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Interview with Eddie Prévost

img  Tobias Fischer

These days, originality appears to be the main gauge for artistic success: No insult could be worse than being made out a copycat or rip-off, no praise higher than having one's work being commended as 'unique', 'personal' or 'inventive'. And yet, as much as it's in demand, originality is a highly problematic term. For one, entirely original music is an impossibility, since every composition already builds on what came before it in some form or the other. Also, originality as a main priority does not by default result in satisfying results. Even more critically, our notion of originality is questioned by the advances of the information age: The more people are making and releasing music, the smaller the potential for each of them to create something truly original, after all. What happens when everything has been done - every sound sculpted, every beat programmed, every chord played and every arrangement tried? We spoke to a wide selection of artists from all corners of the musical spectrum to find out more about their take on originality, how they see it changing and what it means in their work.

To London-based improviser and matchless label founder Eddie Prévost, originality is closely linked to the importance of renewal, without which cultural messages would only be empty rituals.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

Emulation and benign imitation are entry strategies for artists of all kinds. Aspiring composers often write Haydn pastiches and painters copy old masters at the start their own development. The Hot Five, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane are held in similar reverence within jazz. In my own case, as a very young man (a teenager), I was known, for a while as ‘the Art Blakey of Brixton’. This betrays my early influences. But I was attracted mostly to the ‘otherness’ displayed by musicians — quirkiness and the unconventional. Jazz in Britain c. late 1950s was ‘other’. But this, of course, is relative. Much of the music that originally interested me I now find quite banal. Before leaving the idea of ‘imitation’ and emulation I should warn of its potential negative qualities. In other creative fields extreme kinds of imitation are taken for plagiarism. And, an artist might find their own voice. However, the idea of a ‘unique voice’ can be bedeviled by the prospect of self-plagiarism. The project for any creative being is to maintain an open-face to any prospect. Even one’s own voice can echo in mindless chatter!

When, would you say, did you start to appreciate originality as an important quality in music? What were some of the first artists that stood out in terms of their originality to you and what was it about the originality in their work that attracted you to it?
Recordings help frame the general narrative of creativity — especially, I suggest, in jazz. However, I gravitated towards particular musicians as playing associates. Those with whom (albeit in an intuitive fashion) I shared similar objectives. I was stimulated by Keith Rowe, Lou Gare and Cornelius Cardew particularly — i.e. early AMM. Their work often discomforted me. Conversely association with them was comforting! Spirit of collectivity. The kind of attributes they displayed in the early days are those I look for in all musicians with whom I have worked with thereafter.

What's your own definition of originality?
This a huge question which cannot be answered satisfactorily in a few sentences. However (since you ask), originality is a necessary feature in cultural life because it is a means of keeping us aware of our presence within the environment — biologically and socially. Cultural messages descend into empty ritual without renewal.

Originality is one, but certainly not the only aspect of quality in music. What, from your current perspective, is the value of originality and has it become more or less important to you over time?
There is no more important objective. However, this needs qualification. A fetish for originality leads to ‘art for art's sake’. There is a telling distinction between ‘re-invention’ (which has become an artistic rubric for some) and what I call self-invention. This topic is worthy of detailed discussion (which I have approached in more detail elsewhere). Can you re-invent the wheel? The answer is obviously no. One can, of course, develop interesting variations but essential ‘wheelness’ remains intact and perhaps inviolable. Originality, for me, is centred upon a continued reassessment of the materials and the conditions at hand. The results of which are marked by hitherto unseen or unheard features that can be used (when found) to enhance and help describe the world. Such moments are more commonly possible than is supposed. However, most may be of minute significance. Moments of consequence in any creative search are inevitably rare.

With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
Every musician, especially outside or beyond the ‘presentational‘ has the capacity and maybe an artistic obligation to make the music relevant.(*1) I look for two particular qualities in the moment of performance.
1. how much is the musician engaging creativity with the chosen material.
2. are they listening — and making meaningful responses.

What are areas of your writing process at the moment that are particularly challenging to you and how does the notion of originality come into play here? What have been some of the more rewarding strategies for attaining originality for you? Please feel free to expand on some of your recent projects and releases.
Homo sapiens shares with other hominids a number of cognitive capacities. Two in particular (for the purposes of this discussion) may broadly (albeit reductively) be described as: technical intelligence and social intelligence.

However, some of our cognitive scientists believe that although all hominids share these charateristics — arising from biological imperatives — Homo sapiens has (as it were) put these cognitive domains into a unique combinatory shape. This, it has been suggested, is the potential root of creativity. Relating to the experience I share with those musicians I work with closely, and the general strategies I encourage in our weekly London workshop (*2): the combination of the dialogical and the heuristic are twinned analytical propositions which (in my opinion) come closest to understanding and consciously enacting musical creativity. We might, of course describe this activity in a simpler and perhaps a less technical manner way as keeping an open mind (relating to our enquiry) and a generous heart (relating to our empathy). In other words, these common phrases — fundamental to social discourse and cultural and even scientific enquiry — can be seen to be rooted in biological imperatives.

The idea of originality is closely related to one's understanding of the creative process. How would you describe this process for yourself - where do ideas come from, how are they transformed in your mind and how do experiences and observations turn into a work of art?
From the very early days of AMM there was an strategic approach to our explorations different from what was generally perceived as ‘improvisational’. Pre AMM, and as young men, we were primarily influenced by the new free jazz experiments of Ornette Coleman, Bob James, John Coltrane et al. However, most of my personal music-making and my workshop experience is predicated upon what arises from a very succinct statement in which Cardew (c.1966) articulated the way AMM was experimental. Maybe its very simplicity hides the pregnancy of its meaning.

“We are searching for sounds and for the responses that attach to them, rather than thinking them up, preparing and producing them” (*3)
‘We are searching’. ‘We’ = the dialogical. Social interaction.
‘Searching’ = exploring. Looking at the music-making material. Finding out what is possible.

Importantly, these actions done together and constantly within the musiking.

It is a fertile combination of social and technical intelligence. And, following Steven Mithen’s suggestion, we can describe this creative process as ‘cognitive fluidity’.(*4) However, as he notes and my colleagues and I notice, cognitive fluidity in making music is an intermittent condition. Whilst one is attending to the dialogical the heuristic process slips from our attention and visa versa.

The aspect of originality has often been closely linked to copyright questions. I'm not so much interested in the legal and economic consequences, but your thoughts on how far an artist can claim an idea / composition as being their own – is there, perhaps, a better model for recognising originality than the one currently in place?
Thomas Picketty at the end of his Capital in the Twenty-First Century says: “Refusing to deal with numbers rarely serves the interests of the least well-off.”(*5) Copyright and intellectual property issues should concern us all. We may not play music to make money: the idea of commodification is abhorent to many. However, it is one thing to generate the financial potential of music, it is another protecting ourselves from its ideological, cultural and material strictures. Consider the proposition of an ‘open-form’ composition. This might be a graphic notation or a narrative (verbal) encouragement to join constructors of such frameworks. Most likely offered to the musician in an open and generous way. The ‘composers’ will recognise the creative in-put required by the consenting ‘interpreters’. Cardew (in his composer persona) when deeply occupied with his gigantic graphic score Treatise (193 pages long) wrote in a positive, generous and cooperative manner:

‘What I hope is that in playing this piece [Treatise] each musician will give his own music — he will give it as his response to my music, which is the score itself.’(*6)

Cardew was a close colleague for a number of years. I performed in the premier of the completed Treatise. I have no reason to doubt his sincerity. However, I have often felt negatively disposed to how other people see Treatise wholly as Cardew’s property. The creative and intellectual property rights of the contributing musicians are disregarded. Financially this does not amount to much! But it is the ideological principle and its attendant morality to which we should attend. Nuances of semantics affect our perceptions of ideological sway. For example, I think it is entirely legitimate to describe graphic and ‘open’ form compositions (which require creative in-put from others) as ‘enclosed improvisations’. My sense of ‘enclosure’ should, I hope be obvious. However, I would refer readers to the philosophy and practice of 17th century English Diggers and the writings of Gerrard Winstanley. I could also point them to the more recently revived interest shown in common pool economics by the likes of US Nobel laureate economist, Elinor Ostrom.(*7) The enclosures forced upon the common land of England were enacted by arbitrary declaration and attendant physical force. The common resources of our own times e.g. water supplies, are currently being corralled into corporate ownership. Is it too simplistic to note the performance of the ‘open score ‘— which needs the creative energy and musical expertise of others — is arrogated by the composer (and a publisher) as their sole private property? Just as common land and other common pool resources are enclosed we note the inevitable move towards commodification. What the musician may give freely is accepted (and not always gratefully!) and is always (where possible) converted into a financial return. Picketty’s point about “dealing with numbers” should concern us all.

With regard to recognising the originality of a musician we must keep our ears open for inspirational work. And, give it our warmest embrace. But given the mendacity of our time we should be ever-alert to plagiarism. And to the unequal exploitation of our work for the professional and economic benefit of the undeserving!

How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
Particular tools to create music have no bearing upon routes to originality. However, musicial instruments are institutionally laden with histories and sonic expectations that might be difficult to avoid. In this respect I value the introduction of computer aided sound constructions. However, we need to remain aware that responses to work thus generated can still harden into conventions.

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
I have doubts about algorithmic devices in the field of improvisation. These are initially very novel — and stimulating for the inventors.They are, of course, an extension of our own biologically driven problem-solving capacity. However, at the moment many such devices seem to magnify the human propensity for reiteration. I do concede computer generated and moderated sounds have the potential to take us beyond the more conventional sounds of traditional musical instruments. I like this because we are forced to review the potential meanings therein. We can be relieved, for example, of feeling that a webernesque or a jazz sound-world is the natural environment for improvised music, especially when instruments associated with classical music and jazz are employed.

The importance and perspective on originality has greatly varied over the course of musical history. From your point of view, what are some of the factors in the cultural landscape that are conducive to originality and what are some of those that constitute obstacles?
Music (as understood institutionally) has been codified and has settled into particular responses. We become encultured and believe music is a natural and even neutral human product. It is not neutral. Our task as creative beings is to maintain a continuous codifying prospect. What do the sounds we employ mean or represent? To many music does not mean anything! This I find intellectually untenable and emotionally unacceptable. What is the point of making music if it does not relate in some way to our existence and development as human beings? Logically, is any such activity possible without human (i.e. biological) imperatives? I doubt this.

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
If music arises from exigency then the (or any) situation you face ‘is’ the most challenging available. Technical and financial considerations present their own creative complexities and cultural environments. Whatever resources come to hand I will use them to review, understand and further the development of cogntive fluidity in persuit of cultural growth and its necessary (in my view) corollary of social egalitarianism within music

Eddie Prévos Interview by Tobias Fischer
Eddie Prévost photograh Sissi Burn

*1 By ‘presentational’ I mean the offering of ready-made-worked-out passages of music. Some of these can often ‘appear’ to be improvised. And, by degree, many of us apply some kind of presentation in our work.
*2 Soon to celebrate 15 years of existence.
*3 Cardew: “Towards an Ethic of Improvisation’ originally published in Treatise Handbook, 1971 — which can be found in Cornelius Cardew A Reader, Copula, 2006 p 137
*4 The Prehistory of the Mind, Phoenix, 1996.
*5 Capital in the Twenty-First Century, The Bellcap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014
*6 Cornelius Cardew A Reader, Copula, 2006 p 113
*7 So maybe there is some hope we can breach the all-pervasive neo-con trick

Books by Prévost:
No Sound is Innocent
AMM and the Practice of Self-Invention, meta-musical narratives and other essays. Coplua, 1995 ISBN 8-952492-0-4

Minute Particulars
Meanings in music-making in the wake of hierarchical realignments and other essays. Copula, 2004 ISBN 0-9525492-1-2

The First Concert: An Adaptive Appraisal of a Meta-music. Copula 2011 ISBN 978-0-9525492-5-3

Cornelius Cardew — A Reader. Copula, 2006. A collection of Cornelius Cardew’s published writings with commentaries and responses from Richard Barrett, Christopher Fox, Brian Dennis, Anton Lukoszevieze, Michal Nyman, Eddie Prévost, David Ryan, Howard Skempton, Dave Smith, John Tilbury and Christian Wolff. Introduction by Michael Parsons. Edited by Eddie Prévost ISBN 0-952492-2-0

Most of Eddie Prévost recorded out-put can be viewed on Matchless Recordings web site: