directed by JOHN STEVENS
1 - IN RELATIONSHIP TO SILENCE - 20:27
2 - SUSTAINED PIECE (instrumental) - 8:59
3 - SUSTAINED PIECE (vocal) - 5:47
4 - ONE-TWO - 10:42
5 - MOUTHPIECE - 24:03
All analogue concert recordings made in London by MARTIN DAVIDSON
1 - 1973 September 28 at the Little Theatre Club
2,3 - 1973 May 1 at the Almost Free Theatre
4 - 1973 July 1 at the ICA Theatre
5 - 1973 November 23 at Ealing Technical College
Total time 70:29
All previously unissued
In 1973, John Stevens was performing regularly at the Little Theatre Club in central London with the then duo Spontaneous Music Ensemble, and with a larger free improvising group called Free Space. He was also directing weekly workshops in both east London (Bethnal Green) and west London (Ealing). He asked the workshop members to come to the Theatre Club as well, and all these elements combined to become the Spontaneous Music Orchestra.
As I remember, there were usually about twenty to thirty people involved. However, the first piece on this CD seems to be by a smaller number, while the last seems to involve more. Unfortunately, I did not keep a record of who was involved; some participants have continued to perform in the London improvisation scene, whilst others ‘vanished’ without trace. Rather than name some certainties and guess at others, it seems best to leave the musicians anonymous - this is, after all, ensemble music. (It should be pointed out that Stevens himself is heard on cornet; he does not play percussion on any of these pieces.)
Stevens had been experimenting with large improvisation ensembles for several years, and always found different ways to organise them. His concepts were often more interesting than the end results, but what I have chosen here are performances that I, as a listener, find both interesting and enjoyable.
The first piece came out of silence and returned there, with Stevens asking the musicians to continuously relate to the silence. The music is a good example of the SME approach to improvising, with everyone relating to each other while leaving enough space for everyone else.
One of the most basic devices used was the Sustained Piece, in which everyone sustains a note for as long as they can breathe out, pauses to breathe in, and then sustains again, etc. Two examples are heard here, one instrumental and one vocal. On the first attempt that evening (not heard here) everyone played loudly. Stevens soon terminated this, since he pointed out that not everyone could be heard when everyone played loudly. Everyone can be heard on the two subsequent slowly-evolving drones included here.
One-Two is the piece on this CD that sounds most like a workshop exercise. This is actually similar to the duo piece Flower, which was the mainstay of SME performances around that time, based on a fixed beat. Alternating beats are designated ‘one’ and ‘two’. Performers can choose to play on one or the other. They can decide to stop playing on ‘their’ beat and start on the other, or they can drop out of this sequence for a while and play sustained notes. Each beat is thus played by an unpredictable combination of instruments, giving it a decidedly surprising aspect.
The instructions for Mouthpiece were for everyone to start with non-vocal mouth sounds, then to migrate in their own time to vocal sounds, and finally to instruments. The opening minutes feature some remarkable textures from the large group. The ensuing instrumental section becomes an all-out blast for a while (the only one on this CD), but then calms down to produce some more wonderful textures, before the opening sequence is loosely reversed to produce an unexpected ending.
This CD captures more of the many and varied aspects of the late John Stevens’ legacy, with his remarkable and fruitful conception of group improvisation.
MARTIN DAVIDSON (2000)
"MOUTHPIECE consists of five brilliant improvisations recorded in 1973 under the direction of SME/SMO leader John Stevens. In Relationship To Silence opens the program with a 20-plus minute survey of the various conversations possible between the musicians in attendance. Their banter resembles a 'sounding off' of voices and personalities that no doubt set the stage for future dialogues heard in subsequent improvisations. A fleeting but poignant electric guitar makes several declarations that add the perfect accent to the pert rhetoric of his horn-blowing comrades.
The following two tracks, Sustained Piece (instrumental) and Sustained Piece (vocal) , deliver the SMO to territories more commonly traversed by ensembles specialising in modern classical music. Although, there's always an argument to be made that the SME/SMO specialised in modern classical improvisation. The charge of the musicians on these two pieces was to hold a single note for as long as possible, pause to take a breath, and then continue with the note. The result of said direction is a beautiful meta-drone composed of many smaller drones of various pitches and durations. Sustained Piece (vocal) is particularly sumptuous and is not unlike the more ecclesiastical-sounding works of Florian Fricke.
The tide turns yet again on One-Two, a uniquely measured piece that has its participants playing on either of two fixed beats. Alternately, the musicians could choose to sit out for a period of time or play sustained notes. The end result is a very whimsical and buoyant number that always brings a smile to my face when I hear it.
The closing track, Mouthpiece, begins with the musicians making all sorts of non-vocal utterances, followed by more traditional vocal sounds, and finally onto the playing of their instruments. The ritualistic bent of the vocal passages brings to mind the communal transgression freakouts of Hermann Nitsch. That is until the horns start blowing and the group that I know as the SMO starts raising some hell. This is definitely the most raucous track of the bunch, and at just over 24 minutes in length, there's time and space enough for everyone t o do a little transgressing. For those of you who already know all about the Spontaneous Music Ensemble/Orchestra, you certainly don't need to pick up a copy of MOUTHPIECE because it sounds just like all of their other releases - remarkable and refreshingly different."
MIKE TROUCHON - OPPROBRIUM 2001
"John Stevens was a great drummer, a pioneer of improvised music and the godfather of contemporary community music. His mixed-ability workshops, and the performances that grew out of them, were exhilarating and served as a lasting inspiration to many. Label boss, Martin Davidson, being a completist and unsure of some of the contributors is unprepared to divulge any. It would be of historic significance to know if we are talking name players or workshop unknowns but in truth it¹s unimportant. He does, however, note that Stevens plays no drums here and restricts himself to cornet, his favoured workshop instrument. I have a fond memory of Stevens silencing a busy pub one afternoon while demonstrating to me, in a typically spontaneous moment, the new cornet he¹d acquired. Stevens was like that, a strange combination of intense sensitivity and larger than life bullishness. This album serves as a reminder of one side of his musical legacy and is a fascinating companion to his seminal workshop manual Search And Reflect, which remains a bible to many a 'community musician' to this day. Full credit to Emanem for this one."
GUS GARSIDE - RUBBERNECK 2000
"This recording provides another glimpse into the experimental musical mind of the late British percussionist/bandleader John Stevens. MOUTHPIECE finds Stevens directing a somewhat large sounding but unlisted workshop ensemble through a series of exercises intending to stimulate improvisations in a big band context. That being said, much of the music created by the Spontaneous Music Orchestra is of a rudimental, pleasantly raw, work-in-progress character. However, that does not pose much of a hindrance, as these pieces nonetheless take on a fascinating life of their own. As an example, this disc's two vocal pieces, the brief Sustained Piece (vocal) and the lengthy Mouthpiece are surprisingly effective, not to mention as creepy as any Ligeti composition. The instrumental pieces are of a more jolting, sometimes raucous temperament. In Relationship to Silence begins innocently enough with quiet notes and tones, but eventually builds into a howling structure that threatens to spill in several directions at any given moment, while One-Two is a perverse piece that asks the participants to choose their spot amongst a two-beat sequence to create a sometimes lopsided see-saw effect. Almost thirty years down the line folks are still trying to devise ways of shaping improvisations for large groups without squashing their spontaneity. Therefore, this recording offers further proof that Stevens was one of the earliest musicians to explore this course. That he did so in a sometimes effective, and usefully cacophonous manner this early on is all the more impressive."
JON MORGAN - SIGNAL TO NOISE 2000
"The Spontaneous Music Orchestra’s previous Emanem release, FOR YOU TO SHARE (EMANEM 4023), is an important document of two powerful performances from 1970, which I return to frequently. The disc at hand takes us forward to 1973, with four gigs under SMO leader John Stevens' directed “Almost Free Improvisation,” as it says on the File Under. The twenty minute In Relation To Silence asks the players to play just that. There is lots of space for trumpet blow, mouthpiece breath, sustained notes, random percussion, and other interactions with each other and silence. It is interesting piece, but not a great one. Still, I’m glad to have it. There is one instrumental Sustained Piece and one vocal. Both are drones. My favourite cut is the excellent One-Two, a playful, jaunty clip-clop piece where the musicians are directed to play or stop sustained or single notes on one of two beats. The results are wonderful. The twenty-four minute closer, Mouthpiece, starts with non-vocal mouth sounds, then vocal, then instruments. It starts of a bit slow, but gains momentum and ultimately is very exciting with some wonderful textures. It slowly fragments and fades, with pounding and claps added to the sounds and vocal shushes, blurring the division between audience and performer. Fans like me will want all the SME and SMO discs. Everyone should try FOR YOU TO SHARE, then the SME discs, then this one."
STEVE KOENIG - JAZZ WEEKLY 2000
"October 1973 performances credited to the Spontaneous Music Orchestra, which was essentially SME plus the members of a larger workshop group known as Free Space. No definite details of the musicians are known or given, but anyone familair with this period of British improvisation will be able to make informed guesses about at least some of the players. As with much of Emanem´s recent catalogue, all these performances are previously unissued, so they strike with something of the force of the original concerts, which were all in or around London; the two most substantial works wre recorded at the SME´s spiritual home, the Little Theatre Club, and at Ealing Technical College. Since much of the music was workshopped, there is on occasion a fairly tentative air and sometimes, as in the two versions of Sustained Piece, too dogged an application to a single informing idea, on this occasion quite literally the sustaining of blown or sung tones. One Two is the closest the group came to a fixed beat or groove, with players opting whether to play on the first or second count. Mouthpiece required the orchestra to begin with unvoiced mouth sounds, move on to vocalized sounds and only then to their instruments. This is perhaps the least involving part of the disc, albeit a valuable documentation of John Stevens´s work philosophy."
RICHARD COOK & BRIAN MORTON - The Penguin Guide to JAZZ RECORDINGS, 9th edition, 2008
Return to Emanem home page or go to CD releases or musicians