achieve and this is perhaps a way of doing it,’ it says, ‘We’ve been doing this X amount of years and this is what it seems to me we’re up to’.
From my own experience the three things, which are most important in improvisation, are, the idea of dialogue, the idea of problem solving and the idea of transience. And transience is something that we can recognise perhaps as being something which reflects the informal way we approach both dialogue and problem solving. You’re not setting up some monolithic edifice because dialogue is something which is essentially mobile. When one has a conversation you don’t have the same conversation every time. You have different conversations but the process is still dialogue. In the same way with problem solving you don’t tackle the same problems every time you come to a problematic situation. Those three things seem to me to be the most fundamental things in improvisation. I’m sure there are other things but without those I don’t think you’ve got anything at all.
The moment you pick up your saxophone you have the problem of, ‘What do I do?’; that, in itself, is a problem. Then somebody next to you starts playing and you know that what is expected of you is to play together. So what is it you do? How do you respond to what he does? You are quite right if you say, ‘Well, the way I respond is intuitive,’ but it’s still a problem – it’s not a problem insofar as having ‘A Problem,’ but one of engaging with the world. Each time you engage with the world you decide to do one thing or another; that choice is problem solving. You either solve it in a relatively successful way or you choose a way which is unsuccessful. The degree of success is how you ultimately decide whether a performance is good or bad isn’t it? If it is meaningful in some way or other then presumably the problems have been assessed, approached and solved. You come away from a performance which is not successful, and this is as a player, and clearly you haven’t solved the problems then that’s what stimulates you to go on, I think. There are all kinds of problems, they’re psychological, they’re social, they’re certainly musical in terms of manipulative ability to express ideas and sounds. I mean they are manifold, there are all kinds of things really, the whole world is there. That’s what I find so intriguing about music, because it’s like a vehicle, like a ship, you can go to so many places. Music is about the last thing you’re really interested in when you’re involved in music!
Everybody must ultimately ask themselves, ‘Am I being fulfilled by this exercise?’. And that could mean being fulfilled in various ways – intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, do I feel better afterwards? Or worse afterwards? What have I got out of it? Have I learnt something? Am I disturbed by it? Disturbed in a creative way? Does it change my life in any way?
The third thing is dialogue. The practice isn’t fixed. In improvisation you are trying to discover the meaning of sound as if for the first time and you’re refreshing your sound-making capacity. But, in conjunction with that, it is fundamental that dialogue comes into play, because part of the material you are working with is in fact your relationship with other people who are making music. They are part of your environment, your social environment, your musical environment. Your dialogue is a very important ingredient because you have a responsibility not only to take but to give as well. The conversation itself becomes progressive because the problem with monologue is that it doesn’t have anything to bounce off. We have a conversation and my ideas shift because you throw up or push me into a direction I hadn’t thought about going up. It’s a progressive relationship.
The thing that characterises AMM is the stability of its personnel, because that has a pretty definite aesthetic course to follow, which does depend primarily on dialogue. Dialogue of a kind that demands deep understanding of the materials you’re using and the people you’re working with. Whereas there’s a sense that much of improvisation, and the relationships inherent in it, are quite ephemeral. Some people will make a virtue of that, and I can see a case for it, I can see a case for a constant change of personnel. Derek Bailey has built a philosophy on it. He used to say that he was more interested in what happens with musicians before they develop a common language, than what they do afterwards. Where’s AMM has been much more concerned with developing a common language and trying to make it as rich and expressive as possible. We’ve been concerned to build up a vocabulary and with refining it – much more so than merely… no, I don’t mean ‘merely’…much more so than finding constantly new things.
I’m saying that there is a set of rules. It’s no good Derek (Bailey) saying he doesn’t have any rules. Well, he can say that but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true. The very fact that I can recognise his playing from one occasion to another indicates to me that there is a set of rules. If it’s coherent there must be rules. There are rules; it’s a different set of rules. And a different set of rules relates to a different worldview. What we are proposing, whether we are doing it consciously or not, is a different worldview – and there has to be rules in a worldview. I’m not proposing anarchy, I don’t even believe that anarchy exists, there’s nothing in nature, which is anarchic, it always gravitates towards form eventually. The question is, ‘What form?’ and what we’re proposing, consciously or otherwise is a form, which in essence is completely different in its political and social implications from the form which classical music has perpetuated. And let’s have no illusions about it classical music is not apolitical, it’s very political indeed, and so is pop music. It’s actually proposing a particular kind of a world, whether we like it or not, even whether it denies it or not…
What’s communal about improvisation is the determination to work in this particular fashion together, and that’s the important thing, you know. That’s what people don’t understand communism is about. They see it as regimentation, everybody in line, all marching the same way. It doesn’t mean that at all. It clearly means that you work in an environment, which is supportive, which is engaging in the world in a supportive manner, which in fact liberates you individually, much more than you could possibly have in the fragmented competitive society, which we’re currently being encouraged to adopt. Because there you’re separated, you’re apart; you don’t know where you are in this world. These communal models are a way of finding out that you are. They’re ways of seeing where you fit in the world and they give you much more freedom than they do restrictions.
I think the music has a message about our time and about our life. It isn’t the message that says, ‘Oh, when we reach utopia everything’s gonna be lovely and cosy and comfortable’. It’s never going to be like that and one shouldn’t want it to be like that. There’s always going to be an edge, a kind of raw edge if you like, to experience. I mean, that’s the condition of man isn’t it? There’s always going to be the unknown there, and that’s the edge to creativity, that’s the edge to movement through evolution, whatever that might be.
-Yes, there’s certain idealism there, I can see that because we are talking about a world, which currently clearly doesn’t exist. Some people say that that AMM play the music that should be played all the time in the world they would like to exist. And I know what that means, although it’s a weird formulation. I know why it’s said.
What we’re posing… we’re having to reinvent many of the ideas which have been lost – purposefully lost, pushed into the dustbin – in order to sort of regroup ourselves and find our way back to a kind of human existence we feel is, must be, preferable to what seems to be dominating now. So, it seems to me that it’s a kind of reinvention. Or an attempt to reinvent a culture, which has been destroyed, or to replace a culture that has been destroyed, not harking back to a folk ethic. Folk music reflected a kind of social formulation, which existed for all kinds of reasons. We don’t live in that world anymore. But what we do live in is an impoverished kind of society. There are certain people within it that feel alienated from it Improvisation, to a large extent, is a means of finding a substitute, to reinvent, to build up again a new culture. It has that power; clearly it does have that power to do that. But it’s having to deal with two very entrenched, powerful monoliths who are concerned, consciously or otherwise, to keep things as they are, to keep people from having a culture which is based on a sense of what Marx called species being; where human beings can express themselves fully, reveal themselves fully. If people do all those things clearly our society as we know it will crumble. Clearly music does have a power, and that can be a power to change, there are so many examples in history right from Plato… Music is so powerful it’s capable of deadening; it has the power to be controlling, to put people to sleep, to discipline. But it also has the power to enervate.
I think I’ve run out of steam! Oh, but I’ll tell you what, You’ll have to fit this in… It’s to do with the contributions of relationships and your own perception of yourself and so on. One of the things that came out of the early period of our music was a common experience we had was that you would very often be playing and be… immersed in these kind of waves of sound. You’d be in the middle of it, consumed by it, and very often the common experience was that suddenly maybe you’d just identify one particular element and you’d wonder for a moment where it came from, ‘I wonder how that’s happening?’ often you would actually stop playing and suddenly realise it was you that was playing this thing you hadn’t recognised. And it was something we began quite consciously to encourage, that kind of… It sounds very trite in a way, but the ultimate was a very selfless kind of playing. You actually transcend your own contribution. It wouldn’t matter in a way if you were fulfilled or not, although in a sense that’s what you’re after, and you could actually get to the point where this happened. It was a very weird experience.
I don’t think it’s a loss of identity; it’s actually a different kind of identity.
(30th October 1987.)