AMM are a pioneering force in the realm of British experimentalism, a collective unit that has inspired the work of avant-garde guitarist Derek Bailey, composers Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman, and producer Brian Eno, among others. Over the years, such notables as percussionist Christopher Hobbs, composer and educator Christian Wolff, cellist Rohan de Saram, saxophonist Evan Parker, and clarinetist Ian Mitchell have participated in the creation of AMM music. The current lineup—percussionist Eddie Prévost, pianist John Tilbury, and guitarist/radio player Keith Rowe—has played together since 1980, crafting a sound that resonates on a much grander scale than most other trios.
Defying categorization, the group’s improvisational music includes such styles and instrumentation as minimalism, prepared piano, altered electric guitar (achieved by bowing strings or inserting foreign objects), and even the transistor radio and other electronic gizmos. For nearly 40 years, the members of AMM have devoted their lives to creating what drummer Prévost calls “meta-music.” As explained by Magnet magazine contributor Bill Meyer, “Meta-music is process-oriented improvised music that swaps fixed compositions and hierarchical social structures for a ceaseless, collective exploration of sound itself.”
Founded in London in 1965 by Prévost, Rowe, and saxophonist Lou Gare, AMM from the onset adopted avant-garde jazz and classical forms as the underlying elements of their music. All three had prior experience playing in jazz bands. “Keith Rowe and myself were two of the founding members,” Prévost recalled to Boston Globe correspondent Bob Blumenthal. “As young men, we started playing emulative jazz, then moved from that. We were aware of people like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, then extended them into other musicians we learned about, like John Cage and [Karlheinz] Stockhausen. What we took from Ornette Coleman was the right to disobey.” The origin and meaning of the band’s acronym remains a mystery, known only to the members themselves. “We prefer that people come to understand AMM by what the music is,” Prévost explained to Blumenthal.
Soon after its formation, the trio was joined for a short time by bassist Lawrence Sheaff, who also played cello, accordion, clarinet, and transistor radio. In 1966 the lineup was completed with composer, multi-instrumentalist, and best-known member of AMM, Cornelius Cardew, on cello and piano. Previously, he had worked with Stockhausen, but he had rejected the composer’s autocratic methods.
Instead, Cardew favored music that left the decision-making up to the players, and in support of his notion of individualism, he composed “Treatise.” While looking for musicians willing to play the 193 pages of lines open to interpretation, he met and subsequently joined AMM. Around the same time, Cardew also established the Scratch Orchestra, a collective of composers and improvisers of no great skill. It was his belief that, as with primitive societies, anyone could become a musician.
That same year, the group recorded its first album, AMMMusic. Several months afterwards, Sheaff left AMM, ceasing to make music his profession. In 1968 the group—with the addition of percussionist Christopher Hobbs, a composition student of Cardew’s at the Royal Academy of Music—returned with The Crypt 12th June, which many consider a masterpiece in experimentation. “To ears informed by the twenty-first century, it’s the uncanny feeling of listening to three-and-a-half decades of experimental music history as delivered in a chillingly prescient sort of reverse premonition,” wrote Joe Panzer for the online publication Stylus Magazine. Also in 1968, American composer Christian Wolff temporarily joined the group during his sabbatical year in Great Britain. This period additionally saw John Tilbury occasionally playing with the ensemble when Cardew could not be present.
For the first two years of the 1970s, AMM remained the quartet of Cardew, Gare, Prévost, and Rowe until a fracture in the group occurred in 1972. This left AMM primarily a duo of Gare and Prévost, as both Cardew and Rowe opted out of improvisational work. Gare and Prévost spent the next few years, until around 1975, performing weekly with Evan Parker and Paul Lytton (in their respective duos with various guests) at a venue called East Action in London. These performances
Members include Eddie Prévost (born in 1942), percussion; Keith Rowe (born in 1940), guitar, radio; John Tilbury (born in 1936), piano. Former members include Cornelius Cardew (born in 1936; died in 1981), composition, cello, piano; Lou Gare (born in 1939), saxophone; Lawrence Sheaff (born in 1940), cello, accordion.
Group formed in London, England, 1965; recorded AMMMusic, 1966; recorded The Crypt 12th June, 1967; worked with composer Christian Wolff, 1968; performed and recorded as a trio, 1980–; recorded Irma —An Opera by Tom Phillips, 1988; recorded Newfoundland, 1992; released thirtieth anniversary set Laminai, 1994; recorded Tunes without Measure or End, 2000.
Addresses: Record company —Matchless Recordings, 2 Shetlock’s Cottages, Matching Tye, Harlow, Essex CM17 OQR, England, website: http://www.matchlessrecordings.com.
ultimately led to Gare and Prévost joining the London Musicians ’ Cooperative. The pair also released a new AMM album, 1975’s To Hear and Back Again.
In 1976 AMM attempted to reunite through sessions with Gare, Prévost, Cardew, and Rowe. However, both Gare and Cardew decided not to continue with the project. Thus, Rowe and Prévost continued as a duo, recording the 1979 album It Had Been an Ordinary Enough Day in Pueblo, Colorado, until 1980, when they asked John Tilbury to join AMM on a permanent basis. A formally trained pianist, Tilbury has been a dedicated performer of contemporary music since the late 1960s. In addition to performing and recording with AMM and as a soloist, he has worked with numerous composers, including Cardew, Wolff, David Bedford, Howard Skimpton, Dave Smith, Michael Parsons, John White, Morton Feldman, John Cage, and Terry Riley.
From 1980 onward, AMM has remained a stable and prolific unit, releasing albums over the years such as Generative Themes, Combine + Laminates + Treatise ’84, and The Inexhaustible Document, with cellist Rohan de Saram. Irma—An Opera by Tom Phillips was recorded in 1988 with various soloists. Gare also returned for 1989 and 1990, resulting in the release of The Nameless Uncarved Block, recorded live in Zurich. The atmospheric Newfoundland, considered one of AMM’s finest efforts, was another live album from 1992.
Following the release of Live in Allentown USA, recorded at the Muhlenber College Arts Center Recital Hall, AMM released a thirtieth anniversary set titled Laminai. The three discs contain historical concert performances recorded in Aarhus, Denmark, in 1969, London in 1982, and New York City in 1994. Featured participants include Cardew, Gare, Hobbs, Prévost, Rowe, and Tilbury. Next came another live album from a 1996 concert at Rice University in Houston, Texas, called Before Driving to the Chapel We Took Coffee with Rick and Jennifer Reed.
AMM’s next album, Tunes without Measure or End, appeared four years later, in 2000. It was recorded in Glasgow, Scotland, and features a single, continuous 58-minute piece. Another single-piece album, Fine, recorded at a 2001 concert with dancer Fine Kwiat-kowski at the Musique Action festival in Vendoeuvre-les-Nancy, France, proved that the trio had lost none of its vision or experimental inclination over the years.
“All three of them probably represent what is most rigorous, most precise in free improvisation,” concluded the French publication La Monde, as quoted by the group’s label, Matchless Recordings. “The slightest gesture, the least musical act demonstrates a conviction, and involvement, a certitude from which all effect, cliché, crutches have been erased. They know how to surprise themselves just like the first day they played. Their music can only be a renewal, a witness to the intense pleasure that they find in clearing the territory again and again.”
AMMMusic, ReR Megacorp/Matchless, 1966.
The Crypt 12th June, Matchless, 1968.
AMM at the Roundhouse (EP), Incus, 1972.
To Hear and Back Again, Matchless, 1975.
It Had Been an Ordinary Enough Day in Pueblo, Colorado, ECM, 1979.
Generative Themes, Matchless, 1983.
Combine + Laminates + Treatise ’84, Matchless, 1984.
The Inexhaustible Document,, Matchless, 1984.
Irma —An Opera by Tom Phillips, Matchless, 1988.
The Nameless Uncarved Block, Matchless, 1990.
Newfoundland, Matchless, 1992.
(Various artists) Vandoevre, Virgin, 1993.
Live in Allentown USA, Matchless, 1994.
Laminal, Matchless, 1994.
From a Strange Place, PSF, 1995.
Before Driving to the Chapel We Took Coffee with Rick and Jennifer Reed, Matchless, 1996.
Tunes without Measure or End, Matchless, 2000.
Fine, Matchless, 2001.
Boston Globe, October 13, 2000, p. C15.
Los Angeles Times, April 25, 1996, p. 3.
Magnet, September/October 2001, p. 39.
New York Times, May 7, 2000; May 2, 2001.
“AMM,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 19, 2002).
“AMM,” European Free Improvisation Pages, http://www.shef.ac.uk/misc/rec/ps/efi/marnm.html (November 22, 2002).
“AMM,” Forced Exposure, http://www.forcedexposure.com/artists/amm.html (November 22, 2002).
“AMM,” MusicWeb, http://www.musicweb.uk.net/encyclopaedia/a/A67.HTM (November 22, 2002).
“AMM,” Stylus Magazine, http://www.stylusmagazine.com/musicreviews/amm-the_crypt_12th_june_1968_the_complete_session.shtml (November 22, 2002).
“Feedback: Mothers of Invention,” Baltimore City Paper Online, http://www.citypaper.com/2001-04-25/feedback2.html (January 22, 2003).
Matchless Recordings, http://www.matchlessrecordings.com (November 22, 2002).
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