ISKRA 1903

CHAPTER ONE

EMANEM 4301

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PAUL RUTHERFORD trombone (on all except A5 & B3) & piano (on A1, A5 & B3 only)
DEREK BAILEY guitar (with amplification)
BARRY GUY double bass (with amplification)
 

A1 - IMPROVISATION 1 - 21:03
A2 - IMPROVISATION 2 - 5:37
A3 - IMPROVISATION 3 - 11:36
A4 - IMPROVISATION 4 - 5:04
A5 - IMPROVISATION 0 - 25:20
B1 - OFFCUT 1 - 1:40
B2 - OFFCUT 2 - 4:25
B3 - OFFCUT 3 - 11:17
B4 - IMPROVISATION 5 - 5:54
B5 - IMPROVISATION 6 - 10:48
B6 - IMPROVISATION 7 - 4:29
B7 - IMPROVISATION 8 - 6:21
B8 - IMPROVISATION 9 - 3:39
B9 - IMPROVISATION 10 - 3:09
B10 - IMPROVISATION 11 - 7:34
C1 - EXTRA 1 - 7:47
C2 - EXTRA 2 - 11:31
C3 - EXTRA 3 - 6:42
C4 - ON TOUR 1 - 13:37
C5 - ON TOUR 3 - 12:44
C6 - ON TOUR 2 - 12:34

All analogue recordings made in London (except C4-C6)
A1-B3: 1970 September 2 - by Hugh Davies
B4-B10: 1972 May 3 - by Bob Woolford
C1-C3: 1971 August 1 - by Ben Christianson
C4: 1972 October 21 - at Donaueshingen
C5: 1972 November 1 - at Berlin
C6: 1972 October 23 or 24 - at Bremen
Total time 194:48

A1-A4, B4-B10 originally issued in 1972 as Incus double LP 3/4
A5-B3, C1-C6 previously unissued

 

Excerpts from sleeve notes:

Paul Rutherford formed Iskra 1903 in 1970 with Derek Bailey and Barry Guy. All three musicians had worked together in larger groups, starting off with the 1966/7 edition of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble that can be heard on WITHDRAWAL (Emanem 4020). However, they had a strong desire to work as a percussionless trio. It's not that they were or are anti-percussion - each of them have subsequently worked in various settings with numerous percussionists - itís just that they felt a need for this sort of instrumentation.

Rutherford named the group after 'Iskra' (the Russian word for spark) which was the paper that Lenin edited before the Russian Revolution. The '19' indicates 20th century music, and the '03' is the number of performers. (There were occasions when the group became Iskra 1904 with the addition of Evan Parker, while Rutherford's larger groups have been known as Iskra 1912 and Iskrastra.)

The 1970 ICA concert was one of their earliest performances as a trio. Neither the group nor its members had quite acquired all the distinctive characteristics that were reached in subsequent years. However, one could hardly say that this mostly laidback and sublime music was immature. One unique aspect was Rutherford's extensive use of piano, something he was experimenting with at the time - he even did some solo gigs as a pianist.

It was originally intended to issue music from this concert on an LP on the Turtle label. Improvisation 1 and (the recently named) Improvisation 0 were selected for that release. Unfortunately, Turtle stopped production before this LP came about, so nothing appeared until late 1972, when Improvisations 1-4 appeared as half of an Incus double LP.

Additional material from this concert recently turned up on a tape labelled "ICA Offcuts". After all these years it is not possible to ascertain exactly where these extracts were cut off from - they can just be listened to as three bonuses in their own right at the start of the second CD. (Around this time, the trio recorded somewhat subdued music for a film, which can be heard as BUZZ SOUNDTRACK on Emanem 4066.)

The first edition of Iskra 1903 arguably reached its peak two years later. In addition to all the evidence on this CD set, there is a fine 1972 concert that has not been issued yet. The fully fledged 1972 studio session heard here was recorded to make up the other half of the double Incus LP.

Unfortunately, it has not been possible to locate the tapes for Improvisations 2-11, so these pieces had to be taken off the Incus LPs. In spite of using some noise reduction, the inherent limitations of vinyl are noticeable. However, this music is too good and too important not to be available again.

The previously unissued Extra studio session that starts the third CD is unusual in that all three musicians can be heard both acoustically and amplified. As usual, the two string players used volume control pedals to alternate between the two modes. Uniquely on this occasion, the trombone was alternately played into two mikes, one of which went directly to the mixing desk, the other which went to an amplifier and speaker which was in turn recorded using another mike. There is acoustic/amplified separation for all the instruments in the resultant stereo picture.

The final three pieces come from late 1972 when the Musiciansí Co-operative was On Tour in Germany. As well as the LJCO, several small groups performed at each concert, so each was allocated about a quarter of an hour. The surviving recordings are not in pristine condition, but, as before, the excellence of the lively music overcomes that.

This first version of Iskra 1903 lasted about four years, during which time they were rightly considered to be one of the very finest groups around. It was, perhaps, the last long-term fixed-personnel group that Bailey worked in. When Rutherford reformed Iskra 1903 in about 1977, it was with Philipp Wachsmann and Barry Guy - a trio that performed sporadically for about 15 years (hear FRANKFURT 1991 on Emanem 4051 and their eponymous CD on Maya 9502). In recent years, Rutherford formed a very different percussionless quartet called RoTToR (hear THE FIRST FULL TURN on Emanem 4026).

MARTIN DAVIDSON (2000 revised 2004)

 

Excerpts from reviews:

"Rutherford was the guiding spirit behind Iskra 1903 and even if he had not recorded another note, this fact alone would place him at the very heart of British improvisation since 1970. The early performances documented on CHAPTER ONE are typical of the group's highly concentrated output. More intensely focused and, residually at least, more jazz-inflected than either AMM or the more radical excursions of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Iskra 1903 represent a wonderfully challenging auditory experience. So densely interwoven are the lines and so convincingly vocalised is Rutherford's tone that one almost feels one is listening to a passionate discourse. The sound is mostly very clear and faithful, though there are a couple of tracks which sound muddied and uncertain."

RICHARD COOK and/or BRIAN MORTON - 'The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD' 2006

"It's hard to convey just how radical free improvisation seemed in the early 1970s. This music was genuinely shocking. When I first encountered albums such as Bailey/Bennink/Parker's THE TOPOGRAPHY OF THE LUNGS and Parker/Lytton's COLLECTIVE CALLS (URBAN) TWO MICROPHONES, I found them incomprehensible. An adventurous rock music diet of Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart, and the Mothers of Invention hadn't prepared me for anything like this. Nor had BITCHES BREW. Seeing Iskra 1903 in concert helped a bit; then I could at least relate certain sounds to certain instruments. But the musical rationale defeated me utterly. Compared to this stuff, Stockhausen seemed less like an iconoclast and more like Mozart. Mozart sounded like Liberace. Liberace sounded just like he looked - all spangles and pomade and toothy irrelevance. Music in general seemed tame, prissy. The members of Iskra 1903 weren't just musicians, they were revolutionaries (the group's name was that of a newspaper edited by Lenin), they were tampering with the sonic matter of the universe and at any moment it could explode in their faces.

Or so it seemed. Revisiting Iskra has proved to be both a joyous and unsettling experience. How could I have so badly misunderstood what was going on? Where once I heard noise with the potential to flatten cities, now I hear shards of Webernian melody, albeit rarefied, and the barest hint of pulse. Another thing that doesn't tally with my recollection is how hushed much of the music is. The lengthy Improvisation 0 is one of the most spacious musics I've heard to this day. Bailey remains quiet for considerable periods of time, or strokes the guitar strings with his fingers, making much of the smallest of non-legitimate sounds, while Rutherford (on piano, playing very interestingly) and Guy work on a scattered handful of notes, an arco drone, a splintered chord. Things occasionally get heated, it's true, but the overall impression is of concentration and a weird kind of calm, and of how sensitively the musicians edge the music forward. There's a degree of pussyfooting, but nothing prissy.

This valuable re-issue contains all of the material that was on the Incus double album (lifted directly from the grooves because the tapes have gone missing, but sound quality is surprisingly good), plus improvisations recorded in the studio and at various concerts in England and Germany.

When Iskra played Donaueschingen, Bremen and Berlin in 1972, German improvisers, who were in the main more jazz-oriented, dubbed the group's percussionless, edgily restrained, highly textured music 'the English sickness'. Charming. But this 'sickness' became a pandemic; within a few years it had spread world-wide and infected all manner of musicians. You can discern the Iskra influence (that of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, too, for that matter) in the work of 'new silence' UK-based improvisers such as Mark Wastell and Rhodri Davies, in European groups such as Polwechsel, and in the music made by members of the laptop brigade just about everywhere. They're the prism through which we are obliged to view Iskra, whether we like it or not, for the simple reason that Paul Rutherford's presence on the scene is marginal, alas, and during the intervening decades Bailey and Guy have refined their musical language to a considerable degree. Guy, in particular, is now a much busier, more percussive player, concerned less with sequential moments in time than energy and flow. This confers on CHAPTER ONE the status of an historic document. But it's not a dry and dusty museum piece, far from it."

BRIAN MARLEY - AVANT 2000

"A three-disc monster collecting the first two Incus LPs by the improvising collective Iskra 1903 along with several unissued performances (some of it of dubious sound quality). But don't let the rather workmanlike titles (or my comments about sound quality) deter you from investigating this magnificent release posthaste.

The amazing thing is how amazing it all sounds nearly 30 years on, not just fresh but genuinely head turning in places. As is immediately evident in the opening improvisation from 1970, each musician was in possession of a completely commanding instrumental voice even at this relatively early point in his respective career. Bailey and Guy in particular play with jaw-dropping intensity throughout this very long creation, from swooping non-tonal noise to the most delicate water drops of tonality. And on this initial track, we hear a lot of Rutherford's piano as well as his superb trombone work. However, Iskra's is primarily a group language, often resulting in a collective sound closer to a Morton Feldman realisation than to anything in the Jazz tradition.

It's difficult music to absorb, even for those familiar with these players and this music. On the one hand, there are moments of immediacy and accessibility - such as the sparse chiming and moaning of Improvisation 8 or the delicate piano of Improvisation 0. But the exchange of ideas is so rapid, and frequently so dense, that processing it makes multiple listens. Despite this, though, there is a directness of communication that is palpable in this group, an almost loving attention to spontaneous sound itself. Hear it in the lyrical work of Bailey's volume pedal, soaring with Guy's often effusive arco. Hear it in Rutherford's vocalisms on trombone, at times mimicking Bailey's feedback pitches and at other times growling and slurring his way through the proceedings. Up and down the dynamic range they travel, from the super silent Improvisation 6 to the often violent, slashing gestures of Extra 2.

In both concentrated miniatures and perambulatory 20-minute pieces, Iskra's focus never wavers. There are times on disc 3 that sound quality becomes an obstacle to listener appreciation, but the importance of the recordings and the quality of the music supercede such concerns. If it's true that European improvisers helped to establish a language, or a series of idioms, outside of the Ayler / late Trane discourse, then this release is an opportunity to hear that language in one of its first mature statements or expressions where it displays not only eloquence but poetry."

JASON BIVINS - CADENCE 2000

"What's immediately striking about the September 1970 recordings is the very self-effacing and unassuming nature of the music. The playing is so determinedly slow and cautious and the sublimation to collective will so thorough that - given the level of instrumental sophistication and strong sense of identity now associated with each player - it at times sounds almost naive. It's all the more surprising given the company the participants had been keeping in the preceding years: all three had played in the SME, but both Bailey and Rutherford had played with Oxley and Brotzmann, and Rutherford with Schlippenbach as well. The dynamic could be mistaken for sounding nascent, as though the trio are feeling each other out. They unhurriedly weave careful, subtly overlapping conversations out of Bailey's electric tinkles and chimes, Rutherford's muffled trombone squawks and piano trills, and Guy's doodles and scratches, which he intersperses with some quite lovely bowing, from time to time (in combination with Rutherford's piano) subtly diverting the music into passages of lilting undertow. They patiently push the improvisations forward, each of the three displaying quite remarkable sensitivity and restraint.

Over the course of the first disc and the second disc's first three tracks (the sum total of the 1970 material) they gradually expand their palette, experimenting with edgier, more fractious playing. By May 1972, when the second half of the Incus 2LP was recorded, this side had come more fully to the fore, in the form of spikily chattering, burbling trio hubbubs - more in line with the then-emergent strain of playing which we now recognise as Incus improv - comprehensively subsumed into the overall fabric of the music. It is tempting to speculate as to what might have induced this progression, natural though it must have seemed at the time. Initially it sounds as though Bailey, the shift in whose playing - from sedate electric to clipped, brittle acoustic, encompassing signature ching-plink scratching flurries (all unnecessary edges dispassionately trimmed) - is the most immediately audible, forcing the issue, pulling Guy with him, and isolating Rutherford somewhat. But by the end of the disc, however, the group reveal themselves as an equally-voiced entity, all three participating democratically in some commendably flexible and increasingly extroverted interplay.

The third disc compiles unreleased live recordings: a London gig which occurred at some point in 1971, and material from three shows on what would appear to have been an October/November '72 German tour; one shudders to think what the hirsutely masculine FMP crowd made of such elusively centre-less music. The London recording shows them having noticeably moved on from the first side of the Incus 2LP, the three cannily and incrementally accreting jagged shards of sound into ever more complex mazes of sharp, quick-witted interplay; and by the time of the German gigs - whose sound quality really isn't the best, though the essentials are audible - the transformation is complete. The trio summon forth scabrous, scalding pile-ups, astutely angling sparks off each other and refracting and deflecting sounds in passages of bustling interchange which positively crackle with mordant wit. As though to purposefully confound, the last track is in context relatively sedate, and in parts strongly hints at the group's initial style, allowing the set to conclude with a neat memory loop. CHAPTER ONE provides as much documentation of this phase of this group's existence as anyone could hope for, or require, in the process laying bare the roots and development of a significant strand of a form of improvisational playing whose influence would be felt on a global scale for years to come."

NICK CAIN - OPPROBRIUM 2001

"No drums meant several things, but mostly it provided a singularly uncluttered soundstage for three melodic instruments to work on. With the added idiosyncrasy of the horn player often playing very low, the bassist often playing very high, and the guitarist sounding like nobody else who had ever played the guitar. I have returned to the original LPs from time to time and on each occasion, just as when I now hear them on their CD debut, I'm gripped by the music - often so quiet, spacey, wheedling in its spare intensity. They could sustain this sort of thing for amazingly long periods: the new Improvisation 0 goes for over 25 minutes, and although it gets a bit heated half-way through, it's not tropical heat.

The third disc has music which, in comparison, often teems with activity, and has a purposeful step, as if they were by then resolute about how to get where they were going - even on the three 1971 tracks, which effectively are the meat in the sandwich of the two vinyl LPs. The three German excerpts continue the progress: On Tour 3 comes as close as Iskra 1903 ever did to some kind of aural violence. Three-and-a-quarter hours of memorable freedoms."

RICHARD COOK - JAZZ REVIEW 2000

"CHAPTER ONE is another historically important Emanem from the early years of British improv, comprising music previously available on the Incus label plus 107 minutes of previously unissued material.

Disc one showcases the trio's earlier pieces, which mark them out as an improvising unit of considerable sensitivity, prepared to investigate the most delicate of timbral nuances with patience and restraint. This type of approach was dubbed 'the English sickness' by German improvisers, who were still immersed in the fast and furious, high energy playing of Ayler and late-period Coltrane in 1970. Listening to the 25 minute previously unreleased Improvisation 0, undoubtedly the highlight of this first disc, one realises the extent to which Iskra 1903 had moved improvisation on to a pulseless, non-idiomatic soundworld closer to Webern - but with extra textual pitchless inventiveness - than the thematic US free jazz of the 60s. Bailey's dry, brittle pluckings and rubbings (arguably the most texturally resourceful of the trio at this stage) are memorably balanced by Rutherford's trebly tinklings on piano (he'd put down the piano for this one) and Guy's arco whispers.

Disc two features the other half of the Incus double LP, recorded in 1972. The superb Improvisation 5 reveals a more textually adventurous trio; Guy's playing showing signs of the hard-edged, percussive voicings of his mature style. Rutherford pushes the trombone that bit further on Improvisation 10 and Improvisation 11, unravelling delightful Rococo phrases and squeezed out polyphonic effects.

Finally, disc three is all previously unreleased music from London (1971) and Germany (1972). Extra 1 (London) atmospherically uses amplification to explore sinister droneplay, while the German pieces show the trio at perhaps their most cohesive, moving from knotty turbulence to almost 'lyrical' calm at lightning speed. The quality of the trio's interactive listening on all three discs is exemplary."

CHRIS BLACKFORD - THE WIRE 2000

"This purely improvised music possesses both an absolute relationship with the time of its making and an electric presence that is the antithesis of distance. Iskra 1903 is distinguished by both an absence of percussion and by an unusual use of amplification. The longest piece here, the previously unissued Improvisation 0, has Rutherford playing piano, and the results occasionally suggest the timeless overlapping, the lovely passivity, of the music of Morton Feldman. Even noting the absence of percussion may be misleading because Bailey and Guy use the absence of drums to play in extremely percussive ways, from insistent guitar picking and string scraping to drumming with the bow on the bass strings. Both Bailey and Guy were using volume pedals to shape attacks while miking both instruments and amplifiers to create a kind of stereophonic musical thinking. It's also reverse thinking; the volume pedal creating the impression that music is being played backwards. This complex of hot and cold, immediacy and distance, reaches its height in an unissued studio session (Extra 1-3) in which Rutherford has taken the same step of amplifying his trombone, further heightening the sense that voices are submerged in his trombone. That special and temporal thinking is crucial to the nature of this group, in which notions of 'response' and 'form' are submerged in a constant stream of musical events, and in which 'responsibility' for any event is distributed throughout the group. So close is the feeling of shared creation that a single player will sometimes seem to have moved from one instrument to another. What is most impressive at this temporal remove is the absence of any sense of a responsorial vocabulary, a set of readily available positions assumed by any of the musicians. This is improvised music of the highest order, not three musicians seeking an idiom, but rather three musicians who have already learned to live without one, creating consistently fresh musical discourse in the process."

STUART BROOMER - SIGNAL TO NOISE 2000

"Iskra 1903, named after a newspaper founded by Lenin, has had several incarnations. This one, as befits a disc entitled CHAPTER ONE, was the first: Paul Rutherford (trombone and piano), Derek Bailey (guitar), and Barry Guy (double bass). The first revelation is that Rutherford plays piano, and that he's a worthwhile improviser on that instrument. The second is that this music, for all its uncompromisingly unpremeditated and atonal character, contains a great deal that beguiles and fascinates.

The first disc, containing the 1970 concert, features Rutherford on piano on three tracks only. He is a spacey, searching pianist - in his laconic use of space, he's rather like a Herbie Hancock of free playing. Perhaps because of the nature of the instrument, the piano tends to anchor the music and suggest, at times rather insistently, tonalities that Bailey nonetheless effortlessly avoids - especially in moments on the lengthy Improvisation 1. When Rutherford switches to trombone, which he plays for the bulk of discs one and two and for all of disc three, he coils lines around Bailey's, sometimes accenting and extending, sometimes cutting off. Guy is his usual percussive self. There is, of course, no narrative flow as such to this music; rather, it progresses by the creation of evanescent soundscapes that vanish almost as quickly as they appear. Many are fascinating, especially on disc two, which is the one to which I found myself returning most often (although this is an utterly subjective impression, of course!). But to isolate them is to try to catch a snowflake and frame it.

So it is with all of Derek Bailey's music - as well as that of the other two. Certainly Rutherford brings a certain dash to these sessions, whereas some of the guitarist's other partners let matters slip into the cagiest of murmurings. Thus these three discs may be good entry points for those who want to hear what Derek Bailey can do as an improviser, and how he interacts with other masterful free musicians. In any case, this is a superabundance of gripping music that amply rewards close listening."

ROBERT SPENCER - ALL ABOUT JAZZ 2000

"Rutherford, Bailey and Guy are one of Britain's earliest free improvisation triumvirates. Martin Davidson's new compendium of the group's early work on his own Emanem imprint offers a lavish repast of some of their most seminal and sought-after recordings for Bailey's own Incus label. Bailey has rarely been one to codify his style, but his playing on these three discs gives a commendable aural schematic of the iconographic elements of his approach. The complimentary tactics of Rutherford and Guy are painted in similar relief and the three regularly come together in a synergetic communion that is breathtaking. Collectively their locutions are rarely jingoistic, usually favoring quiet tension and murmur over conspicuous exclamation. There are sporadic points as on Improvisation 7 where Rutherford works like a brass rhinoceros plowing deep splenetic furrows with his horn and Bailey's volume pedal summons waves of vociferous static, but largely the emphasis remains on subtle ambiguity under the guise of abstraction.

For a group devoid of a conventional drum presence the three players attest decidedly percussive methods on their instruments. The cantankerous Improvisation 9 serves as an excellent example. Over its brief but exuberant course Bailey's arachnoid plucks and scrapes skip across the acidic string harmonics of Guy whilst Rutherford offers eructative commentary by way of blurting metallic blasts.

Electric amplification remains a regular brush applied to the sonic easels of both Bailey and Guy. Even on these early sessions both players make substantial use of volume effects reveling in the consequent swells and surges of sound. Surprisingly, during some of these pieces Rutherford also gets in on the act channeling his trombone through an amplifier and coming up with an exciting range of timbral effects that augment his already startling repertoire. His piano playing is a different beast altogether - full of tinkling fragmentary clusters and frequent forays into the innards of the instrument. In deference to his trombone mastery his command of the keys is a pale comparison; but his infrequent turns at the piano do deliver a thought-provoking variant on the instrumentation.

In his informative liners which accompany a facsimile of Rutherford's orginal notes Davidson makes apologetic reference to the sound clarity of portions of the material, some of which was gleaned directly from vinyl sources in the absence of tape masters. These minor blemishes should not dissuade anyone from vaulting ears first into this generous feast of free improvisation concocted by three legendary figures of the idiom."

DEREK TAYLOR - ONE FINAL NOTE 2000

"The participants had a strong familiarity with each other's playing at the time, having worked together as early as 1967 in an incarnation of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. So, doubtless, while they knew that the were joining to explore the open parameters of totally improvised music, they also had a conceptual awareness and firsthand experience of each other's instrumental capacities and sympathetic (or contrarian) tendencies.

What these recordings reveal is a group that operated at a thoroughly equitable, highly intuitive, and fascinating detailed level of improvisation. The manner in which they did so may not have been unique, yet was clearly defined and shaped by the particular characteristics of the individual musicians, and in this way their music became a powerful illustration of democratic (some might say blissfully anarchic) principals coalescing into a condition of mutual affirmation and transformation. The whole in this case is truly the sum of its parts.

The music is deceptively easy to generalise, but hard to describe. From the beginning the trio's approach was set and seldom if ever varied - three separate points of reference which interacted in a complex network of associations, most recognisable in episodes of cohesion (blending sounds), juxtaposition (contrasting elements), or stratification (layered effects). In other words, there was only occasionally a conscious effort to combine in a shared format strategy or work towards a common goal; each musician was responsible for his own contribution within an open, abstract environment. This meant that their interaction was less conversational than self-referentially spatial, as if creating a four-dimensional kinetic sculpture that continually reshaped itself according to their self-generating, ever-changing details, tensions, and intensities. Likewise, since so much of the music was texturally oriented - all three of the instruments could and would provoke percussive attacks at any point, and with the fascinating wide range of Bailey's guitar effects, from various colours and densities of feedback to razor-sharp pointillist pin-pricks and clattering chunks of craggy note clusters, especially prominent - there was an almost overwhelming tactile sense of wires, metal and wood throughout the musical process.

This process developed a clear-cut example of what Karlheinz Stockhausen called in his own music 'moment form', whereby the overall design is not dependent upon any recognisable or interrelated structural system, but identifies itself through its own unique characteristics from moment to moment. Form is thus flexible, but still concrete, and capable of acting less as a determining factor of rigid logic and more as an agent of individual perception, allowing us to experience the simultaneity of sensations and multiplicity of possible responses which the music suggest. This is reinforced by the fact that the trio ignored conventional hierarchies of pitch (in essence rejecting traditional relationships of harmony and any consequential melodic contour, though Rutherford's trombone occasionally offered extended melodic content) in favour of a freely articulated fabric of alternately focused and random pitches in a spontaneous state of becoming.

It's impossible to separate the various components of this fabric of sound; the selection or avoidance of pitch were equally the result of instinctive instrumental gestures as were the distinct clashing rhythmic motifs and timbral/textural feel. And, similarly, no matter how coincidental much of the music may appear, the trio's familiarity as a 'working band' did lead to certain choices or even strategies (albeit non-systematic ones) that solidified the music as product of an ensemble and not merely a fascinating accident of Cagean non-intention. There was, for example, an audible attention paid to their carefully crafted dynamics which, along with the music's sometimes extravagant textural traits, often gave a piece its distinctive character. As the music was created in a free-floating rubato (that is, an avoidance of strict time or consistent rhythmic emphasis), spontaneous events were sculpted to evoke various states of lyricism or drama. (For example, notice the differences in attitude and gesture between the almost hostile environment of Extra 2, the forceful exchanges and charming surprises in Offcut 1, the swashbuckling theatrics of On Tour 1, and the sparsely phrased chiaroscuro of Improvisation 1.) Primarily, the shorter pieces compressed contrasting elements into greater relief; the longer performances fluctuated between episodes of congested aggressive energy, sustained drones which swell and recede, and small scale nuances.

With such a structural reliance on the intuitive and variable conditions of improvisation, the music (or rather, our perception of it) is affected by the quality of the recording too. Details this intricate must be heard; balances determine the weight and density of key events. Notice how Barry Guy's presence seems to increase from session to session, in part due to his expanding technical resources and in part because of improvements in capturing his bass sound on tape. But the sound quality, while variable - even the severely compressed frequencies of On Tour 2 - is adequate to convey a large part of the trio's enormous timbral and textural complexities. This is a band that sustained a concentrated creative intensity at levels of low volume and sparse detail that few improvising ensemble have ever matched. Even after three decades, Iskra 1903's music is a rare and rewarding soundscape of friction and flow."

ART LANGE - CODA 2000

 

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