BY Frances Morgan in Frieze | 01 OCT 11
Featured in
Issue 142

The Politics of Big Bands

However esoteric the aims of a big group, they can generate moments of real musical power 

BY Frances Morgan in Frieze | 01 OCT 11

Marina Rosenfeld and the Sheer Frost Orchestra performing John Cage's 1967 Musicircus, Tate Modern, London, 2006. Courtesy: the artist.

How big is a ‘big’ musical group? A symphony orchestra is big – around 100 musicians – but, relative to their genres, so too are Konono N°1, LCD Soundsystem, Duke Ellington’s ensemble, Underground Resistance and the cast of Glee.

Music made by large groups of people can encompass everything from New Orleans big bands to grime crews. However, what I have in mind is something self-conscious, where the numbers are not just functional, but symbolic.

Perhaps one definition is a group whose scale signifies something other than just a desire to include all families of instrument. It could be a band whose size exists as a challenge to the usual dimensions or conventions of its genre – the four-piece rock group, for example, morphed into a 20-piece ensemble with six bass players. Or a conventional large group, like an orchestra or choir, inverted with untrained players or only one kind of instrument that isn’t usually heard en masse. Politics often informlarge groups: some spring directly from political movements, others are manifestations of a broader political climate, such as the radical Afrofuturism of Sun Ra’s Arkestra. Some work under strict leaderships, others through collaborative decision-making. Many don’t work at all.

I was first drawn to large groups as a musician in the late 1990s, joining a band whose numbers swelled to ten at its largest, and, later, another that regularly had seven members. The groups were informed by a number of large-scale influences – the Arkestra, Fela Kuti’s Africa ’70, Dexys Midnight Runners, P-Funk, samba, minimalism and progressive rock – but there was a sense that the size alone was confrontational, a riposte to the four-piece formations that dominated the indie venues at which we would play. A decade later, I helped put together a 24-piece all-female noise band and also took part in a performance of one of the paradigmatic New York avant-garde pieces, Rhys Chatham’s G3 (1977), which is for seven to ten guitarists with a bassist and a drummer. These were all very different projects, but the collective energy felt familiar.

I could probably trace my fascination with large ensembles to a recording of Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning (1968–71) that I found in a charity shop in Hackney, London. It was performed by the Scratch Orchestra which was founded by Cardew, Howard Skempton and Michael Parsons, and included musicians both with and without formal training. It’s easy to look back on Cardew’s adherence to Marxism and Eastern philosophy as relics of the counterculture of the time, but there’s something intriguing about the recording itself. Anything but monumental, it’s sparse and tenuous, with loosely tuned drums around which shift layers of disparate vocals.

The number of people in the Scratch Orchestra swelled to around 50. Like the contemporaneous but more lighthearted Portsmouth Sinfonia, who invited members (including Brian Eno) to play well-known classical standards on instruments they had little or no experience of, the Scratch Orchestra sought to shake the hierarchies of classical music; putting the ‘wrong’ people into the concert space, restructuring instrumentation and thus, in theory, chipping at the monolithic nature of the classical ensemble. Other ‘flexible’ pieces of the 1960s’ such as Terry Riley’s influential In C (1964), which uses a modular score that can be played by any number of musicians (the composer recommends a group of more than 30 people), have dated better than the self-consciously anti-hierarchical Scratch Orchestra, perhaps because Riley’s perennially minimalist work celebrates, without such an explicit ideology, process and interaction between musicians. It also contains traces of other, non-classical forms of music to which improvisation, chance and community are central.

In the early 1970s, pianist Keith Tippett’s 50-strong group Centipede applied similar notions of musical democracy and unity to a giant jazz-rock ensemble. Centipede’s only recording, Septober Energy (1971), is strikingly confident and joyful, perhaps because jazz musicians were more able to take unorthodox groupings and improvisation in their stride, and because the experimental big band as a form was already being explored by the likes of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra and Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath. Septober Energy, produced by Robert Fripp, includes buoyant free jazz and repetitive funk grooves, chanted choral slogans and extended vocal techniques.

Sheer logistics mean that many large groups can play only infrequently, or, like Centipede, have a short lifespan; the event is the main focus. It is far easier to devise a piece that can be quickly prepared and played by different groups of musicians in various locations – a classical model that informs the compositions of Glenn Branca, who began writing for large electric guitar groups in the late 1970s. Lesson No. 1 (1980) and The Ascension (1981) use four or five guitarists, but Branca’s ‘rock minimalism’ template is much the same when applied to 100 guitarists in 2001’s Symphony No 13 (Hallucination City). His work is performed fairly regularly for something of such a size, acting as a way for musicians schooled in Sonic Youth and punk rock to experience minimalist music from the inside. Branca’s primary concern seems to be to explore the electric guitar’s microtonal possibilities, using carefully worked out tunings on a mass scale to create an intense sonic experience, yet a fascination with the idea of the ‘rock band’ still clings to his work. Chatham’s compositions for guitar groups, which can also specify up to 100 players, are even more obviously informed by an idea of rock ’n’ roll simplicity and spontaneity. But taking part in a Branca or Chatham performance is at once an autocratic and democratic experience. The work is scored and conducted, and there is little room for individual improvisation; yet players are volunteers, often non-professional, and playing an instrument they have a close, usually self-expressive relationship with. The large scale both magnifies and distorts the relationship between genres.

Sheer Frost Orchestra (1993), Marina Rosenfeld’s work for a large electric guitar ensemble, explores the instrument in a completely different way and highlights the implicitly gendered aspect of large groups such as Branca’s and Chatham’s. Rosenfeld’s score requires her predominantly female group to play using bottles of nail polish as slides and picks; the guitarists kneel on the floor, in front of small practice amps. There is nothing intrinsically ‘female’ about the experimental techniques they use or the exploratory, drifting sounds produced – although the nail polish is an obvious visual reference – but the emphasis on mixed abilities, graphic scoring and non-traditional playing of the guitar creates a space in which many women feel more at ease with figuring out their approach and performing in public.

Rosenfeld’s Emotional Orchestra (2005) features 40 female improvisers playing bowed instruments. When heard on a recording, it’s notable how the sounds emerge from odd sources, in unusual combinations; unlike a lot of semi-improvised music, it is hard to second guess. Rosenfeld’s statement that ‘both the idea and the practice of improvisation are essentially feminine – a female art derived from female so-called vices: emotion, volatility, variability, fickleness’ is problematic, but large all-female groups seem to tap into an ‘otherness’, which is maybe related to Rosenfeld’s ‘variability’.

The all-female group is easily associated with ideas of inclusivity and learning; these can seem overly worthy stereotypes until we look at how many large groups have been predominantly male. There is also a romantic, aesthetic dimension, only partially informed by feminist notions of all-female spaces, which draws on vague ideas of cults, shamanism and female-only elects. This certainly informed Leopard Leg, the 12-piece female noise group led by Maya-Victoria Kjellstrand, with whom I also devised the 24-piece Macroprosopus Dancehall Band in 2008. These influences can be understood more as an imaginative framework than a belief system or ideology, elements of which have carried over into more mainstream large groups sporadically in the last decade: Boredoms’ 77- and 88-drum Boadrum performances in New York (in 2007 and 2008) drew on ideas of ritual and symbolism, as did – in a very different way – quirky evangelical pop choir The Polyphonic Spree, and perhaps even British space-metal collective Chrome Hoof.

Large groups can generate moments of real musical power: the sheer force of that many people making that much noise, regardless of whether the project is based in the language of process music, performance art, socialism, feminism, composition or improvisation. They can provide one of the most fascinating ways of experiencing how music happens between people, whether it’s James Brown’s band or the New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band. However esoteric the aims of a big group, it is the wakefulness that’s required to be in one that is really compelling – especially now, as music feels increasingly to be an abstract entity, dreamlike, insular and removed from physical interaction, its position in time and space less clear.