With no preparation apart from a sound check, three musicians walked onto a stage in Athens late last year to improvise a concert using cello, voice and Mongolian morinhur, a two-stringed bowed lute. For two hours they kept up a sonic conversation, sometimes snorting through traditional Hungarian flutes stuffed in nostrils or attacking the string of a hunting bow with a mallet held in the teeth, while the vocalist added wild hiccuping noises. Two-thirds of the original audience of 60-odd — including awed art students and a snoozing man — melted away. But those who remained were enthusiastic. "He who has an open heart for art is ready for this," said one listener. "You leave your mind out of it."
Classical cellist Nikos Veliotis, composer George Adamis and folk singer Savina Yannatou hope to hold regular gigs in the former cafe near the Acropolis. In mid-December 2000 they hosted a three-day festival of freely improvised music, sonic art or, as Veliotis says, "whatever you feel like calling it." Adds Adamis: "The only rule is that there is no rule. You just do it." Yannatou — whose growls were inspired by her dentist mother's drill — fears it will be "difficult for mainstream Greeks to digest. Some think it's noise. But noise is music."
Noise was also on the menu at Berlin's Bastard, a club where nine musicians from Britain, the U.S., Canada, Australia and Japan met last year for the first time. They took turns calling out three or four names — those summoned stepped onto the small stage and started playing. Jon Rose made his violin screech by shaking it in front of the speaker. Aki Takase inserted a metal plate and plastic balls into the piano and banged the keyboard with her forearms. Robin Schulkowsky twirled drumsticks and stroked a wooden box with her bare feet.
Though freely improvised music is now a Europe-wide phenomenon, its originator was Derek Bailey, a British guitarist. "He gradually evolved a way of playing which broke free from all ties — and he's kept at it ever since," says London guitarist John Bisset, and by "all ties" he means source, style and tradition — as well as melody, harmony, rhythm, phrasing and shape. Bisset himself is an improvisation innovator, starting Club 2:13 in 1992. Musicians, including Veliotis, used to meet once a month at 2.13 p.m. in a room attached to a North London library, but Bisset now organizes only one big yearly event, the Relay. In this free music happening, three trios play simultaneously in three different venues for three hours. But the lineups change constantly as the 13 musicians travel among the locations. When one walks in, one of the three playing must get up and move on. This music, says Bisset, avoids solos, virtuosity and conventional instruments. One exponent plays mustard tins, wine glasses and springs, and there's an orchestra of people playing toys.
From London the 2:13 Club concept moved in the mid-'90s to Berlin, where the Wall's fall had liberated many locations. Guitarist Michael Renkel started a club combining composed and improvised music, but it eventually lost its home in a former workshop. The Berlin scene is still alive, though: a club called Labor Sonar holds concerts about twice a month and irregular festivals burst out in various venues. "There are perhaps 10 musicians in Berlin who follow exactly the same aesthetics as us," says Renkel's performing partner, percussionist Burkhard Beins. "But the scene is opening up and there are far more links to modern music now."
Renkel and Beins call themselves Activity Center, but their music is all about slow motion. "It's our style to start from stillness and place the material into this stillness," says Beins of their 15-year partnership. They don't use amplification but scrape, rattle and rub percussion instruments with stone, metal, polystyrene or paper objects, and tap guitar strings with marbles or massage them to produce squeals. They also use a stopwatch to impose pauses of up to 20 seconds. "You're interpreter and composer at the same time," says Beins. Renkel adds a variation: "We don't really improvise but compose a structure that doesn't produce a score. You only improvise if you don't know the other players at all." Beins harmonizes: "If you exchange one person in an ensemble everything changes." In chorus, they insist that music can express more than language.
For Renkel and Beins, music has become like a dialogue between a married couple who finish each other's sentences, while for Schulkowsky it is an unrepeatable event. "Improvised music can only be listened to once," she says. "It is unique and that keeps it vital. We have forgotten about this because of the record industry and the idea that everything can be kept and owned." She's talking about music that can't be written down, follows no rules and has no before or after, only a perpetual now in which the choices are infinite. Perhaps that is the description of a true freedom song.
— With reporting by Anthee Carassava/Athens and Regine Wosnitza/Berlin
London's 2:13 Club is starting up again on Feb. 3 2001 at Sound 323 in Highgate. For more information, call +44 (0)20 8348 9595 or check the website at www.2-13.co.uk