In the mid-1950s, when I was six, we moved out of the prefab [1] my parents had been given after the war into a house they had bought. The prefab had been decorated in cream and dull green, all the furniture had been "utility"[2] --- grey, beige, more cream and dull green.

My parents redecorated our new house with wallpaper and drapes in patterns and colors based on Miró and Picasso and bought chairs made of woven red plastic, a new television, wire racks with bobble feet, Swedish furniture. Suddenly everything was colourful and had interesting shapes and patterns. After the austerity of the postwar years this was magical to me.

I imagine many of my generation had some similar experience.

Our old kitchen table ended up in the yard. It was a plain wood table with a white enamelled steel top that fitted over the wooden top (nowadays it would be a treasure). I guess my father chopped up the table for firewood---anyway the enamel metal top was left to rust. I found that if I dragged it over the concrete of the yard it made a most wonderful sound, an uproar of glassy screeching and metallic roaring that engulfed me. It drove my mother and the neighbours crazy, but I couldn't stop, I couldn't get enough of it. . . . This is my first musical memory.

In 1968 Hugh Davies [3] asked Richard Bernas [4] and myself to do a series of concerts at the Arts Lab. We had a great time clambering over the junkies in the foyer to the performance space, where we would play pieces by Cage and Wolff, by ourselves and with our friends, on whatever we could lay our hands on: sheets of glass, car parts, pots from the kitchen at home. One time my parents picked up that Richard was going to play a piece of mine and insisted on coming. They could not be dissuaded. After the concert my mother said, "It was bad enough you doing music, but this." She had obviously forgotten the tabletop.

The British perceive themselves as a nation of improvisers. The phrases "Making It Up as You Go Along as you go along," "busking it," even "muddling through" are part of everyday currency. This national pride in inventiveness runs parallel with a culture of deprivation---"make do and mend"; "we don't have the means, but we'll find a way of doing it." In fact we have a kind of masochistic pride in deprivation and the resourcefulness it precipitates.

The sideways step.

The "found": found sound, found bit of junk to make a sound with.

One thing led to another, which led to Gentle Fire [5]. I can't remember how we got started; I just remember we got the name by consulting the I Ching. There was no "scene" at the time; we once happily played for hours to an audience of three. Morton Feldman, on a visit, said, "Have no models," but in fact there were no models to have. Some people were already doing stuff: AMM and the Music Improvisation Company; John Tilbury, a lone piano voice; and abroad there was Musica Elettrònica Viva and the Sonic Arts Group (later Union). We had things in common with all of these, but we combined them in ways nobody else did: like the Sonic Arts Group, we played our own pieces, although we didn't use technology in the way they did; we also played pieces by other composers; we improvised, we adapted instruments and our playing of them so that they became sound rather than "music" generators; we built instruments and electronic devices; we shared concerts with Ghana's Master Drummer, Mustapha Tettey Addy, and his brothers.

Gentle Fire

One possibly unique activity of Gentle Fire was its "Group Compositions." Most of these were, in fact, group improvisations, but based around particular built instruments, conceptual notions or electronic junk wizardry that Hugh Davies concocted: sculptures made of the steel for reinforcing concrete; telephone dials, filters and international calls; a VCS3 (early synthesiser) patched into a cheesecake. I suppose that part of what we were about was mapping sound into process in a way that had nothing to do with usual notions of musical iteration. We sometimes used "music," but more or less as another sound source. I think we considered all sounds, music included, to have unique connotative powers, but we didn't talk much about these things; mostly we played around with stuff, or one member of the group would unleash an idea on the rest of us. One rehearsal period we spent mostly playing snooker, another mostly eating. Some of the things we did could be construed as an early form of post-modernism/deconstructionism: fragments of Wagner or Strauss erupting from noise; a Beethoven piece morphing into a popular song; Graham Hearn's masterpiece, in which we played tape loops of the clicks from the centers of vinyl discs while he played a series of chords extracted from jazz standards and popular songs, each one evoking myriad associations. My own feeling is that this, at least in part, came out of the love of surreal conjunctions and juxtapositions which also manifests itself as one of the mainsprings of the British tradition of stand-up comedy. At any rate, we did them; they made us laugh.

The British don't seem to like appearing serious. They can be serious, they just don't like to be seen doing it.

Gentle Fire in an interview: "We're only in it for the money."

Gentle Fire disbanded in the mid-1970s. We had reached a point where we were playing to large audiences from whom we felt more and more remote. We couldn't agree on a strategy for getting back to playing in more intimate situations, so we packed it in. I myself was becoming disenchanted with what seemed to me an increasingly introverted music scene, so I went off to pursue other interests---working with children, travelling, studying ethnic musics, becoming a parent.

I was lured back into things by Clive Bell [6], who asked me, a bald English trumpet player, to impersonate a Japanese guitarist. It was an offer I couldn't refuse. It was at this gig that I first met and played with Peter Cusack [7].

By the 1980s a tradition of free improvisation had formed, although it was a very broad church. A lot of the free-improvising community also liked playing music from different genres, often in a pretty straight-up way; even back in the days of Gentle Fire, I, like Steve Beresford [8], had played soul, reggae and doowop in bands such as Expensive and Ginger Epstein. Groups like Kahondo Style [9] and British Summer Time Ends [10] started bringing these genre musics, and the compositions arising from them, into their sets (Kahondo may even have been formed for this purpose; I don't know, I joined it later). I don't think this arose so much from a philosophical position or an art-political standpoint as from the feeling, "we like it, we like playing it, so why not?" Sylvia Hallett, Clive Bell and I enjoyed improvising together. One day Sylvia brought along some Russian Gypsy tunes she knew. Then Clive had this Ronettes number.

British Summer Time Ends <--------------------------------------> Kahondo Style

I do think that the love of bringing things that appear unrelated, irreconcilable even, into juxtaposition and making something coherent out of that played a big part. This went deeper than genre-mixing. In Kahondo Style, the "sound-based" playing of Peter Cusack or myself would counterpoint the more overtly "instrumental," "musical" playing of Alan Tomlinson or Clive Bell. One of the great pleasures of playing in British Summer Time Ends is turning to my store of instruments thinking "what shall I play now? Hmm, maybe the zither," and turning back to see that Clive has picked up a balloon, and Sylvia, a thumb piano.

Of course the British can think and be serious. We don't spend all our time rolling around cracking jokes. I think we are just more at ease with the concrete than the abstract. Even our conceptual art is rooted in the palpable. I myself prefer to work with something tangible, something particular, restricting even: a sound or array of sounds, a particular situation, an image, a dancer's gesture. I recently completed a feature-length piece about India with the video artist Irit Batsry [11]. A lot of the sounds I wanted to use would have been easier to make here in England, or in the studio, but I was determined to derive all the sounds from what I had recorded in India; it made life very difficult sometimes, but I had to do it that way.

Once when I was in Latvia on a solo tour a journalist caught me in an unusually philosophical mood. He asked me why I worked the way I did. I tried to explain that I was endeavouring to dissolve the difference between my work and my everyday life; trying to have things happen, in my work and how I worked, in a more mundane way.

We start making sense of the world through sound in the womb; after we are born we still rely on sound to tell us what is, as we wait for our eyes to start working. We do not, cannot, ascribe meaning to sound, as we do to image or text, yet we understand it. Thus there is an essential dichotomy between structure and content in an art that is free of meaning yet communicates directly on the most primitive level. This has nothing to do with the emotional imperatives of the Western musical tradition.

It is the walking of the line between anarchy and language, between the fixed and the unknown, that made Gentle Fire, Kahondo Style and British Summer Time Ends, at their best, so exciting. This may have something to do with accepting that chaos is a part of order (or vice versa) not the opposite of it.


My father had had a heart attack. I was using his car to ferry my mother around. Once, my daughter, who was about 14 years old and very into maps, got me to drive to a remote part of London to see what was there. We sat in the car not saying much. She started flicking through stations on the radio, trying to find something she could bear to listen to. Suddenly out came a machine gun rattle of hyper-fast snare drum complexity in great long asymmetric phrases, a slow duet of bass and bass drum rolling underneath. She leaned back, closed her eyes and sighed with satisfaction.

"What's that?" I asked, enthralled.

"For God's sake, Dad," she said, "it's Jungle."

I got fascinated by the way the DJs were using technology to turn the resource of their musical heritage into a completely new idiom. My local record store owner said "I like it that the ones who were stealing records from me a couple of years ago are now making them." Later, when I got to work with some of these guys, doing my 'weird shit' as they called it, I was struck by the way they didn't, even refused to, classify themselves as musicians: what they were doing was based on skills other than those of the 'musician', and led to different places. I found that the people making and listening to this kind of music were much more open to a wide range of aural possibilities, which is how I and others came to work with them. Conventional music making, whatever the genre, is rooted in a stringent technical discipline: hours of practice honing instrumental skills, perfecting technique. This can, of course, be liberating, but it guides creativity down certain paths and sometimes it is useful and necessary to get away from those paths. I am reminded of how in Gentle Fire we sometimes would swap instruments if we thought our playing was getting predictable; when we taught or held workshops, if we were dealing with musicians we would make them work with instruments they didn't know how to play, to stop them thinking like musicians.


About fifteen years ago at the premiere of a song cycle of mine, a contemporary of mine at York came into the concert. Afterwards he sought me out and said "I didn't know what was being played, but as soon as I heard it, I knew it was by you." I had no idea what similarity with my early work he could hear, but he heard it.

An early project of Gentle Fire's was 'Gentle Fire Works A Maze', in which a London gallery was to be converted into an environment based on a score of mine, 'a maze', and populated by performances, visuals etc by us and colleagues and friends working in different performance media.

In a recent piece (Chesterfield Starfield, 2000), I had brass bands marching round the town playing different musics and gradually converging on a central, triangular plaza, where they played together from the three corners of the plaza, with additional brass choirs on the roofs of the buildings. All the music was derived from a map of the stars for that time and day (invisible stars).

An early piece of mine (Ruthie's Piece, 1972) was created using a computer: I set certain parameters for pitches that would go into ring modulators and asked the computer to work out which combinations of input pitches would result in output pitches so that the inputs and outputs would conform to a particular mathematical relationship, and then put the results in a random order. I had no idea what the piece would sound like.

One of the things I do nowadays is make interactive work (CD-ROMs, installations) collaborating with the artist Simon Biggs [12]. The technical side of the work is based on readily available, rather than esoteric, technology. I usually work by programming random systems to iterate the sounds, in various relationships to one another and to the processes in Simon's images. These random systems are triggered by the behavior and movements of the viewer(s). In part it is rather like constructing a somewhat unpredictable audio-visual instrument that is played by the audience. Apart from the pleasure of not being in control of how the sound is iterated and combined and the enjoyment of the unrepeatable results, it is interesting to see how people interacting with the installation gradually become more aware of each other and start interacting with each other through the work . . . start improvising with each other.

I recently met the head of research and development for IBM in the U.K. He was a bluff and hearty Englishman with a slight cockney accent. We were discussing the possibility of some of my students doing projects with IBM. He said, "We want to get people to come in with their dreams, and make those dreams reality." I said, "How will we do that?" He said, "Oh, we'll make it up as we go along, we'll muddle through."

References and Notes

1. "Prefab" is short for prefabricated dwelling. These were mass-produced at the end of the war to provide housing for returning ex-servicemen and their families, replacing housing stock destroyed by bombing.

2. "Utility" is a style of furniture that was cheap and easy to mass-produce. Rather drab, it now has nostalgia chic.

3. Hugh Davies: Composer, instrument builder, electronic wizard, improviser; founding member of Gentle Fire. Hugh had worked with Stockhausen as his assistant and played in the Music Improvisation Company.

4. Richard Bernas: Composer, conductor, pianist, improviser; founding member of Gentle Fire. Richard was a fellow student of mine at York University.

5. Gentle Fire: Founded at York University in fall 1968. The founding members were Richard Bernas, Hugh Davies, Patrick Harrex, Graham Hearn, Richard Orton and me. Patrick Harrex left and was replaced by Michael Robinson. Later Richard Orton left. For a more complete account of Gentle Fire's career, please see Hugh Davies's article in this issue.

6. Clive Bell: Multi-instrumentalist, improviser, composer. To list all the instruments that Clive plays would take a whole issue of this journal. He plays a wide variety of flutes, notably the shakuhachi, many ethnic and medieval reed pipes, the khène, the accordion and a mean balloon. We first played together in the early 1970s, when we were both based in York. At the beginning of the 1980s, when I was back in England, he tracked me down and nagged/seduced/tricked me back into playing. I owe him big-time.

7. Peter Cusack, as well as being an improviser and a composer, is (as I would also describe myself) a sound artist. He makes extraordinary recordings of environmental sound and creates wonderful pieces with this material. He founded Kahondo Style.

8. Steve Beresford is rightly well known as an improviser; he is also notable as a composer and producer. Although we were contemporaries at York, we didn't work together that often. We played in Expensive (mostly soul) and Ginger Epstein (mostly reggae and doowop). These were sidebars for us, but we took them seriously. I well remember Steve's meticulous determination to get the sound "right." York at that time was a very fertile ground; besides Gentle Fire and Steve, a whole raft of composers, working in both electro-acoustic and more traditional media, started out there.

9. Kahondo Style: originally, Peter Cusack (guitars, bouzouki, electronics), Clive Bell (flute, shakuhachi, accordion, khene), Max Eastley (guitar, built instruments, percussion, voice), Kazuko Hohki (voice), Alan Tomlinson (trombones) and Terry Day (drums, percussion). I joined later (cello, bass, trumpet), followed by Sianaed Jones (violin, sax, voice). Terry Day left and was replaced by Dave Holmes; then Max Eastley and Dave Holmes left, and Steve Noble (drums, percussion) came in; then Kazuko Hohki left and was replaced by Viv Corringham. Kahondo Style started in the early 1980s. I believe the term "Kahondo" was coined by Terry Day. I have no idea what it means. Kahondo Style played a mix of improvisations, compositions and the occasional rembetika cover. It could get fairly wild.

10. British Summer Time Ends: Sylvia Hallett, Clive Bell and me. To list the instruments Western, non-Western and built that we play would be exhausting. The basic line-up is violin, accordion and cello. British Summer Time Ends also started up at the beginning of the 1980s, playing a mix of improvisation, compositions and covers of anything from Russian Gypsy tunes to Kinks songs. It was heaven.

11. Irit Batsry: Video artist. I first met Irit in 1978 in Israel when she was doing her national service and I was on the hoof. We became close friends but lost touch with each other for 10 years. Since 1989 we have worked consistently together producing linear video work. Our last piece, a feature called These Are Not My Images, premiered at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2000.

12. Simon Biggs: Artist. Simon first used computers to make art in 1978 and has been making computer-based interactive installations since 1985. We first met at the end of the 1980s; every time we met, we talked about doing something together, but didn't until As Falling Falls (also with Stephen Petronio) in 1996. It is interesting that Simon studied in Australia with Tristram Cary, one of the leading lights of electronic music in England in the 1960s, but has never practised as a composer.