In the middle 1980s, cultural theorist Homi Bhabha articulated the Third Space. Briefly, and as far as I understand it, it is an alternate possibility that opens up, unexpectedly, resulting from dialectical interaction of opposing forces. Let’s take jazz and classical music — and yes, these terms are themselves fraught with ideological peril. It is well known that in the middle 1960s, a group of jazz musicians, composers and visual artists formed an aggregate that went by the cryptic three-letter appellation AMM. The music that emerged on their 1966 debut inhabited a third space, shocking as it thwarted conventional practice and went a long way toward defining the sonic and timbral practices that, 30 years later, would be called electro-acoustic improvisation. Despite various personnel changes, most notably the unfortunate departure of guitarist Keith Rowe in 2004, the AMM method of music making has persisted with percussionist Edwin Prévost and pianist John Tilbury carrying the torch. They have released several fine albums in the past seven years, the last two being the best of the bunch.
Sounding Music is a live recording from the 2009 Freedom of the City festival in London. In addition to the two AMM stalwarts, cellist Ute Kanngieser and saxophonist John Butcher lent their unique visions to the occasion. Completing the lineup is kindred spirit Christian Wolff, this time playing piano, bass guitar and melodica. Though the single 51-minute track begins with a readily recognizable piano, the wonderful timbral blurring that is so much a part of AMM music soon manifests itself. Are we inside the piano, or is that Prévost’s tam-tam? Are those cello harmonics or Butcher’s trademark multiphonics? There are times when the music’s density approaches the seminal 1968 Crypt session, but just as often, the more introspective and spacious soundworlds of the late 1980s and early 1990s are invoked, rendering each instrument stark and clear against a backdrop of silence. The two extremes alternate in slow waves, accelerating in the final 10 minutes as the group achieves the most complete cohesion of the set.
The opening moments of Uncovered Correspondence, recorded in Poland at a performance in May 2010, demonstrate that the third space AMM generates can also have cultural implications. Tilbury’s prepared piano conjures shades of Javanese gamelan while harkening back to Cage’s experiments of the late 1930s. There’s a fair amount of silence in these three tracks — paragraphs, as they’re called — but proceedings can also get surprisingly dense. Listen to the bowed percussion and piano-innards rumbling in the third paragraph to see just how much noise this duo can bring. Contrast that mayhem with some of the most delicate sounds imaginable, courtesy of what I take to be Prévost’s bowed cymbals. Prévost manages to make a sort of variable tremolo during the sound’s decay, and I have no idea how that was accomplished; it works beautifully in relation to Tilbury’s tasteful sonorities, each sound given ample room to breathe.
AMM is as interesting and musically satisfying as ever in its latest incarnations. The explorative spirit continues, and the strength of these two releases bodes well for the group’s 45th year and beyond.