Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom [David Toop]

IMG_5363Musician, writer and improvisor, David Toop has written this most insightful book on the history of improvised music. The book, as one might expect, subverts any ready discourse on this area of sound and music culture. It is not authoritative, avoids chronology and skips from the author’s recollections – as a key figure of the experimental music scene since the 1970s – to cut up assemblages and portraits from other texts. At first it is a slow read and the initial pronouncements make it clear to the reader that this is not to be caught up in theory or ‘dogmas of improvisation’. The heart of the book is Toop’s admission that ‘I found myself increasingly fascinated by its (improvised music’s) ellusive origins and the way in which fundamental questions about the limits of freedom, control and self-organisation have been addressed by musicians and non-musicians of sharply contrasting backgrounds and philosophies.’

I met David Toop in late 2016 at Plymouth College of Art and Design, as he was about to give a talk to a gathering of students, staff and others. Toop spent an hour riffing and rambling around his wide interests, by his own admission with little preparation. A self-effacing man who like others of his generation (Peter Cusack, Steve Beresford) is softly spoken; has a quite intense energy and a complete dedication to his subject. We talked about the work of Paul Burwell and his impact on the experimental art scene and my own conviction that much of the UK’s experimental culture has been uncelebrated or indeed written about (Burwell in particular).

Toop’s book does to some large measure fill in and expand on experimental art in the UK since the 1960s. It makes important comments on the various tributaries that have contributed to live, experimental and sound art. He widens out and traverses across free jazz, electronic music, noise and computer generated sound genres. Familiar names fill the book and its interjections – Lester Young, Jimmy Giuffre, John Cage, Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. The book and author also flag up some common issues – where are the women in these movements? Why do these men gather silently and then begin to commune through the oddities of improvised sound? How can such activities be sustained without university tenure or poverty?

As a lesson in who did what and when, Into the Maelstrom expands on important but lesser known ‘groups’ and projects of the late sixties such as Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV) and AMM (it does stand for something but that is a secret). Toop gets into his stride by ‘chapter’ 8 fleshing out the problematic discourses and hierarchies between improvisors, composers, emerging technologies such as the Moog synthesiser and non-musical interlocutors. The author connects up the now familiar film scores of Ennio Morricone with the likes of Cornelius Cardew, Richard Teitlebaum and Aldo Clementi. All in all, this leads to the sweet spot in the sixties where everything led to everything else – pop, rock and experimental art giving way to other mutant forms, for example John Cale and the Velvet Underground, the recently departed Tony Conrad and the lesser know Alvin Curran. Toop’s point is that the textures of the 1960s took us from Ligeti’s Atmosphères all the way through to Jimi Hendrix.

The book also impresses upon us the political and viral aspect of music and its makers; with American experimental traditions coming from people like Cage, who in turn were influenced by European artists such as Marcel Duchamp. It also dips into what we now call ‘soft power’ – as cultural impact and political transformation began to use the leading edge of artistic experimentation in the 50s and 60s. Although not the focus of this book, Into the Maelstrom invites more consideration of artists as cultural agents and internationalists working across borders in the post Second World War and early Cold War period.

Toop approaches the distinction between visual art and its relationship to the individual artist, essential art object and the gallery. By contrast, as he asserts, music and sound movements shaped themselves around the collective and collectivisim, albeit that many were internecine or despotic by turn. From the many descriptions I have heard of the London Musicians Collective (formed 1975 and anachronous to this book) it seems to have been stocked with singular musicians who by their own admission were held together by some ‘strange force’ that if questioned would result in destruction. Going further, Toop points out that this collectivism in the 1960s was in fact a necessity and part of a DIY approach forced upon those who made work and wanted it to be distributed. Of course, we might argue that this was foundational in the punk movement in its early years as a consequence. I would go further and point out that these tightly synthesised actions in places like London, Berlin and New York were part of a wider distributed creative network that has made these places longer term sites of creative endeavour.

The impact of Zen Buddhism and its ‘masters’ also threads its way through contemporary music and art. Through Cage, it recombines two rivers (art and music) and then gives way to multiple streams. Toop promises us another book in one passage, connecting in to the experiments of AMM and their work ‘in the realm of nothing whatever’. The book thereby rescues moments from the author’s memory, to be reclaimed into the mainstream. And this is probably the main point of Into the Maelstrom, it is both well researched and serves to reconnect ideas and people for those interested in experimental art. Toop, reveals that many of AMM’s events took place against a backdrop of small audiences and in odd places, such as the London School of Economics.

Another well made point in the book is the process of immersion or submersion within musical and sound experiments. This, at a time where it is impossible to move (2017) without encountering a citation to ‘immersive art’. The train of thought leads us to the vital role of sound in sensory immersion and its relative abandonment in VR and AR projects. The book has jolted me into questioning how commercially available devices and artists working with them can work more from sound to picture (and not always the other way).

The book is at its most compelling in the portraits of guitarist Derek Bailey and the drummer John Stevens. Avoiding the sentimental, it plots the controlling nature of Stevens within Spontaneous Music Ensemble and the jobbing moments of Bailey’s extraordinary career from Opportunity Knocks to his work with Stevens as a member of SME. The book has the sub-heading ‘before 1970’, with the promised second book, so we don’t get the follow through with Bailey into Company, the ultimate improvisors co-op.

Toop alternates from these close in moments to more general observational ground. The colliding points of free music, late 1960s British zany humour, American jazz artists in Europe and the racial conflicts in the USA. Revealingly, many of the British improvisors spent time in the services – connecting discipline with indiscipline of course. Into the Maelstrom also plays an important part in tracking the social history surrounding improvised music, given that many of the protagonists have recently passed on (Coxhill, Bailey).

I enjoyed the blast at Joseph Beuys in the latter stages of the book, think ego of course, and the slightly disparaging comments when John and Yoko’s world touched into the underbelly of ‘real’ experimental art. The book ends with a recommittal and rehearsal of what will come in the next volume. I very much look forward to this, as my own personal journey was largely dictated as a teenager, watching Lol Coxhill and others perform in East Anglian fields in the late 1970s.

Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom (before 1970), David Toop.

Simon Poulter, July 2017