The new year has begun gloomily for the area of the music world I am a part of. Late in 2007 it became apparent that the London Musician's Collective has had its Arts Council funding cut by 100%, and that the Jazzgalerie Nickelsdorf in Austria, home of excellent regular gigs and one of the best improvised music festivals in Europe, is threatened with the prospect of closure. Then in early January it becomes apparent that the new owners of the Red Rose in Finsbury Park, London, have new plans for it and so the room with one of the best acoustics in London, home of the regular improvised music nights Mopomoso, Free Radicals and Back In Your Town, as well as countless other one-offs (sometimes the number of events in a single month runs to double figures), and the place where I have heard and played a disproportionate amount of my all time favourite gigs is no more.
The reasons for all these happenings are different, and complex, and clearly if I lived in Kenya or Burma, for example, I would have more pressing things on my mind. Nevertheless, I think evidence of an healthy situation when cultural events on the fringe are able to thrive - and that the opposite must be the case when they cannot. Still I know in all case that the audience and musicians involved are amazingly resourceful and dedicated, and I am sure we'll pull through.
On a positive note, the first new music I have discovered this year is not new at all: I found an LP recording of Boulez conducting his own Le Marteau Sans Maitre. I've heard a lot about this piece but I'd never heard it before, remarkably enough. What was really striking about it is how full of the features that people complain about as post-serialist cliches: nervous, dense, busy polyphony for example. It is also easy to see the influence of the piece on the first wave of freely improvised music, such as John Stevens' Spontaneous Music Ensemble. The rapid motivic echoes in the first movement are particularly reminiscent of this. But what is wonderful is that the piece really makes me remember how cliches only become so through derivative or thoughtless misuse of characteristic features. In this case Boulez's ear for timbre and sparkling independence of mind come through undiminished over half a century later.