13-26 AUGUST 1972: THE INTERNATIONAL CARNIVAL OF EXPERIMENTAL SOUND, London Roundhouse
extract from the forthcoming book June 1st 1974: Kevin Ayers, John Cale, Nico, Eno, Mike Oldfield and Robert Wyatt – The Greatest Supergroup of the Seventies.
It was events like this for which the Roundhouse thrived. In and around the concerts that were the venue’s weekly lifeblood, and for which the original (unrestored) venue is so fondly remembered, the Roundhouse was the heartbeat of London’s underground arts scene, a vast disused railway building that once housed one of the immense turntables that are used to turn locomotives around.
Located in Chalk Farm, at the top end of Camden Town, the Roundhouse served as a Gilbey’s Gin warehouse for a time, but it had stood derelict since before World War Two, only to be reborn in 1966 under the aegis of playwright Arnold Wesker, the home to the Centre 42 Theatre Company and to a host of underground happenings, too.
The interior of the Roundhouse had scarcely changed since the railroad moved out little more than a decade after the place was built in 1847. Indeed, great hunks of what might well have been rusting locomotive metal still lurked around the walls and down in the cellars. The electricity supply was little more than any domestic dwelling might require; the seating arrangements were rickety and primitive, a none too stable-feeling balcony that overlooked the main floor; and the cloying stench of ancient diesel oil cut through the breath of modern incense and dope.
It wasn’t the biggest venue in town, and it wasn’t the oldest. It wasn’t even the most prestigious. But it had an atmosphere like no other. When you breathed in, you tasted the same soot and oil that the very first railroad-men had tasted. And when you looked into the darkest corners, the ghosts of old train drivers winked back at you, lined up alongside the flower-children, hippies, greasers and more who now called the Roundhouse home. When the International Carnival of Experimental Sound (ICES for short) was first mooted in late 1971, no more suitable home than the Roundhouse could be imagined.
ICES was the brainchild of Harvey Matusow, the Jews Harp Bandman who was also working as UK correspondent for The Source: Music of the Avant Garde magazine, the twice-yearly magazine dedicated to the burgeoning (but then, so delightfully unshackled) world of experimental music. Edited out of Berkeley by Larry Austin, Stan Lunetta and Art Woodbury, the magazine became (and remains) the scene’s most vibrant cheerleader ever. Names such as Stockhausen, John Cage, Harry Partch, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Robert Ashley and Anna Lockwood were all familiar to readers of The Source; Steve Reich, Cornelius Cardew and Gavin Bryars too. The Portsmouth Sinfonia received their first major print mention there; Christopher Hobbs and Steve Reich as well. And to put further flesh on the bones that the writings so exquisitely illustrated, subscribers were also treated to annual 10-inch albums featuring the music of chosen composers.
A box set comprising all six albums, the sensibly titled Source Records 1-6 (1968-1971) (Pogus Productions, P21050-2) was released in 2008, rounding up thirteen tracks that could effortlessly be seen as a prelude to all that Eno would attempt with his Obscure label later in the 1970s. Robert Ashley, David Behrman, Larry Austin, Allan Bryant, Alvin Lucier, Arthur Woodbury, Mark Riener, Stanley Lunetta, Lowell Cross, Arrigo Lora-Totino, Alvin Curran and Anna Lockwood were all introduced to an international audience via the original vinyl, and re-emerging here, the sheer range and variety that was The Source’s raison d’être is revealed.
Listened to while immersed in the University of California’s 2011 reprint of the printed magazine’s greatest hits unleashes sensations that must be very close to time travel. So many of the ideas and theories expounded on those pages, and these discs, have since become absorbed into the modern body of popular music that returning to, indeed, the source is akin to spending your life listening to the Rolling Stones, and then discovering Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.
Ashley’s “The Wolfman” is certainly a decade-early foreshadowing of what Lou Reed would manufacture for Metal Machine Music – the primary difference being, much of Ashley’s piece was vocal. Behrman’s “Wave Train” is a duet for feedback and grand piano; Bryant’s “Pitch Out” demands the creation of an entirely new instrument, eight electrified strings (mandolin, guitar and bass) mounted on a board, and four different players simultaneously broadcasting through four separate speakers.
Some of the music is abrasive; some utterly dislocating. Lucier’s “I Am Sitting In A Room” is a guided meditation for suggestion and sonic; Riener’s “Phlegethon” is the sound of multiple strands of tightly wound cling-film being set aflame. But others are stark beauty; Lockwood’s “Tiger Balm” comprises the amplified purring of a tiger, looped through gentle vibraphone, heartbeats and orgasmic moans – a piece of music that haunts in its simplicity, is breathtaking in its majesty.
ICES would showcase all of these notions.
Matusow’s vision of the festival was as ambitious as it was far-reaching. Interviewed by Charles Amirkhanian, a DJ at Berkeley, California’s KPFA in March 1972, he predicted “the largest, wildest, most insane, mad extravaganza” ever seen, stepping beyond the confines of even the most spectacular music or arts festival by combining all the artistic disciplines into one. Later he admitted his original intention was purely to find ways of promoting Lockwood’s work, although other participants detected more political notions, too.
Gavin Bryars: “I remember that some people like Bob Ashley were convinced that Matusow had organised this festival in order to get all the artistic radicals out of America during the Nixon re-election year. Which I thought was a bit paranoid and far-fetched, but it was an interesting thought. In fact many people believed that Matusow was in league with the CIA. He arrived in England with seemingly strong radical credentials. There was some film footage of the McCarthy hearings where Matusow was being questioned, and he fooled about with his ‘invisible’ yo-yo – he was said to have gone to jail for a while. When he came to England, he already had everyone’s addresses and phone numbers and people were suspicious and became convinced that he was spying for the CIA.”
Nevertheless, the festival expanded. Selecting London, Matusow told Amirkhanian , because “it was a bit more staid and stodgy,” over 300 audio and visual performers from close to two dozen countries were invited to appear at a two week-long marathon, under an overall thematic banner of Myth, Magic Madness and Mysticism.
A book would be published celebrating the festival. A feature-length movie was planned. A series of live LPs would preserve the sounds. Artists would not be paid to perform (or even recompensed for travel, although they would be fed and housed while they were in London), but all would share in the riches that would doubtless follow the execution of all these glorious plans.
From dance and films, to a London to Edinburgh train journey; sculptures and lasers, happenings and environments, “plus categories yet to be invented” prophesied Source. Traveling performances were scheduled for trains and boats and all this, across thirteen days in all,for just twelve pounds. (As a point of comparison, tickets for a regular Sunday night rock gig at the Roundhouse in 1971 cost between 50p and one pound.)
Equipment was hired if necessary, but donated wherever possible. Neve delivered a sixteen channel mixer, Scotch donated 500 hours of tape. Quadrophonic recording equipment was installed, and when additional performers were required to adorn the event, an advertisement in Time Out was all the organizers required. When extra accommodation was needed for performers, and there was no room left at the student hotel rented from the University of London, more ads brought forth a flood of couches, floors and spare rooms from the public.
Stan Lunetta, performing with his electronics band Amra Arma, captured the ensuing organizational chaos in the online comic book Amra Arma Meets The Lurker Within, a fantasy romp throughout which the names are only marginally changed to protect the guilty. Arriving in the city of Flun Doon, tracking down the Rune House where they have been booked to appear, and seeking out their host, Fat Oozoh, our heroes are dismayed to learn “you have a week to secure any necessary equipment….” two of the band were sent off to stay in digs, the rest would be billeted at “a small inn with a friendly but rowdy group of revolutionaries.” Caricatures of their fellow performers turn up at least a handful of recognizable figures, while the adventure’s denouement must be read to be disbelieved.
Issue nine of Source cataloged the cream of the scheduled crop. AMM, a long-running band whose membership at different times included Christopher Hobbs, Christian Wolff and Cornelius Cardew, but had now devolved to a duo of drummer Eddie Prevost and saxophonist Lou Gare. The Scratch Orchestra, another Cardew and Hobbs venture that developed out of the former’s Experimental Music classes at Morley College.
The Sydney based improv/noise group Teletopa would be there, part of a two month world tour of sorts whose next stop was Tokyo. There, a show at NHK studios, Tokyo, 1 Sep 1972 was recorded, a cascade of almost animalistic bleeps and squeals set over the chaos of a wired geiger counter. Released by Splitrec in 2008, it may or may not resemble their London performance.
The Nihilist Spasm Band, a Canadian outfit playing exclusively homemade instruments. The New York Biofeedback Orchestra. Fylkingen from Sweden. Ensemble MEV2 from Poland. Germany’s New Phonic Art; Pierre Marietan’s Group Germ from France; Grupo Alea from Spain. American performers Light Sculpture and Amra Amra, Britain’s Intermodulation. Composers John White, David Rosenboom and Michel Waisvisz,;the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. From the Netherlands, the Amsterdam Electric Circus promised a life of Chairman Mao. Not all of them actually made it (MEV2 were among those that didn’t) but still the itinerary was full.
Bryars continues: “He brought over a lot of Americans, like the Sonic Arts Union, Bob Ashley, Cage and David Tudor. Takehisa Kosugi came over from Japan with his group the Taj Mahal Travellers. A number of us played in some pieces of Jon Gibson’s, and the Portsmouth Sinfonia also played at the festival. So there was a sense of lots of people knowing each other.” (“Thirties,” an excerpt from one of Gibson’s performances, with Bryars and David Rosenboom among the percussionists, was included on the 2000 reissue of saxophonist Gibson’s Visitations album – New Tone 67472).
Penny Rimbaud and Gee Vaucher, later to find fame as Crass, performed as Exit, and were also responsible for all the event’s advertising; it was Vaucher who designed ICES’ distinctive logo of an ice-cream cone. Talking with Crass biographer George Berger, Rimbaud recalled, “it was a magnificent festival – I don’t think there’s ever been an avant-garde festival to compare with it. Two weeks solid, starting about midday every day. There were events going in all over the place. The great and the not so great avant gardists worldwide came to it and performed, mostly for nothing. Financially it was a disaster, but it was a fantastic festival.”
New York performance artist and cellist Charlotte Moorman, still notorious for the topless performance of her long-time artistic partner Nam June Paik’s Opera Sextronique in New York that earned her a suspended sentence in 1967, would present an utterly naked performance, made even more extraordinary by her intention to play a cello made out of ice.
Coum Transmissions, the performance artists who would become Throbbing Gristle, were in the audience at least, although their efforts were largely being saved for the simultaneous Fluxshoe exhibition, a travelling show that had also touched down in London that month.
Lawrence Casserley, another of the organizing committee, reflects “my overall impression was the sheer range and variety of what happened there – some extraordinary strangenesses – some deep banality – some over-egged pomposity – but mostly a great generosity between people who were all doing very different things, but all (or mostly all) stretching the bounds of the possible, and understanding that even those whose work you didn’t much like were also doing that. And hovering over all this was the strange, ambivalent personality of Harvey Matusow.
“I think probably this was a kind of event that could only have happened then,” he concludes. “By the later ‘70s, things were different.”
The honour of opening the carnival went to John Cage and the UK premiere of the multi-media “HPSCHD,” a work for seven solo harpsichords, fifty-two computer generated tapes, eight thousand slides and a hundred half-hour NASA movies being projected onto walls, balloons and dangling transparent screens alike.
The performers read like a who’s who of the carnival itself: Frederick Page, Roger Woodward, Richard Bernas, Anna Lockwood, Cornelius Cardew, David Tudor and John Tilbury. Cage himself conducted.
Black ice cream was on sale.
The BBC would broadcast the event as part of the annual Proms, beginning at 9pm on Radio Three. (At the end of a three month European tour, Cage was, in fact, no stranger to that year’s proms; three days earlier at the Royal Albert Hall, Pierre Boulez conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s proms premiere of “First Construction in Metal.”)
Advance ticket sales were strong, press interest was high. Some 1,200 people packed the venue; an estimated 2,000 more were turned away at the door. “They were lined up like it was a pop concert, over the bridge, down the side streets…” Matusow recalled.
You could even overlook the fact that Source, the magazine that was so instrumental in ICES conception, and whose twelfth issue was scheduled to be a full celebration of the event, folded while that issue was still in the planning stages.
All concerned were convinced of one thing. The British musical mainstream might never embrace experimental music. But the arts crowd and the curious would surely sustain the festival.
The New Scientist magazine was present that opening night, watching as the audience mingled with the machinery Cage set up on the dance floor; “Cage was smoking and looking rather pleased, either with himself, the production or both.” An action artist crouched on the floor, sketching, murder investigation-style, the outlines of prone audience members. The black ice cream ran out, but strawberry and vanilla were still available.
One night down, a dozen more to go.
Gavin Bryars took the stage. “There was a series of performances on the main floor of the Roundhouse (LaMonte Young String Trio; Terry Jennings String Quartet; George Brecht Candle Piece for Radios and many other including pieces by Cardew) that continued over a ten hours period while four of us (myself, John Tilbury, Christopher Hobbs and Tom Phillips) played the percussion parts for Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis lasting the full ten hours in the circular gallery above.”
A crowd gathered around Charlotte Moorman. “Ice Cello” was the work of Jim McWilliams, creator too of her 1969 “Sky Kiss” performance, and the following year’s “The Intravenous Feeding of Charlotte Moorman.” Naked, she took the stage, surrounded by a circle of fan heaters and cradling her “instrument.” Anna Lockwood recalls, “As I recall, she’d recently had an operation for the breast cancer which, I think, killed her [Moorman died 8 November 1991], and she sat naked for hours, drawing a bow across a really misshapen lump of ice which only resembled a cello in its height and width.
“Since I was the person responsible for getting the ice cello made I feel free to describe it that way, and what a task that was! We needed a mould and of course no cellist would lend us a hard case, but someone generously did give us a soft case, into which we poured ice cubes until it was stuffed, then stashed it in an industrial-size ice chest. She was deeply disappointed with the result, having envisaged something beautifully carved, but, typically, played it any way down to the last drop.”
As the ice melted, slithers would adhere to her skin. It would take far longer than anybody imagined for the cello to finally be transformed into a puddle, the stated culmination of her act – so long that much of the audience spent her set in the bar, poking a head around the corner periodically, to check on the state of the thaw. Poor Charlotte’s icy ordeal is brilliantly captured, incidentally, in one frame of the aforementioned Amra Arma Meets the Lurker Within.
Of all the performances that she witnessed that fortnight, Anna Lockwood says, “Charlotte Moorman’s Ice Cello sticks in my mind, for its astonishing gallantry and level of risk, a characteristic of hers of course.”
Lawrence Casserley set up. His performance was a sound and light show with what became the multi-media group Hydra, and a piece that eventually morphed into the acclaimed “Dodman Point [Live el and Light]”. It was not necessarily a great performance, as he recalls. “It was originally conceived for the intimate surround space of the Cockpit Theatre in north London, and I think it got a bit lost in the vast emptiness of the Roundhouse. Also I was putting out so much energy helping everyone else with their technical setups that I inevitably neglected my own, so it didn’t go all that well.” “Dodman Point,” however, would grow in stature and now stands among Casserley’s most beloved pieces.
The performances themselves, then, were going well. But finances were beginning to tighten. Matusow later estimated an average attendance of between 500-1,000, and a performance from Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamash’ta’s Red Buddha Theatre, on the eve of their departure for a six month Parisian residency, pushed those figures even higher for at least one night. Their set, remembers Lockwood, was “thrilling, extreme volume and energy.” But poor ticket sales for events that did not feature Cage (which, now, was all of them) dented even the basic dinner money that Matusow was providing to the artists who required it.
Eric Lanzillota, whose Anomalous label was at one time planning an entire series of ICES-based CD releases, confirms the poor attendance. “I think the first thing to clear up about ICES is the audience. For the most part, there wasn’t any. The turnout for the opening concert with John Cage was over capacity. After that the audience dropped off very sharply, making Harvey rather sore.”
None of the film makers he had invited turned up. The book deal had fallen through. Equipment he had been promised on loan failed to materialize. So did various scheduled performers. And attempts to interest record companies were doomed to failure. As Eric Lanzillota quipped, “trying to get people to listen to the tapes afterward was rather unsuccessful. Actually a lot of the artists didn’t even realize they were recorded!”
Things began to look grim, but Matusow pressed on. On 22 August, a private train packed with performers departed St Pancras bound for Edinburgh, to welcome the world to that city’s just-opening festival. Charlotte Moorman, having recovered from her ordeal by slowly-melting cello, was among them, en route to performing “TV Bra” (topless, with television monitors attached to her breasts) at the Richard Demarco Gallery.
Matusow even persisted with what proved to the biggest misstep of the entire campaign; demanding that journalists intending to cover the event pay the same admission fee as the public. Nobody (Matusow presumably notwithstanding) was surprised when they refused. Opening night aside, the festival barely saw another word in print.
Not that the participants required any critical comment. They got enough of that from Matusow himself. AMM played a set that Eddie Prevost recalled spent its entire time “on the edge,” only for Matusow to greet them with the words “nice jam, fellas,” as they left the stage. On CD (At The Roundhouse – Anomalous ICES 01), their forty-six minute performance is titled “The Sound of Indifference,” and one wonders whether that was its original title, or a post-performance pun. Either way, forty-six minutes of furiously energetic sax and percussion improv prove to be far more captivating that any brief description of the line-up could suggest, two players going hell for leather on their instruments whilst never losing sight of what the other is saying. It would, if that was what they had intended, have been a “nice jam.” In fact, it ranks high among the most enthralling statements any such duo has ever consigned to tape.
Matusow’s disdain did seem to single out saxophonists. Although Anna Lockwood has no recollection of the incident (and would have been “appalled” if it had), David Bedford recalled Lol Coxhill’s aptly-named Anarchic Chamber Ensemble faring even more poorly at the hands of their host, with Matusow “walking on stage halfway through their set, gesturing for them to stop playing, and then announcing ‘thank you that’s enough of that’. And that was the end of their performance.”
Undeterred, Bedford and Coxhill would also perform as a duo, restaging elements of the mini-set of old-time songs and spoken word that they added to the Whole World’s live show, with the addition of a belly dancer named Venetia. (“That probably wasn’t her real name,” Bedford confided.) Matusow’s response to that was not recorded, but other performers certainly fared better.
Hot from a week’s rehearsal in a tiny Dutch village, the STEAM-Group + Sven-Åke Johansson presented their Grand Electronic Suite. “The repertoire of the first half was a kind of ‘frozen improvisation,” recalled saxophonist Luc Houtkamp. “The second half of the performance was totally different. [Percussionist] Sven Johansson made a choreography on the music of The Grand Canyon Suite of Grofe. We didn’t play the music ourself, but we had a tape of the music played. And we had this dance act on it….
“We were all dressed up as animals, I was the big bear, with ears and all, and we danced the awaking of the day, the adventures of the animals, the storm, and returning to peace at the end. We were not dancers at all, and it was very amateurish on purpose. Those were the days…” The performance, with Houtkamp’s full memoir of the event, is now available as At The Roundhouse, London 1972 (SAJ CD15).
Collaboration was in the air, both onstage and off. Gavin Bryars: “I was introduced to Nico there by Alan Power – a film producer and entrepreneur. It was from his film project that the voice of the old man who sang ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me’ originated… He had in mind some kind of collaboration, but she seemed completely out of it and no sense could emerge from the conversation.”
Daniel Lentz paired with German performance artist Wolfgang Stoerchel, whose act included lying on the floor and wriggling out of his clothes. And when David Rosenboom arrived without any accompanying musicians, he hijacked Pat and Alan Strange’s electronics group Biome to perform his “Portable Gold and Philosopher’s Stones” (the performance is now available on the Invisible Gold CD – Pogus 21022-2).
Rosenboom: “‘Portable Gold and Philosophers’ Stones’ [was] a brainwave music work for a quartet of performers. I also played several pieces with the group, Electric Stereopticon. These included: ‘How Much Better if Plymouth Rock Had Landed On the Pilgrims; Section VI and Section IX (a.k.a. Piano Etude I)’ We also did some improvising.” But almost as important, he recalls, were “many interesting scenes and interactions from that time, especially social interactions and conversations with Jerry Hunt, David Tudor, John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, and many, many more.”
It was time for the organizers to perform, and they let nobody down. Indeed, Naked Software were devastating, both sonically and visually. “We tended to do semi-improvised performances, often based on some form of graphic notation,” explains Lockwood. “The ICES performance did involve our playing a gorgeous gamelan-like instrument made by the Royal Engineers from shell casings – beautiful resonances and only Matusow could have talked the Engineers into building this and another sound sculpture, the details of which I’ve forgotten.”
In addition to the Naked Software performance, Lockwood was also showcased by the London Philharmonic Chorus under John Alldis, whose program included David Rowland’s ‘5 Alleluias’ and Lockwood’s participation piece, “Hummmmmmmmiiinnnnnnng” “(just repeat letters freely),” she laughs; “which asked first the choir and then also the audience to hum on any pitch which feels comfortable, changing pitches freely, but not making melodies or patterns. I remember what beautiful chords and combinations evolved and drifted, quite softly at first then building, across the space.” The London Contemporary Dance Theatre also included her work in one of several programs, a gorgeous version of “Tiger Balm” which Richard Alston took up and choreographed, and then toured.
Japanese electronics visionary Takehisa Kosugi of the Taj Mahal Travellers arrived. “I think [he] is the greatest living composer in the world,” Matusow raved. “He creates magic with sound.” The Travellers were nearing the end of their lifespan; the band formed with just one goal in mind – to travel the world until they reached the Taj Mahal in India, and then break up. For their ICES performance, armed with cello, santoors and Kosugi’s violin, audiences were treated to a twelve hour performance, an improvisation set to a film and audio recording of the tide going in and out.
Alone, Kosugi would perform the sweeping electronic symphony “Mano Dharma” (later recorded, as “Mano Dharma ’74” on 1975’s Catch-Wave album), a piece that he sketched out over a hectic stay at the Matusows’ cottage in Ingatestone, Essex – where, incidentally, a dry-run for ICES was staged in June, in the form of the First Days of Ingatestone festival. Several of the artists invited to ICES had appeared there, including Belgian composer and artist Jacques Bekaert.
Bekaert would now team with countryman Michel Herr, Kosugi and another Traveller, Ryo Koike, in a new improvisational group, Transition – whose appearance was almost derailed when Herr was called up for national service in Belgium. Hastily, the ICES crew contacted the Belgian embassy in London, pointing out that if Transition could not appear, their homeland would go utterly unrepresented at this most prestigious of festivals. The embassy pulled the necessary strings and Herr was sprung.
On another occasion, Bekaert and Kosugi alone came together to improvise “The Internationale.” And how were Kosugi and the Travellers rewarded for all this activity? Gavin Bryars laughs, “They had a problem with their return travel and ended up staying at my house in Ladbroke Grove – it was quite a big place and we’d just moved in. It seemed that Matusow had either not got them a return tickets or there was some difficulty with them, and so they were stuck in England. They ended up staying with us for nearly a month, which was not easy, but they were great people and I had a wonderful introduction to Japanese cuisine.”
The Portsmouth Sinfonia took the stage, and if anybody in the audience recognized their clarinetist from the wild, sequin and feather clad creature who just days before had been onstage with Roxy Music at the biggest gig of the glam rock year, they didn’t say (or shout out) anything. They appeared before an appreciative audience – the 1812 Overture raised a laugh before they had even started. A couple of selections from the movie 2001 rolled haplessly into the crosshairs, and they finished with an exquisite “Hall of the Mountain King.” A triumph.
Lady June was there, further blurring the boundary between pure experimentation and the established underground. Her recent datebook included a residency at the Electric Cinema; playing the Paradiso in Amsterdam, and appearing at the legendary Greasy Truckers benefit at the Roundhouse on 13 February 1972 (sadly, if her performance was taped, there has been no evidence of it yet released). For ICES, Lady June turned to the cast of characters who so regularly frequented her Maida Vale apartment.
Tim Blake, a twenty-year-old keyboard whizz whom June had introduced to Daevid Allen (as a potential Gong roadie) the previous year, explains: “we were at Lady June’s in the afternoon… Steve [Hillage] too. Certainly Daevid as well. Archie [Legget] was lodging chez June at the time and we were getting ready to go when June says, ‘Where the hell are you two going? You’re both performing with me tonight at the Roundhouse!’
“So you can see, it was a highly constructed set played after months and months of intensive rehearsals.”
Didier Malherbe, Lol Coxhill and David Bedford followed the quartet into June’s onstage orbit that night, for a performance that mixed poetry, improvisation and, oddly, an onstage apple pie-eating competition and Blake continues, “I’ve seen the Roundhouse fuller, [but] I’ve probably seen it emptier, too. I have no recollection of leaving under a hail of angrily thrown stones, so I imagine the crowd was not too displeased. It’s almost forty-one years ago, but I don’t think it left any indelible memories. Although it would have been one of our first meetings with Steve [Hillage]….”
Lockwood: “Because I was involved in the team running it daily, ICES for me was a blur of sound, people, gear, vans, needs, sound, ideas, talk, sound etc, but I experienced amazing things, such as Rosenboom’s early bio-feedback pieces (‘How much better if Plymouth Rock had landed on the Pilgrims,’ for example), and Kosugi and the Taj Mahal Travelers playing all night, it seemed, in a trance-like wash of reverb, delays and film of waves on a Japanese beach. Through ICES, I met fascinating musical minds, and people whose friendship I have cherished and been grateful for ever since. The participants were amazingly generous and tolerant about the organisational muddle which resulted from trying to run fifteen days of events in multiple sites plus a train with thoroughly inadequate funding!”
Could such an event take place today? Gavin Bryars, for one, believes no. He told soundbasis.eu, “I think we’re in a slightly odd time. I would have said that maybe twenty years ago, twenty five years ago in the late sixties, early seventies, there was a lot of change, a lot of energy and a quite sort of dynamic state of affairs in new music in terms of the range of things that was happening; If anything I would say there’s a sort of new conservatism in a lot of younger composers who seem to want to achieve success through rather the more conventional means.
“If you think of in the past people like Steve Reich, Phil Glass, Terry Riley, they actually formed their own composing performing ensembles, they performed in galleries, they made their own careers. Now people would look more towards institutions, towards symphony orchestras, arts councils, government agencies as a way of helping them, that was less the case then. And in fact in a way one of the dangers can be that you start to have to compromise if you want to achieve that kind of success. There are interesting composers now but I would say that there isn’t the range of interesting activity that there might have been in the past in the younger area.”
At the time, however, through the early-mid 1970s and on into the punk and post-punk era, there was another reason why the spirit that fueled ICES could never again be invoked. Because in so many ways, it had already made the crossing that just a few years earlier had seemed impossible.
The original (first LP era) Velvet Underground, their rock instincts fused by Cale’s experiences with Lamonte Young and the multi-media sensibilities of Warhol, had meant little outside of the avant-garde at the time. Now, right now, that long hot summer of 1972, thanks to the patronage of David Bowie and Roxy Music, their name was being spoken far beyond those circles. Within six months of ICES, Lou Reed would be enjoying a hit single.
The Plastic Ono Band, the admittedly clumsy but nevertheless sincere collision of Beatle John’s pop stardom and Yoko Ono’s fringe artiness, had at least introduced rock audiences to concepts that ICES took for granted and, even as the festival came together, their Sometime In New York City album was nudging the British Top Ten with “Au” and “Don’t Worry Kyoko” – neither of which would have shaken ICES’ equilibrium in the slightest.
There is more. Within two years, the Portsmouth Sinfonia would be playing the Royal Albert Hall, and Lady June would be releasing an album of poetry and sound on a major label subsidiary. Twelve months later, Gavin Bryars, John Cage, Michael Nyman would be signing with another, Island Records’ Obscure – with their producer, a member of a band whose first single was a Top Ten smash the same month as the carnival.
Can, Amon Duul II, Faust and Tangerine Dream, German acts who owed far more to Stockhausen and Cage than they did to Chuck Berry and the Beatles, were playing to British rock audiences who, for the first time, appeared to understand (or, at least, appreciate) what they were doing – and which would undoubtedly have recognized their sounds in, for example, Jon Gibson’s “Thirties.” Eric Lanzillota: “The piece really reminds me of Faust, but I suspect none of the players were familiar with those Germans.”
And their influence took hold. Johnny Rotten, frontman of the Sex Pistols, was a Can fan, and proved it with the formation of his post-Pistols band, Public Image Ltd. As singer and pianist Pam Windo (wife of saxophonist Gary) puts it, “punk took our free improvisation philosophy to its natural conclusion.”
Soft Machine spearheaded a movement, with the Canterbury scene rapidly following, that took at least some of its impetus from the underground improv scene; at the other end of the sonic spectrum, Eno’s ambient adventures were nothing if not an echo of electronic adventures in mood and atmosphere that lay just as deeply buried.
Across the board, and for the very first time, the worlds of the avant-garde and mainstream pop were not simply acknowledging one another, they were preparing to cohabit. Fluxus was no longer a misheard obscenity; “art” was no longer a dirty word, and pop was taking steps forward that would have been imaginable even five years earlier. In 1967, Syd Barrett mentioned that one of his favorite guitarists was Keith Rowe, and people asked who that was. In 1973, Rowe rejoined AMM, and I vaguely remember the news making the pages of Melody Maker.
As is so often the case, we can argue that few, if any, of the people behind the union saw any material benefit from it. The ICES tapes, so lovingly recorded in quad by John Lifton, went unreleased at the time and, bar a couple of CDs and some clips aired on KPFA the following year, remain so. The movie never happened, nor the book. Until Wire magazine profiled the carnival in February 2012, it had essentially been forgotten, written out of musical history as just another freakoid happening at the home of so many other such things.
In fact, it was the avant-garde’s Woodstock. Only with better music.