FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004

FMP CD 106

Markus Müller



Since the beginning of the seventies and, on this point, the original source material is not so clear-cut, the Schlippenbach trio has been playing in the line-up Alexander von Schlippenbach (piano), Evan Parker (saxophones) and Paul Lovens (drums, percussion and singing saw). The first published recording of the trio is, without dispute, „Pakistani Pomade“ (FMP 0110) from November 1972. In the following period, the trio was repeatedly extended to a quartet with two bass players. This resulted in „Three Nails Left“ (FMP 0210, 1974/75) and „The Hidden Peak“ (FMP 0410, 1977) with Peter Kowald and „Das Hohe Lied“ (Po Torch PTR/JWD 16&17, 1981) and „Anticlockwise“ (FMP 1020, 1982) with Alan Silva. The double album „Detto fra di noi“ (Po Torch/JWD 10&11, 1982) is from that same year, pure trio, recorded in Pisa, which has developed from an insider tip to a milestone in the trio’s reception.

Until then, according to statements of the musicians themselves, the trio was just one important project amongst others. Alexander von Schlippenbach has been playing (and still plays) in a duo with Sven Ake Johansson since 1976 and has been leading the Globe Unity Orchestra since 1973, Evan Parker had played in various groups with Derek Bailey since 1966, in a duo with Paul Lytton since 1971 and with the London Jazz Composers‘ Orchestra since 1972, among innumerable other projects. Paul Lovens had played in the various VARIO formations with Günter Christmann and in a duo with Paul Lytton, together with whom he ran their own label, Po Torch, since 1976. Until 1988, however, Lovens stood in the shadows of the attention the public paid to the spiritus rector Schlippenbach and the ingenious saxophone player Parker.

This only changed in 1988, the year which has to be seen as a key event not only regarding the acceptance of Paul Lovens but also in the history of improvised music (the European version in particular) in general. In 1988, Cecil Taylor played eleven concerts in Berlin, organised by FMP and documented through the by now legendary CD-Box. The argument over authenticity which had been going on up until then, and which today can be regarded historically, as to whether European Improvisation was only a stepchild of the black American mother and would ever be able to play for its rights to equal recognition, went up in music. From June 17 to July 17 1988, Taylor played not only completely different but also some of the best music of his career and he played it together with Europeans, and he did it with the Dream Team of European Improvisation (Schlippenbach, as, for example, Misha Mengelberg and Irène Schweizer, did not take part for reasons unknown to me but which probably suggest themselves.

The Taylor-box made Cecil Taylor a world star who was suddenly celebrated by the mainstream media, as well. And it emancipated the Europeans who, until this point, had all too often been relegated back to their origins in that strange style of historicism in music. Paul Lovens was one of the five percussionists with whom Taylor improvised in 1988 and subsequent to this concert, throughout the 90’s, Lovens was recognised by the critics and the audience alike as THE prototype of the discriminating and listening percussionist.

Commentaries regarding Modern Music

In May 1990, the Schlippenbach trio went into the studio to record (for the first time since 1972), „Elf Bagatellen“ (FMP CD 27). The CD caused a further, maybe even more fundamental paradigm switch within improvised music as did the aforementioned Taylor banquet. Until then, Derek Bailey’s dictum prevailed in Improvised music, more or less unspoken, who, in 1976, on the occasion of the first „Company“ concert, had written: „For some time it has seemed to me that the most interesting results in free improvisation come from semi-ad hoc groupings of musicians ...“. This means that Bailey proceeds from the fact that musicians who improvise together spontaneously and for the first time achieve „better“ results (?). In addition, since the early seventies, Bailey had regarded recording, i.e. the freezing and the subsequent publishing of the process of Improvisation as uninteresting and absurd by definition. With that, he established, in the best sense, questionable criteria for the authenticity and originality of music which resemble a further, double-folded continuation of Wagner’s Hegelian doctrine of „Zukunftsmusik“. It was Wagner who united the historicistic belief in progress and evolution that the 19th century was so intensively involved with, together with the genius religion of the Romanticists and who made himself out to be the main example of a genius derided by the masses but worshipped by the wise.

In contrast to Bailey’s basic considerations, „Elf Bagatellen“ presents an ensemble which had, after all, known each other a good 18 years and which used recording techniques and the studio for the production of their CD, in order to introduce, in the best sense, new formats into the „German“ version of Improvisation. Thus, „Elf Bagatellen“ reflected the moment in the sense of a one to one reproduction but it presented, quite consciously, short pieces.

In opposition to the charge that Improvisation always only and exclusively presents the extended course of playing, like 20–30 minute long distance races with redundant dynamic twists and turns and extended, egocentric, self-mirroring solos, the trio transformed the instant into a very precise, concentrated moment which, for the uninitiated from the world of Webernesque “Bagatellen”, had to be composed, i.e. set in advance. The resolve and unanimity which the „organic flow of playing, concentration, energy, etc“ allows you to perceive (thanks to Paul Lovens who opened a new chapter for me here which made an essential contribution to my understanding of the music), gained a level which before had seemed unimaginable in improvised music, that is, had not been perceived in the reception of the music.
These two qualities, of continuity and of power of precision changed everything and, in particular, the reception of Improvisation. „Suddenly“ continuity became an important criterion of Improvisation and the Schlippenbach Trio was declared to be THE most important ensemble in Improvisation by the critics because of its continuity.

The precision (taken for granted in the classical world or in the pop music industry) of the „Bagatellen“ became further proof for the extra class of the trio. Thus, the elitarian ivory tower of the super-authentic originality (and especially because everything was documented authentically) was taken to a new quality. The music was laid out in such a manner that the possibilities of its perception extended and done in such a way that it could simply be enormous fun just listening to it. I would go as far as to say that the „Bagatellen“ first made it possible to really experience Improvisation without any limitations.

Schlippenbach, Parker, Lovens: Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

After the „Bagatellen“, there were two more live recordings, „Physics“ (FMP CD 50, 1991) and „50th Birthday Party“ (it was the party in honour of Evan Parker, Leo CD LR212/213, 1994). Today, the Schlippenbach Trio, after 27 years and (only) five (!!!!!) CDs in the „original line-up“, is the most fascinating, surprising and greatest group in Improvised music. This has to do with the previously mentioned continuity; at least, the longevity of these musical intersubjective relations is the obvious (and the only non-metaphysical one we can imagine) explanation for the density, the openness, the speed, the assurance, the complexity, the logic and the unmistakability of the playing of the three colleagues. They have developed a methodology of making music over the years and one aspect of this methodology is that they don’t play together all the time, that is not every day. Generally, the trio meets once a year for a tour and then you are so keen on playing together that with such a foundation of trust you re-invent yourself, again and again.

Listening to “Complete Combustion” you notice, first of all, that you hear more music than ever before although or rather because the trio plays less. Less in the sense that the musical tension in the time develops above all from the fact that each of the three obviously knows exactly when and what not to play. “Berlin” makes ‘silence’ the fourth ensemble member and all of them play with this silence in such a way that the three players who have so perfected their own voices anyway (anybody who ever listened to any one of them would recognise him immediately) have pushed forward the vision of the crystallisation process “ ... in which, through constant smelting, distillation, refinement and polishing the desired hardening and purification of the material can be achieved ... ” (Schlippenbach) to the extent that the silence becomes a very specific silence. The Schlippenbach trio does not only make its own, unmistakable music, it even has its own silence. And since this ensemble is the only one which, within the framework of its work, has achieved this kind of silence (the compositions of Morton Feldmann show similar results based on entirely different starting points) one is inclined to think back on, once again, the 27 years this trio has been ‘chopping wood’.

One or other of the listeners may be familiar with one or other detail of the trio-methodology. Here, the material of this methodology is being redrafted. “(Berlin)”, like many concerts of this trio begins with Evan Parker playing throaty tenor saxophone. Held back. Droplets of piano and muffled drums sketch out a restrained torque. They speed up, condense energy, the trio takes up speed and immediately finds itself in a transparent duo between Schlippenbach and Parker. Out of this duo immediately develops a trio again where all three vigorously touch up the sound colours, reaccelerate and lead into a duo of Parker and Lovens. This is followed by the first, strongly expressive, soft trio piece: after only 15 minutes you have heard the universe. Since 1972, the dynamic spectrum of the trio has developed unbelievably - loud and silent, different tempos in a permanent state of change, flow into each other organically. Is it because of me or because of the trio that it sounds as if the variations in loudness, the increase in density and dissipation are the expression of one and the same energy?

After 30 minutes Parker, after a Schlippenbach Solo with fantastic pedal technique, changes over to soprano and the band develops an almost 30-minute post-Webern, Japanese meditation about the void, pause, the silence between sounds, like objects in space, orientating themselves in respect of each other.

Translation: Isabel Seeberg & Paul Lytton

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