Sunday, August 21, 2011

Free Improvisation Series: the Nihilist Spasm Band

The Nihilist Spasm Band
Many bands need to get high to play well. We need to play well to get high.” - Hugh McIntyre
Since 1965, the seven-member Nihilist Spasm Band of London, Ontario, has been making its unique, bizarre music. They are the earliest all-improvising ensemble on record (that I know of) to emphasize instrument building as a primary part of their improvisational language. For them, “total free improvisation” implies more than just a lack of any compositional structure. It also implies freedom from 12-tone equal-temperament (12-TET) and from what they call “conventional musical skill and knowledge”; in short, a detachment from the principle features of Western musical culture: compositional order, common tuning, and standardized pedagogy. Others may have felt this way, but the NSB is the first to state these as explicit goals.
The Nihilist Spasm Band in 1966. Photo from 20centsMUSIC.
Derek Bailey identifies two perspectives on the relationship between a musician and her instrument: that which views the instrument as a “collaborator” and “helper”, and that which identifies the instrument as a “liability” or an “intrusive” factor. [1] His explanations, while somewhat undeveloped, presume the musician's interest in honing a technique on the instrument, however unorthodox it may be. The Nihilist Spasm Band appears to have no such interest: the process of assimilating with the instrument is simply a part of their improvisational process. In this sense, they are essentially and proudly amateur, placing them closer to Jorn and Dubuffet than anything else in the modern free improvisation continuum.
The NSB places great emphasis on building or adapting instruments which are “completely flexible. For example, a piano produces the same not every time the same key is struck. This is no good for it imposes a scale. On the other hand, a fretless stringed instrument can produce absolutely any tone within its range, as well as glisses.” The NSB are also quite comfortable with non-pitched sounds, leading to their being known as one of the first noise bands. In spite of this, they are not intent on isolating their audiences for the sake of isolation; “We have been accused of venting our hostility on the audience. But we do not need an audience to play … When the hostility of an audience is reflected back at them many times magnified by our amplifiers, the effect can be very disturbing. On the other hand, a sympathetic audience can give the band a real lift.” [2]
“Entertainment attempts to take people away from the life experience, and my job as an artist is to intensify the life experience for myself and for those people who care to observe or accompany me. Similarly, performance interests me little. It smacks of crowd control and manipulation of people. My music involves a negation of craft as a means toward free exploration of sound.” - John Boyle, founding member
A recent photo of the Nihilist Spasm Band. Photo from Nihilist Spasm Band.

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[1] Bailey, Derek. "Improvisation: its nature and practice in music".
[2] McIntyre, Hugh. Liner notes, "Vol. 2", Nihilist Spasm Band.

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