Spontaneous Music Ensemble

The Spontaneous Music Ensemble was an informal group of free-improvising musicians that was founded in the mid-1960s by John Stevens, a South London-based jazz drummer/trumpeter and Trevor Watts, alto and soprano respectively. The recordings and performances of the SME could include Stevens-Watts duets or larger groups with more than a dozen musicians. Brian Olewnick, a critic, writes that the SME emphasized an “extremely transparent, leaderless” aspect, where musicians were encouraged to listen carefully and consider their surroundings. Evan Parker, a saxophonist, observed that Stevens followed two simple rules. (1) If you can’t see another musician, then you’re playing too loud. (2) If the music you produce doesn’t relate to the music others are creating, why join the group. This resulted in what became known as “insect Improv” — music that was very quiet, intense, rhythmic, arrhythmic and, by and large, atonal. In January 1966, the SME started a six-night residency at London’s Little Theatre Club. They recorded their first album Challenge in the following month. The group’s history can be divided into two periods. There were earlier, more horn-oriented ensembles that featured Watts, Evan Parker, and Kenny Wheeler. Later ensembles featured Roger Smith (who was as important to the second edition as Watts was to its first), and Nigel Coombes as the violinist. The transitional point is the quartet album Biosystem, Incus (1977), which also featured Colin Wood. Over the years, the SME was home to many other musicians, including Barry Guy, Peter Kowald, Kent Carter, Paul Rutherford and Maggie Nichols. The last edition of the group consisted of Stevens, Smith and John Butcher as the saxophonist. This configuration was documented in A New Distance (1994). The SME was inspired by American free jazz, the radical abstract music of AMM, and influences such as Anton Webern (two Stevens touchstones), but the group maintained at least some jazz in its sound. However, this style became less evident in later “string” ensembles. The SME was ended by Stevens’s death in 1994. From Wikipedia

Leave a Comment