COMMUNITY IN BELGIUM
WORDS AND PICTURES BY WILLY GUY
Venues: 1Opm, Friday 24th Oct 1980, 2pm, Saturday 25th Oct 1980 : Palais des Beaux Arts, Bruxelles / Palaes voor Schone Kunsten, Brussel
9pm, Saturday 25th Oct 1980 : Stedelijk Concertgebouw, Brugge/Bruges
Will Menter - soprano, piccolo
Aaron Standon - soprano, alto
Mark Langford - bass clarinet, electric piano
John Eaves - flutes, soprano
Paul Jolly - reeds, flute
Ian Menter - alto sax, trombone
William Embling - trumpet, sousaphone
Martin Mayes - French horn
Alan Tomlinson - trombones
Colin Wood - cello
Peter Evans - violin
Tim Powell - double bass, trumpet
Piers Mostyn - double bass, melodica
Peter Cusack - guitar
Bob Helson - percussion
John Fairbrother - percussion
Barry Leigh - glass disc, cronian bagpipe
Arrival in Brussels was no better. Uncertain of our route, we tried to negotiate rush hour streams of angry cars, but then the bulk of the Palais des Beaux Arts loomed up and we were there. Half an hour and a cup of good Belgian coffee later even the murderous schedule of three concerts in two days - sandwiched by two night ferry crossings - seemed possible again. It had even stopped raining.
The two Brussels performances took place in the context of a grandiose celebration of 150 years of Belgian nationhood of which the artistic centrepiece was a massive exhibition of Breugel paintings and drawings - assembled from all over the world. The relevance of concerts by Bristol and London-based improvisers seemed remote - unless they were intended by the promoter, Godfried-Willem Raes, as counter events. Yet on reflection, even the main poster for the celebration was a mordant comment on Belgium as a political entity. It was Breugel's 'Tower of Babel', but instead of the whole picture being shown, the two halves of the tower were depicted on similar, complementary posters - one of which was printed in Flemish, the other in French. To obtain the complete image both posters had to be placed side by side. So perhaps a kind of music appreciated by a small but international fraternity and played by a group of foreign musicians bearing the name 'Community' was not so out of place after all.
Waiting for the first ever performance of Community later that evening I could see the musicians holding their final briefing and was reminded of the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra workshop in Bristol a few months before. There had been a lot of discussion at the time as to whether improvising was really viable on a large scale because of the complexity involved. Evan Parker's position was that all the musicians had to be thoroughly familiar with each other's playing; failing this, structures were useful to help the players attain the sort of mutual understanding that could probably not be reached otherwise within the limited time of a workshop session or concert performance.
Will Menter had no ideological objection to structuring as such. In the small group in which he regularly works - Both Hands Free - individual members had originally used loosely arranged material to underpin group improvisation, and four years previously Will composed 'Wind and Fingers' for a seven piece group of the same name in which written passages and free improvisation were intertwined. Nevertheless the scale of a group containing so many musicians presented its own difficulties.
Will's solution to the apparent paradox of scoring for seventeen improvisers was ingenious; he had devised a piece which was basically a 'collage' of short themes, each written for only a few instruments. These did not tie the players as in straight music for they were suggested guidelines rather than commands and not only did individual musicians have the choice whether and when to select themes but they were free to develop them as the small group dynamic seemed to require, and also as they felt appropriate to the broader orchestral context at any particular time.
Building in such flexibility had its risks though, for - as with most small group improvisation - the overall development of the piece was not charted in advance and depended on the perceptiveness of the participating musicians and on their willingness to respond to each other's playing.
By ten o'clock a good size audience had gathered, spread over irregular, ascending tiers of blocks on one side of the performance area. Facing them on similar tiers were strewn the musicians instruments and between these two slopes a clear gangway led from the entrance hail at one end to a series of broad rising stairs which formed the approach to the main exhibition hall. Above and around the walls ran open galleries where a few late visitors wandered past rows of prints, occasionally pausing to glance curiously over the balustrade at the assembly below. The whole effect was to suggest an informal, rectangular-shaped amphitheatre rather than the conventional concert hall.
The musicians took their places and began - tentatively
at first then increasing in volume, exploring how their instruments
sounded in this new setting. The initial hesitating also suggested anticipation,
as if everyone was waiting for the first definitive theme to emerge.
It came from the strings - a quiet but strongly rhythmically accented
figure which gathered force as a saxophone joined
It would be possible to continue describing the scored passages but this would be at the expense of other equally important elements of the performance. In particular such a way of writing tends to overemphasise the significance of the sequence of themes as discrete units. But rather than simply following each other most themes overlapped, emerging gradually from the preceding music. Frequently several motifs could be heard at the same time. Meanwhile other instruments were adding their contribution which could not be identified with any specific theme.
The multi-centred nature of the music was paralleled visually as instrumentalists moved around with their music stands to regroup for new themes. As the piece developed this movement on the musicians' side of the performance area spread out to take in the whole hall as small groups of players detached themselves to stand on the end staircase or progress along the upper galleries. Call and response elements were especially effective as refrains were passed to and fro between galleries and the main body of the hall. At one point a theme rather like pealing bells could be heard very faintly at first, then more audibly as a brass contingent approached from the far end of the entrance hall and swept into the main body of the hall.
The earlier part of the performance tended to be relatively energetic and the audience responded actively - swaying with the more rhythmic passages and obviously excited by the movement of the musicians opposite and later around them. As the music drew to a close it was harder to discern distinct themes or even whether the music was based on scored passages. A much gentler even melancholy atmosphere was established as long drawn-out notes and minor intervals were complemented by muffled gong notes and plaintive seagull-like cries. During this final period the listeners sat very quietly, couples drawing closer to each other. The feeling was very unusual for improvised music. It had something of the intimate ambiance of a Frank Sinatra late night cabaret session except that instead of fragmenting the audience into separate couples - each sitting at their own table lit by its individual lamp or candle - the music of Community spoke of shared feelings and experience. When the players finally stopped the applause was warm but it was as if a spell had been broken.
In the pub late that night the mood was euphoric. The time for anxiety was past, for Will's bold concept had been vindicated - Community worked. There had been three rehearsals previously in England but not everybody had been able to make them and in any case time was needed to adjust to the practice of playing in constantly changing small groups as part of a continuous larger ensemble. After that first success the next performance would probably have been an anti-climax in any case but no-one was prepared for the incongruity of the following afternoon.
Early in the morning two of us had tried to beat the crowds and slip into the Breugel exhibition at the opening hour - but no such luck, for large conducted parties were ushered past us as we waited. By the time we were allowed in the only way to see any pictures was to watch for a changeover of groups and dart into the intervening gap - ignoring the scowls of the incoming party. The accompanying guides spent most of their energies in trying to shout down the commentaries of guides of nearby groups - often in a different language. Again the Tower of Babel poster was singularly appropriate.
That was first thing in the morning but by the time Community were due to play in the afternoon the Breugel queue was five abreast and stretched down the staircase, right through the middle of the performance area - separating musicians and audience - and on out into the entrance hall. There was an abundance of well-cut suits and dresses and the glint of gold from wrist or neck and the occasional whiff of expensive perfume. These visitors had the air of attending a highly exclusive social function rather than waiting to view the peasant paintings of Breugel; certainly they did not look anything like a potential audience for improvised music.
As the musicians took their places there was no acknowledgement by those in the queue that they might be invading a concert hall; instead they saw themselves as a theatre queue to be amused by capering street performers. The promoter, Godfried, tried to demarcate the two separate worlds with strands of barbed wire but the players responded more positively to the situation. Rather than attempt the hopeless task of performing the piece in such conditions they decided to improvise - a sort of big-hand busking - and drew very mixed reactions. Some people were simply affronted, like the young woman who immediately screwed up her eyes and clamped her hands firmly over her ears, but others responded with peals of surprise and delighted laughter. One portly businessman stared with undisguised amazement at Barry Leigh scraping his glass disc with a polystyrene block. From his horrified expression you would have thought that at the very least Barry was sawing off his own leg. School parties were especially responsive - at first imitating the cries of the instruments, later trying their hand at playing them - and so the session ended as a good-humoured workshop.
- packing up two van loads of instruments - driving to Brugge - making our erratic way to the hall through the picturesque, maze-like streets of the old town - humping the instruments once more to the performance area on the top floor of an Arts Centre - then humping them in the reverse direction (with the performance sandwiched in between) - and finally a snatched beer before the dash for the midnight ferry which we just made.
In the bar on board we relived the excitement of the past two days and ambitious plans were made for yet another gig on the trip - an impromptu marching band to take part in the national CND demonstration in London ten hours later. But after the boost of alcohol had faded exhaustion took over and as we gazed blearily at our watery breakfast coffee in the motorway services outside Dover, it was hard to imagine how we could have thought it possible to play again that afternoon.
Acknowledgement: Our Travel Correspondent would like
to thank the British Council, the Arts Council of Great Britain, Community,
Townsend Thorenson Ferries and Tripp-Robins van hire for their generous
help in making his journey possible.