Thursday, 7 May 2009

Insect improv

Spontaneous Music Ensemble played improvised avant-garde music for almost thirty years, and never once played the same track twice. Formed by John Stevens and Trevor Watts in the mid-60’s, the SME were initially inspired by free jazz but had a great interest in other art forms at the outer edges of the artistic spectrum, and this showed in their gleefully unconventional, occasionally chaotic approach to performing and recording.

Operating as a collective, the SME boasted some serious musicians in its membership, with UK jazz names like Evan Parker, Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland and Norma Winstone all passing through the ranks, attracted by the concept and, presumably, the lack of rehearsal required.

John Stevens (the mainspring of the project: the SME ceased on his death in 1994) had, apparently, only two rules: don’t play too loud, and make sure you come back to what the rest of the group are doing once in a while. Sometimes scoffed at as being ‘scrape and squeak' music, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble take a typically British approach to freaking out, with the classic SME sound characterised by its space, i.e. passages of wild solo and collective music playing punctuated by quietude; breathing room for the musicians to regroup, shuffle about, sip tea and decide what to do next.

The SME recorded several LP’s, thereby providing the listener with the interesting experience of being able to listen to a live, improvised, unique and never to be repeated performance over and over again. The track ‘Oliv I’ (presented here in an edited form), with its trio of ethereal sounding female vocalists, has a strong folk element and, although the term ‘creepy Wickerman vibe’ has become a bit of an catch all alt-cliché, it seems, for once, appropriate to use in this context.

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