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In Writing

Richard Thomas: The Symptom Is Death

February 2014

Richard Thomas weathers obscure, dilapidated venues and relcalcitrant promoters to take the pulse of NIFI – Non-Idiomatic Free Improvisation music

I've started to think that one of London's most obscure yet historically vibrant areas of musical activity – Non-Idiomatic Free Improvisation, or NIFI – is in a moribund state. Possibly this comes from external factors: London's stratospheric property prices, the global financial crisis, Web 2.0, and the absorption, reification and commodification of avant-garde tendencies by the culture industry, the legacy of New Labour. Another factor in NIFI’s terminal state could be the structural weaknesses found at its core.

I recently attended a NIFI gig, my fifth in as many months after a very lengthy hiatus from that scene. The venue was a large Edwardian pub in South London with Sky Sports on TV and generic lager on tap. The gig took place in a first floor function room filled with a miscellany of chairs and a massive wall mounted flatscreen TV. There was a shitty PA with two thoughtlessly placed speakers wired into an amp covered in stickers and tape. The audience consisted of five or six people, bolstered by the presence of eight musicians and two promoters.

When I first encountered NIFI in places like the legendary Klinker club or through the Bohman Brothers' Bonnington Centre events, its carnivalesque mutations and the sheer immediacy of the music opened a portal into what seemed like an unlimited musical galaxy. What was also significant to me – revelatory even – was not just the aesthetic approach, but the way the music approached that other dimension of the gig space continuum: the audience.

Bespoke creations composed right in front of you, musicians less than half a metre away. This audience-performer proximity was largely due to the idiosyncrasies of the spaces used for gigs. 99% of the time they were held in pubs; back rooms, function rooms, sometimes in places that could barely be considered rooms at all.

But, I think there's a strong possibility that those times have gone forever. The 2003 Licensing Act was the death knell for many ad hoc spaces. Even though the restrictions imposed have been subsequently repealed by the Live Music Act 2012, the initial legislation made things very difficult for spaces that were not licensed venues – effects that can still be seen. Repairs and other improvements had to be made that were prohibitively expensive. So rather than incur additional debts, venues found it easier to drop live musical entertainment altogether, especially if it was weird shit.

Simultaneously, the property market in London also had a necrotic impact as spaces fell beneath the thrusting bayonets of the shock troops of gentrification and social cleansing. Demand for space outstripped its affordability, hindering new ventures. Finding spaces with sympathetic landlords became harder.

There were other systemic problems. The network was weak, based on word of mouth and inadequately distributed fliers. The collapse of a significant node in the network, the London Musicians Collective, had a substantial impact. Before being killed off in 2008 by ACE's austerity cuts, the LMC had an ambitious agenda in terms of attempting to create public prominence for NIFI and other experimental musics.

The final layer of this fatal gateaux is the absorption of experimental art music by the broader culture industry: the advent of relatively slick venues like Cafe Oto, The Vortex and alt-festivals like ATP. Galleries also engage with sound and music as a quasi-sculptural form but largely have no engagement with music as a performative art outside market approved cult classics like Kraftwerk, and this is far removed from the febrile immediacy of NIFI.

There are also internal problems. As vibrant as the scene may have been, venues were often in obscure locations. Added to this, the scene was often blighted with a complacent hermeticism and recalcitrant posture towards anything that vaguely reeked of the commercial, namely promotion.

Another prevalent aspect of NIFI is how promoters and musicians often have a laissez-faire attitude towards performing. Some musicians simply just love to play and this isn't solely contingent upon an audience.

Yet promotion can also be understood as communication, and this does not have to result in sanitisation and commodification. It can provide an aperture through which the public can enter. Despite the ambivalent relationship with promotion, NIFI was a profoundly social art. Sadly, it seems to me this has either been forgotten or isn't a commonly held belief anymore.

The whole scene – and I'm beginning to doubt that a scene even exists now – needs to reacquaint itself with its roots as a radical art movement built on solidarity, collectivity and the agency of music as a catalytic entity that can critique received values of culture under capitalism.

The scene needs to be hyperactive in meat space and look for newer spaces, newer audiences, and rethink the very notion of a gig space. This activity can no longer be mediated in the way that it used to be. Artists and promoters need to get to grips with the web and social media and form networks of affinity. Not just via Twitter and Facebook, but by perceiving the web and social media as an auxiliary space to be active within.

NIFI has its roots firmly embedded in the follicles of radicalism and those involved would do well to remember that and act upon it accordingly. If this doesn't start happening soon I would say that it’s time to contemplate administering the last rites and start scribbling an obituary.


In the spirit of radicalism, you should actually try and do something about it, get your hands dirty. Don't you think?

Yawn. Richard Thomas is unfortunately not the first person to declare that Free Improvisation is dead, and, based on its untold numbers of obituaries that have appeared in the last half century, I doubt if he will be the last. Maybe he should count the number of active improvising musicians in London. The last time I did it was a couple of hundred, and it has probably increased since then. Then there are all the improvising scenes in other parts of the country and the rest of the world - the last such gig I went to was in Malaga, of all places, and it involved nearly twenty local musicians and a sizable audience.

Free Improvisation has virtually never been fashionable, popular or prestigious, but that does not mean it is dead. Instead of wasting valuable space publishing such negative drivel, it would be nice if The Wire published positive articles about the music as it used to.

I've read a lot about the so-called "golden age" of the London Improvised Music scene, whatever it may have been, and it's often written about with a nostalgia that seems at odds with the immediacy & spontaneity of improvised music.

As a fledging improviser (though I hesitate to use the term non-idiomatic, as we're all totally suffused in – and susceptible to – Idiom) this kind of article is only going to put me off doing what I do even further than the constant failure to engage any kind of audience with an often abrasive music that can be hard to explain to anyone not well-versed in the history or philosophy of the approach.

Of course, I certainly don't play improvised music for other people. It's a strangely personal form of therapy that works quite nicely on a stage, I guess.

But anyway, we've played shitty pub gigs that no-one in the audience particularly wanted to be at, small art gigs that some people *did* want to be at, and one particularly memorable gig in Brighton that some people actually danced to.

So maybe there's hope. If improvised music's dead, it certainly hasn't finished decomposing yet.

(ADDENDUM: I guess I'd better use this as an opportunity to plug the website, and if anyone knows of any venues or promoters who like the sound, then you know, let's stop dicking about talking about whether or not a musical tradition's dead and get on with the business of ENJOYING it.)

There is a healthy, thriving, very open scene around the UK for free improv (the NIFI tag ain't working for me sorry). I've drifted into playing such music over the years because of the friendliness and yes solidarity of the players and organisers. Many have become firm friends.

I think rather than promoters being lazy as suggested maybe the author needs to do more than flick through the pages of Wire and actually look around on social media to see the chatter, hear the examples of creation being put up online. There is a very strong core of people who are young, internet savvy promoters and musicians that are pushing the music forward, getting decent crowds and establishing everything the author is lamenting. The big problem is, for the author it would seem, that all this is happening outside his narrow sphere and that many in this scene don't read Wire and don't work within the establishment that he is embedded in.

Maybe mainstream magazines like Wire need to do everything they suggest is wrong with the free improv world and sign up to a few Facebook pages etc and join the discussion? It's a great world out here in, to quote Anthony Donovan, The Golden Periphery.

NIFI just lacks some anger. Bring back the rage

I absolutely respect Richard Thomas's concern. Such scenes are always under threat and highlighting it is a an active stance in itself. But I wouldn't despair. I'm not familiar with the London scene, but I would like to note that there is a healthy and developing free improv scene in Dublin precisely because potentially interested parties are exhausted by the protocols, whims and exigencies of the typical pub circuit. The public is small, but then again so is the city's population. As a resident in New York, Paris, and now Dublin, I've played free improv music for many years. What occurs to me is that scenes cannot stay self-contained. Artists and organizers somehow need to reach out to each other across geographies. Local solidarity needs to extend to broader contexts. In April, an event we run has two musicians from Paris and one from Malaga coming to participate. There's zero money in it. They are taking it as a sort of musical holiday. Most people can't do this kind of thing often, and some can never do it, but I think that almost federational spirit is important. Pooling resources across borders and cooperating more broadly can help re-invigorate scenes (and performers!) that run the risk of getting stale. The socio-economic situation in Dublin, like London, along with the dominant forms of live music (themselves struggling) makes it very challenging to sustain momentum with free improv. So highlighting the issue, as Richard has done, is a necessary step. I do think though that expanding the scene is the answer rather than trying to intelligently contract it. How to do that? another question, but dialogue is the beginning.

Well written, thought(ful)provoking piece. I was drawn in immediately on an anaesthetic level ironically (or perhaps not) in a similar way to the experience I had many moons ago when I witnessed (what’s the aural equivalence of witnessed?) a part-improvised performance by Sonic Boom as Spectrum at The Spitz.
I think you’re right in your conclusion Richard when you suggest that all ’spaces’ whether tangible or online etc must be considered now more than ever and the space of activism has certainly never been more pertinent, portentous or poignant. A great read thanks.

This is great. respect for standing up and saying what needs to be said. its like jandek said in wire, improv is a clique, and if your not a member, your not welcome. have you been to cafe oto recently? right. old farts like martin davidson are part of the problem, his label has been churning out the same old shit for years. who cares? improv needs a breath of fresh air, new ideas, new faces, new places to play. it needs to join with the avant rock and analogue scenes, statt making some noise. the reductionist scene tried something new but it didnlt last. this could be a start for a new scene. im ready!

if you want to know what is improvisation now, go to warszawa or saint petersburg. improvisation is always the same. improvisation is music and music is improvisation. if you remember about the great learning, if you remember about derek bailey. nothing changes. there is nothing more to do about improvisation and nothing more to achieve with composition. you can only play some music. good luck.

"The final layer of this fatal gateaux is the absorption of experimental art music by the broader culture industry: the advent of relatively slick venues like Cafe Oto, The Vortex and alt-festivals like ATP"

I personally think that this is a good thing. If free/improvised music can find a home in a venue that is perceived as more welcoming than a rundown old shed then it can only be good for the music and the musicians.

Also I think the 'scene' is considered a clique by many but this is not generally the case; in Dublin anyway. I've played this kind of music for many years now and of course we've always had people tentatively pop their heads in only to scurry back off again. But we always have encouraged and continue to encourage these people to come in with the express intention of trying to break this misconception.

To concur with Concrete Soup, if free improvisational music is to be really free, it should not have to adhere to any boundaries. If the music is truly experimental and truly unshackled it should not have to bend to the pressure of staying niche in any manner. A truly radical thing would be for experimental music to challenge people outside of the typical niche it often reduces itself to. Otherwise, it becomes exactly what it is supposed to challenge, a concern for specialists, an elitist indulgence. And lest we fear that it will consequently become commodified - the answer to that is simple: don't sell it. For the broader culture industry to adopt elements from experimentalism on occasions is a matter of fashion. I tend to view experimentalism as beyond fashion - it endures beyond fashion. Cafes, slick or not so slick, come and go, and so do musicians and scenes. But experimentalism always endures because it always questions boundaries - even the ones it ends up imposing on itself.

I'm with L Ron Cupboard. Also, to achieve a wider response out there, free improv has to be good, it has to be presented in a way that intrigues outside of whatever inner circle. Attention and growt is not 'free', work and a certain level of self awareness is needed.

talking is alright up to a point. But imagine if all these contrasting points of view were worked through in improvising,
that would be something id listen to.

Go to Sheffield. It all happens, alongside hardcore punk and techno.

I've just completed a book on early Free Improvisation in London from 1966-72 (well before the LMC), which I know that some people will see as a hagiography of the older players, but 'the ghost of Derek Bailey', who can't even use his/her real name, is bang out of order slagging off Martin Davidson. And quoting the god-awful Jandek, presumably from that immensely tedious two-part interview in The Wire, merely adds insult to injury. I doubt if Martin will give a flying fuck though.

The years I'm covering were staggeringly inventive and radical, and need systematic documentation. The problem with this music, which I've tried to avoid in my book, is that it does tend to attract it's fair share of elitists and narcissists in the audience. The sort of people who sneer if anyone claps ("so uncool, man!" Perhaps the full houses at Oto and The Vortex stick in the craw of some of these people, including Richard Thompson, who rationalises this by saying things like " the larger culture industry". What he means is that it is well attended in these venues, even though, ostensibly, he is saying that crappy and poorly attended gigs are now the norm.

One encouraging thing about the "East London 52nd. Street" is that there are a lot of younger people there (I'm 58, too old to use daft monikers). There is a bedrock of support for this music, and not just in London, by the sound of it.

Rant over. Oh, and buy the book!

Please remove any offensive words, i.e. the 'flying fuck' one. It's hardly essential.

I was a tad confused by this article. The sub-text actually reveals a hankering and idealisation of the 'one man and his dog'-era (Derek Bailey's term) of early Free Improvisation. The very healthy audiences at The Vortex and Cafe Oto show that there is an audience for this stuff, even if it is mainly Hoxton beards and us older folk. One guy asked me if I thought Dalston was the "new Soho/52nd. Street". I said' no'. But attendances do tend to make a mockery of the article's title and premise.

I also think the insult to Martin Davidson is craven and unwarranted. The "kill your idols" schtick is so 1977, and that was a long time ago as well, and iconoclasm has left the building. Also, if Jandek is the way forward, baby you can count me out.

" achieve a wider response out there, free improv has to be good..."

What constitutes 'good'?

The thing I love most about free improv, is that you never know whether any gig you go to will be completely rubbish or the best you've ever been to.

I can't imagine what is meant by describing Café Oto and the Vortex as slick. Compared to what? And who exactly are the snooty elitists? I've never come across any. The audiences consist of enthusiasts - they wouldn't be there otherwise.
And the dig at Martin Davidson is ludicrous. He issues music only if he likes it - it's his money, after all. And, like anyone else, he doesn't like everything. But for him, what would we know about the activities of Kent Carter, or Roger Smith ?
The only point I agree with is the one about rising property prices in London, and their effect on the number of venues. In spite of which, the music shows no signs of dying.

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