“His equally radical presence is often missed. This is a mistake.”
Alto saxophonist Seymour Wright pays homage to the lessons learned from the man who helped set the pace of what was to come
Lou Gare, the great British saxophonist and founding member of AMM died in October. He was a fantastic, profoundly generous, humble and vitally creative person. He was also a masterful tenor saxophonist, his understanding of the power and potential of sound, and vibration – 氣 – to move and transform the world was total.
Lou co-founded the seminal British improvising group AMM in London in 1965. He was involved, from its pre-history along with its two other core members drummer Eddie Prévost and electric guitarist Keith Rowe, throughout the group’s first phase, during which they were joined by composer, pianist and cellist Cornelius Cardew, and up to its complex, fragmentary hiatus in the 1970s. He was integral to the unprecedented, radical and emancipatory art/practice that the group, and those close to it, developed in weekly ‘plays’ and came to call ‘AMM music’. They set in motion some mighty and extreme vibrations and pushed out boundaries that (still), in complex ways, pulse through and contain the development of much of the art and music of now.
It may be a paradox to observe in so deliberately an egalitarian group-music, but somehow, in terms of the AMM (historical) reception, Lou seems its least publicly recognised member. His equally radical presence is often missed. This is a mistake. His involvement in the creation of AMM’s remarkable synthesis was crucial, equal and integral. But it is perhaps understandable, because his particular input to the first phase of AMM music – at live plays, usually in the dark, or documented on records that have been so globally influential such as AMMusic (1966) and The Crypt (1968) – is often so thoroughly mysterious, and beyond the orthodoxy of how things saxophonic are supposed to be, that it can’t be heard in the ways one might expect. It involved, and requires of us, a different kind of imagination. For a time, he alternated saxophone and violin, or used just the bow to vibrate sound from other stuff in order to produce uninterrupted lines of sound. Or, played the saxophone in strange ways, like a ram’s horn, ‘bugle-like’ with bits missing, or with appendages, like a small bell tied to its crook. Or, played in contexts of such extreme volume that he was perhaps the only person who could hear – or feel – the saxophone through its vibrations in his head and hands.
We can see something of this in these images from a Langtry Road Studio AMM ‘play’ in 1968. His saxophone, used earlier on, lies behind him in its open case as he bows a tin can atop one of the two metal discs used by various members of the group:
By the early 1970s he had returned fully to the tenor – using circular breathing to develop endless, uninterrupted open lines on the saxophone. His origins were in jazz, he had left the new jazz context of Mike Westbrook’s first London band to found AMM. And like any true ‘jazz’ saxophonist – and he was that, a great jazz saxophonist – his tone and instrumental logic are instantly recognisable, and original. He was a rethinker of the instrument. His sound is golden, soft, constant, breathy, burnished, honeyed – a tenor breathed into to keep it glowing. A sound (with its mysterious debt to Lester Young and Sonny Rollins) well captured I think, in these two images (respectively):
And the idea that, or potential for, colours and sounds to transpose, for want of a better word, in this way is one of the things that I personally learnt from listening to, conversations with, and twice playing music with Lou. What (to me) he did in a unique and brilliant way – and a way that has been particularly influential and inspiring in my (creative) life – was to make spaces for ideas to contain each other and mingle, and for things to grow into new, organic and natural, possibilities. He had a unique ability to fold ideas together, to patiently draw connections between things that seemed of incompatibly different proportions, or tempers, or times, or dimensions. Seriously and playfully, and ever-mysteriously, he juxtaposed, wove together and connected objects and emotions and memories and songs and processes and imagined things in the creative present to make – in the patient space required for learning, at a point just beyond the initial edge of friction – new meanings, new feelings and new things. In this sense I think what he did is deeply germane to 21st century ways.
The 1960s photos above show him doing this as part of AMM. There are many other examples that I have been told about. Like his use of songs in contexts of early AMM disorientation and abstraction – during one particularly harsh moment he is remembered as playing “Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries” (the lyrics go: “life is just a bowl of cherries; don't take it serious; it's too mysterious”). And there are examples in the small amount of writing that he published, like this composition for saxophone from Scratch Music (1972), re-imagining a 9th century Chinese poem (originally about a harp) by Bai Juyi:
Or, like this, his diagram of Roles in the old AMM Music published in Microphone magazine, in the same year:
These multi-texts or transpositions speak for themselves. They offer as many layers of depth, and openings, as you want to dig for, or prise out. In my opinion, the clearest example of all is the small, but absolutely remarkable, body of solo tenor recordings that Lou has left. The earliest I know is an (unpublished) 1983 cassette recording of him playing beside the River Exe. He once told me that some of his first attempts at saxophone playing were outdoors, in Rugby his hometown – other teenagers would throw stones at him. He continued to play. Only much later did the opportunity to record more solo music come. There are two recordings from 2005 – one live Hornbill, one studio No Strings Attached – both released on Prévost’s Matchless records (the only label to have consistently supported Lou’s work). And there are also two short films by Stan Willis on YouTube. For the studio recording Lou had wanted to record outside, on the moor in Devon. In the end the natural elements were deemed too intrusive, and the recording took place in the studio. He compensated, for part of the session, by bringing violins in – an instrument that Lou repaired for much of his life – to fill the room, ‘playing’ them, at a distance. All of these solos offer flowing lines of thought, reflection, memory and invention, an alternative solo saxophone music.
I first met Lou at a concert in a small, carpeted, upstairs room in Derby in 1989 or 1990 I think. At that time I was obsessed with AMM’s Crypt 2-LP- box and what weirdness the saxophone (with which I was just starting to experiment) might be capable of. Lou moved around the room, in contrast to the sensile drum kit of Prévost and table-top guitar of Rowe, the other two members of the trio that night. He worked flows, gusts and trickles of apparently normal, beautiful and vocal saxophone sound around and into the extended electronic-acoustic world of Rowe’s radio and guitar and Prévost’s bowed, rubbed and struck drums and cymbals. I didn’t understand what Lou did that night – at that time I could not work out how it fit. It was too mysterious, for me. Paradoxically, I wanted something more orthodox in its weirdness. But I spent the next few decades thinking about it, and trying to understand his work. Now I realise that that night, seriously and playfully, and ever mysteriously, he was juxtaposing, weaving together, leaning on, teasing and worrying at, and connecting objects and emotions and memories and songs and processes and imaginaries to make, with others, new meanings, new feelings and new things. It remains a definitive experience in my slowly learning to think about how things can be. The conversations we had since that first meeting always seemed to come back to nature – wind, stones, water, plants, birds, reeds – and saxophones, and certain saxophonists. The interviews I recorded with Lou all ended up being en plein air – our voices, and gusts of wind, soughing boughs, ambiguous rumbles, church bells, distant blowings shut of doors and the singing of birds. At times these sounds seemed to intrude, obscure and claim back meanings being made in conversation. On reflection, our conversations were part of the world. But that’s what we were talking about (what I was learning about) – the endless power of sounds and vibrations in combination. The senses in which music, space, people, ideas, world and time are not discrete taxonomies but part of an endless, open flux. It seems to me that Lou discovered and showed a way to be within this world of sound, and the powers and potentials of ideas and sound to balance, care, guide, and transform. And, to allow us to discover and be who we want to be.