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 Even though the restrictions imposed have been subsequently repealed by the Live Music Act 2012, the initial legislation made things very difficult for spaces that were not licensed venues – effects that can still be seen.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.