Masada, “Jachin,” Sanhedrin, 2005.
Leroy Jenkins, “Blues #1,” Solo, 1999.
Mazz Swift, Tomeka Reid & Silvia Bolognesi, “Ova,” Hear in Now, 2012.
The […] thing is that notion of creativity, not being afraid to explore your instrument, to allow the instrument to sound the way it will sound by itself no matter what you do to it. An instrument has a quality that, if you allow it to share it with you, to be a part of what you’re doing, it will give you a sound that no one else has. It will give you articulation and shapes or musical phrases and structures that no one has, and it will introduce this extra sonic aspect. It’s all inside the instrument, but most people fight hard to keep it from coming out.
— Wadada Leo Smith (interviewed here)
Philip Cohran and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble, “On the Beach,” On the Beach, 1968/2015.
47 years ago today, a group of musicians gathered in Chicago, IL to form an organization whose aim was to support music that fell outside the parameters of conventional practice, culture, and exhibition. The following week, the group came to be known by the name it has had since that day: the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, or the AACM for short.1
The AACM is still very much alive in Chicago (less so, it appears, in New York), still hosting concerts, students, resident musicians and groups, still very much a part of its local and broader communities. Further, the music it supports remains as diverse as ever, the depth of its commitment to what has been variously called Original Music, Creative Music (my personal favorite), and finally Great Black Music, unwavering.
Their work has been deeply inspiring to me the last few months, a reminder that one’s obligation as an artist is to try new things, however contrary they might at first be to one’s own practice; that one’s conscience is as good a guide as one is likely to find; that one should always strive for growth, both personally and with one’s instrument and group; and that music is a force of tremendous energy in all events.2
The roster of musicians who have been affiliated with the AACM through the years is nothing short of astonishing: Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Joseph Jarman, Leroy Jenkins, Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, Tomeka Reid, and countless others.
But because this is an anniversary, I’ll stick to the earliest AACM-affiliated recording I have on hand.
Joseph Jarman, “Little Fox Run,” Song For, 1966.
For those interested in learning more, the AACM’s story is well-told in George Lewis’ remarkable A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, a history of Chicago, jazz, African-American diaspora, and the struggle against the cultural status quo.↩
I feel a relative affinity between the kind of social and cultural disruptions my peers and I have sought through our own independent music scene and those carried out by the AACM. Like so much else, however, this idea requires elaboration and amplification better suited to another post.↩
The matter of influence is a varied and frequently complex one, not least because of its relationship to authenticity, which I address here. I think it’s worth reiterating that I believe being truthful to one’s influences is as much a moral matter as it is a practical one, if not more so.
This is not, as far as I know, a popular position even though it is also far from unusual. Certain ideas about gender, freedom, confinement, and love, for example, have been passed to subsequent generations by country and blues singers; there’s a strain of tenor players whose heritage can be traced to John Coltrane’s spiritually explicit efforts.1 I choose these cases precisely because they support my premise but there are countless others. In fact, I’ll even go so far as to say that one takes on an influence because it offers a sense of right and wrong, defines or echoes one’s sense of struggle or success, confirms what one seeks to confirm in whatever situation is at hand.2
So we all, one way or another, actively seek influences. I take it as a measure of maturity, however, that one eventually assimilates them into an existing style and builds from there. That is, however much imitative modes might satisfy many performers, I think stopping at the sum of one’s influences is short-sighted.
It wasn’t very long ago that if one wanted to see films notable for their distinctly experimental nature and relative historical import, one had to:
a. attend screenings in major metropolitan areas;
b. rent prints oneself from The Filmmakers’Coop or Canyon Cinema, mostly, though New Yorker Films had an extensive catalog of European art cinema, and still might;
c. wait for a nearby university to host a screening.
There were occasionally other options but not often. When I first became interested in alternative cinemas 1, home video was still largely the province of mainstream work, though not entirely. One could find, here in New York anyway, films by Beth B. & Scott B., R. Kern, Vivenne Dick, Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, and Mark Rappaport, for example, but the dearth of experimental work from 1960-1980 or so was, to me, remarkable 2 Because much of the work in question concerned itself with the physical properties of filmstock, it was frequently excluded from video release at the outset. Seems an archaic distinction these days but this was the 20th, not the 21st, century.
Public viewing has characterized nearly all film-viewing for most of its history. At the least, one invited friends, colleagues, or family to see one’s films, and in any case it has been unusual, until the last 30 years or so, to discuss a film without having viewed it in the company of other viewers. Which means, or meant, that unless one made a concerted effort to escape the screening venue in silent solitude, one was likely to end up talking to someone else from the screening for some period of time, however brief. Opinion or study was, under these circumstances, born of a combination of etiquette, remark, debate, and consensus. It was social.
As for myself, I’ve had the By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume 1 since its initial release and have never watched it alone. Though I pre-ordered A Hollis Frampton Odyssey the day it was announced, I have yet to view a single frame of it: I’m waiting until I can find a time that mutually suits my friends, that we might watch some of the films and discuss them together in person.
Alternative was an adjective then, not a genre, and I pluralize cinema because my interest led me to many different kinds of filmmaking from many different times and places; like most of my friends at that time, it was important to see everything.↩
That the work of these filmmakers has yet to appear on DVD or online streaming is a mystery to me, as is the current lack of L.A. Rebellion cinema, though that is a topic for another time.↩