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Concert: Instant Composers Pool Orchestra

In 1958, guitarist Jim Hall, in liner notes to a Jimmy Giuffre album, used the term “instant composition” to describe improvising. A few years later, Misha Mengelberg, knowing nothing of this, re-coined the term, and it stuck. A quiet manifesto, those two English words countered notions that improvising was either a lesser order of music-making than composing, or an art without a memory, existing only in the moment, unmindful of form. Misha's formulation posited improvisation as formal composition's equal (if not its superior, being faster).

Yes but: Misha says he was thinking of “instant coffee,” stuff any serious java drinker recognized as a sham substitute. He deflates his lofty idea even as he raises it. In the mid-1960s Mengelberg became involved with the Fluxus art movement, which he found inviting because it stood for nothing, had no ideals to defend. What bound together Fluxus's conceptualists, shock artists, early minimalists, musical comics et cetera was a need for a performance format that could accommodate them all. (Hence that symbol of '60s kookiness, the multimedia Happening.) Eventually he formed a band with that kind of flexibility: the modern ICP Orchestra. 

ICP co-founders Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink have played together since 1961; before long they’d played on Eric Dolphy’s 1964 Last Date and in a successful Dutch quartet, until they brought in the anarchistic young reed player Willem Breuker, whose disruptive presence tore the group apart. That was OK; Han and Misha liked musical confrontations. Mengelberg had studied composition at the Hague conservatory (alongside his friend Louis Andriessen); in his ’60s game piece “Hello Windyboys,” two wind quintets variously engage in call and response, communicate in musical code, interrupt or block each other, or seduce their rivals into cooperating. They did formally what ICP’s musicians now do informally.

Bennink, Breuker and Mengelberg founded the ICP co-op in 1967. In 1974 the saxophonist left to form the Willem Breuker Kollektief, longtime flagship of Dutch improvised music. Mengelberg (and Bennink) founded the raggedy ICP Tentet (including German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, and sometimes cellist Tristan Honsinger). That band matured into something very like the present-day ICP Orchestra in the 1980s, with the addition of younger players, some of whom have been there ever since: trombonist Wolter Wierbos, saxophonists/clarinetists Michael Moore and Ab Baars, and bassist Ernst Glerum. When they were new to the orchestra, Misha rehearsed the players in various performance strategies—such as the uses of his “viruses,” self-contained packets of notated material a player could cue into any composition to infect or disable it. The musicians learned how to deal with fellow players’ quirks of timing or intonation, how to confound their colleagues before their colleagues could confound them, how to bend or subvert the music in performance, and run little subroutines within a piece.

Another, jazzier part of their education was a series of repertory projects, devoted to Mengelberg’s pianistic and compositional heroes Herbie Nichols, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. Those projects served as object lessons in the value of pretty melodies and voicings (Ellington), the construction and subversion of chords (Monk) and how to devise chord progressions that move in unusual ways (Nichols). Pieces by each of those composers still turn up on ICP set lists (along with a few by Hoagy Carmichael), and those lessons still pay off.





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