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Spontaneous Music Ensemble - A New Distance

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Artist: Spontaneous Music Ensemble

Album: A New Distance

Label: Emanem

Review date: Jul. 11, 2005


Hereís an extremely significant reissue from a label whose catalog is full of important historical documents. Active under the supervision of seminal drummer John Stevens from 1966-1994, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, especially the early í70s incarnation, was a formative influence on Emanem frontman Martin Davidson; they were among the first groups to be issued under this fledgling imprint in 1974, and Davidson has issued/reissued a dozen titles since the labelís reactivation in 1995. Best described in a 1980 lecture by Evan Parker as "atomistic" music, the SME aesthetic is certainly not limited to the detached "serialist" taps, trills and pointalisms of post-Webernian dialogue; in fact, the group vocabulary can shift intergesturally with surprising speed and jaw-dropping drama from sparse interjections to passages of all-encompassing inter-registral drone. The two-volume Quintessence, featuring Derek Bailey and Evan Parker in a 1973 SME formation, is a perfect starting point for the uninitiated, not to mention one of the most beautiful improv sets Iíve heard.

Recorded mainly in 1994, A New Distance isnít far behind, due in large part to the multi-timbral saxophone wizardry of John Butcher, whoíd joined the group two years earlier, and to Roger Smithís hushed but poignant guitar work. Distanceís sound is slightly bolder than that of the long-lived strings/percussion Coombes-Smith-Stevens lineup, documented on Low Profile and Hot and Cold Heroes. While not on Quintessence level, communication often seems telepathic, and "Tape Delight" presents a nice way into this unitís M.O. Stevens does not so much play as rustle, breathe and clatter, and his "SME kit" of various percussion instruments is in full effect here, as is his pocket trumpet during several wonderfully droney passages. Smith and Butcher rewrite pages from Baileyís and Parkerís respective books, having fully assimilated and transformed their genre-defining rhetoric. There are breathtaking moments of rapport, a two-note motive stated by one and immediately bandied back by the other, or a flowingly sustained Butcher tone complimented by Smithís rhythmically plucked exclamations. "Stig" presents these devices en mass and on a larger scale. Particularly noteworthy is Butcherís use of multiphonics, a technique he does not merely employ but transcends, sometimes getting four and five notes out in a single controlled utterance and at a prodigious rate.

Keeping Stevensí spoken intro to "Stig" was a wise decision, and this reissue adds more of his trademark observations, delivered in a disarmingly frank but lecturing manner. These give the music, some of the last SME recorded before Stevensí death in September of 1994, the philosophical support and clarity with which it was infused from its conception. It is clear that the bitterness Stevens expresses at "the direction that societyís gone in" did not dim the joy he derived from musical interaction. Joy and energy abound throughout the disc, sometimes peppered with moments of absurdity, such as the end of "Stig" where Iíd swear his drum kit falls over. This is wonderful music and a fitting conclusion to a long and innovative legacy.

By Marc Medwin

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