“Primitive people see time as a circle. Civilized people see it as a line. We are about to see it as an open plain where we can wander at will. History is broken. Go!”
At a recent concert at London’s Vortex jazz club, Evan Parker described his co-performer for the evening, the trumpeter Peter Evans, as “a genius”, and as “the future”. Having heard him play several times now, including a dizzying solo set at 2010′s Freedom Of The City festival, I let the first description slide without question. The second was more thought-provoking. The future of what, precisely? The future of jazz? Improvisation? Noise? His live performances make notions of genre seem inadequate, while attempting to locate his approach on a temporal scale is equally problematic. His new record for the Dancing Wayang label, Beyond Civilized And Primitive, seems to celebrate this.
By taking his album title from an essay by the sociological thinker Ran Prieur, Peter Evans is, I think, not just drawing attention to Prieur’s thoughts on how society is (or could be) structured, but making a more specific point about how we think about and categorise music. Much in the same way as dividing society into the “primitive” and the “civilised”, it is too easy to view the history of improvised music as a continuum of increasing complexity, from West African call-and-response through the big band era to free jazz, and from there out towards noise. Is that earlier African music not, in its own way, highly complex, and perhaps even more innovative than subsequent developments? So does that simplistic view lead us from the primitive to the civilised, or the civilised to the primitive? And given that we only have the relatively short period of recorded music as evidence, do we even have sufficient material to construct an argument in these terms?
While it is a term more commonly associated with visual art, the term “primitivism” in relation to music has some relevance, as a (pretty condescending) way of describing the way that a “civilised” individual such as Stravinsky would reach back to “primitive” African music to provide the inspiration for his music. So, at one point we saw fit to ascribe a “genre” to the act of taking from one older musical form and using elements of it in another. But is this not just what musicians do? There is so much looking back in the restless construction of the new (as Prieur might put it, music has never been a location, always a journey) that to draw attention to it now seems almost quaint.
Perhaps the only relevance of such a notion as “civilisation” is that with the passing of time our tools have indeed become more complex. A corollary of this is that the advance of technology has meant that it is now so much easier for us to access recorded music from any point of the last hundred years, and music from any location. Far from stifling innovation, as some would argue (indeed a recent Critical Beats seminar hosted by the Wire magazine spent a considerable time debating whether electronic music had in fact completely stagnated), this technology has encouraged it. One one level, you have young people who didn’t live through the boom times of Chicago house borrowing some of its structures to make something as undeniably fresh as juke/footwork. Then you have an act like Part Wild Horse Mane On Both Sides, who take a step further back, seemingly reaching back through the entire period of recorded sound, mixing field recordings with jazz, ethnic instrumentation with noise, adding a layer of modern technology to forge a whole new world of sound from temporally and geographically disparate sources.
The same creative energy isn’t necessarily all being focused in just one direction, meaning that developments can at times be less obvious, and far briefer in their existence. Rather than being propelled forward in a fast but predictable arc, sometimes genres collide, throwing off microscopic spirals which burn brightly for an infinitesimally short period of time – as the musicologist and critic Adam Harper asks in an excellent post on Night Slugs, whatever happened to wonky? Harper’s argument that defining music by label of release rather than by genre (or style, as he prefers) has distinct advantages, and has relevance to this particular case: Dancing Wayang don’t release as many records as Night Slugs, but they do seem to be attracting a certain type of musician. Like other artists who have recorded for the label – for example the saxophonist Mats Gustafsson or the drummer Chris Corsano – Peter Evans is an experimental young artist who transcends simplistic notions of genre, who can sit in with musicians from a wide variety of backgrounds, from the International Contemporary Ensemble to Fred Frith, from Evan Parker to Kevin Shea.
Peter Evans, by Scott McMillan
Returning to the record in question, the trumpet is the only instrument you’ll hear on it (well, the trumpet and the piccolo trumpet, to be precise), but that does little to curtail its scope. Thanks to the way that Evans plays it, he achieves a sense of temporal dislocation, referencing points from the instrument’s life from its original construction, through its use in classical and then improvised jazz, to noise and the new. At one point during that recent Vortex performance I mentioned, I saw Evans removing the valves from his instrument in order to just blow through it, and you can hear something similar on the second side of Beyond Civilized And Primitive. This is sound for sound’s own sake, unable to be coerced into rhythm or melody, at once extended technique and a sort of opposite: a purposeful limitation of technique, a voluntary simplicity. As such, it seems to call into question what we even mean by “extended” technique, about what is natural, and what is an enhancement – and so we find ourselves back to the primitive/civilised debate once more.
Evans doesn’t attempt to hide his technique on Beyond Civilized And Primitive: the sound is close-miked, you can hear him clicking at keys, and almost even see him circular breathing his way through “History Is Broken”, gasping in air, taking it in as deeply as he has done music from over the ages (worth pointing out, perhaps, that Evans is a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music). That vivid and irregular breathy pulse aside, that track is one long, superbly controlled line of sound, rattling along at pace like Dizzy Gillespie playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight Of The Bumblebee. Some overdubs and loops are the only overt reference to technological progress on the album: the track whose title begins “We Like Hot Baths And Sailing Ships And Recorded Music And The Internet” (the full thing runs to 59 words and I’m well over word count already) has him duetting with a recording of himself and, one obvious issue of timbre aside, it sounds almost like Don and Albert Ayler locking together to play the theme from “Truth Is Marching In”. And so the album alternates between modes which could be considered “classical” and “contemporary”, Evans’s distinct voice managing to make them feel like dialects of the same language.
The closing track is most impressive in the way it draws from and juxtaposes seemingly different styles. It opens with a solo trumpet fanfare before suddenly switching to a section of layered dissonant drone: as if he is leaping directly from Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra to György Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna, jumpcutting from the “primitive” to the “civilised” in what feels like a reference to Kubricks’s film version of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Much in the manner of the Kubrick film, Evans isn’t offering up any easy answers to the questions he has posed thus far, but he does at least provides a neat conceptual conclusion to what is a truly stellar record.
Ultimately, the history of recorded music is not a one dimensional line or a two dimensional circle. It is a three, even four dimensional space, in which individuals like Peter Evans can wander at will, making the connections in any direction they choose. This music exists outside of genre and temporal constraints: far beyond the civilised and primitive. History is broken, but the future may well be in safe hands.