It’s always nice when someone says that they have been inspired by one’s own work - a very rare occurrence for me, so imagine my surprise the other day when I got an e-mail from Nashville, Tennessee, telling me that “apparently, you encouraged this mad group with your writings”. “This mad group” turns out to be an outfit called themselves the’ London Experimental Ensemble’ (or LEE), and the mailer was Jane, who is the partner of Ed Pettersen, with whom she co-owns Nashville’s Split Rock Records, and who also happens to be the ‘leader’ of the LEE. Seemingly, Ed wanted me to have a listen to the band’s forthcoming recordings, set for a January release, and which he felt might be of interest to me. They certainly were and are, being a new iteration of Cardew’s ‘Treatise’ (over two hours and two compact discs) and ‘Child Ballads’, a melange of the antique ballads themselves and a freely improvised musical backing. Those who have read my books will see that Ed had assessed my tasted and interests exceedingly well..
Francis James Child of Harvard, a sort of American Cecil Sharp, collated ten volumes of the old ‘wyrd’ balladry of England and Scotland, which he encapsulated in 305 lyric poem sources. This oral tradition has continued to fascinate, from Harry Smith’s 1952 ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’ (a major influence of Bob Dylan and the sixties folk ‘movement’) through to modern collections such as Nick Cave’s ‘Murder Ballads’ and the work of the likes of Alasdair Roberts. In particular, the ‘free folk’ work of Roberts himself, Current 93 (across the decades), Comus (from the early seventies, in their case) and Richard Dawson today, as well as pioneering records by Fairport Convention in the late-sixties. Rob Young, who has delineated the history of ‘free- folk’ (or ‘psi-folk, as I named it in ‘Beyond Jazz’) was asked to write the notes to accompany the ‘Child Ballads’ recordings, an inspired choice in the light of his 2011 literary classic ‘Electric Eden’, and which I unhesitatingly recommend to anybody wishing to inform themselves around the subject of modern compound genres. Those sufficiently interested in the meeting of electronica/improvisation/traditional folk need look no further than 2015′s compilation, ‘Shirley Inspired’ (’Shirley’ Collins, in this case), three CDs/ two vinyl records of ancient words and modern interpretations - Lee Renaldo’s ‘Plains of Waterloo’ gives a foretaste of the London Experimental Ensemble’s explorations on ‘Child Ballads’.
‘Child Ballads’ displays the lyrics in a jewel-case of AMM-inspired ‘laminar’ improv by the LEE, and I am, at present, undecided as to whether this results in a new entity-in-itself, or is merely the colliding of two forms without any genuine connection or interchange. Time will tell, I guess. Whatever, this is a venture long in the coming, and reminds me in some ways of ECM Records’ delving into previously-unrelated formats (Garbarek/Hilliard being the most obvious example). This could have been an ECM New Series release in some ways, and is in itself is an indication as to how far Free Improvisation has become a validated genre (that it may have needed such a validation is a statement in itself, not at least about my own preconceptions). The fact remains that this is a significant recording, the very first that I, at least, know of, that explicitly engenders a meeting of improv and free folk with the intention of perhaps a fertile future breed/brood.
The LEE’s ‘Treatise’ is another mostly undecided-on work (by myself, that is), as I have only had two opportunities to listen to it. Initial impressions (it was recorded at Lambeth’s Iklecktic Club, in January last year). Initial impressions are hugely positive - it starts like a distant echo of ‘The Crypt’’s quieter moments and retains the listener’s interests throughout (rather more, sacriligiously, than even AMM did in their ‘Combines + Laminates’ iteration), so the promise of further enjoyment is a recommendation in itself. Much free improv does not encourage further immersion in particular products (a position that Derek Bailey specifically enshrined in his own ‘philosophy?), a light in which this ‘Treatise’ is even more recommended.