Saturday, December 21, 2002


I first came across the Icebreaker at London's South Bank in the early 1990s. I think it was as part of the Meltdown festival in 1994, the year it was curated by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, whose landmark work 'Hocketus' became a speciality of theirs.

The ensemble has played a key role in broadening the appeal in Britain of what is sometimes called 'post-minimalism' -- the musical movement spawned partly on the basis of early Steve Reich and the likes of Terry Riley and Lamont Young, but elaborated beyond its sparkling ascetiscism into a musical aesthetic rather than a mere set of conventions. It obeys though-composed art music conventions, incorporates rhythmic ideas and instrumentation from rock and jazz, checks worldbeat, and finds expression through attention to the potency of the manifest and the variable in the aural world. Archetypal post-modern music, you could say.

Jocelyn Pook, David Gordon, Michael Torke and Graham Fitkin, alongside the ubiquitous Andriessen and a host of new European practitioners, are the better known names in this area. Steve Martland took the genre in a muscular, combative direction in Britain. Michael Nyman headed off into neo-Haydn, goth-roccocoism (and bastardised the minimalising form for profit, according to some.) Meredith Monk almost criss-crossed with Laurie Anderson in the popular imagination. Piano Circus began again with Reich and have taken in Future Sound of London, Heiner Goebbels and a swathe of other experimentalists on the way.

In the US Icebreaker's allies and collaborators have long been found in the New York downtown scene that has flourished since the 1980s. The Bang on A Can festival and BoaC Ensemble (turn way left at CBGBs and keep going) have now been in Britain on a number of occasions.

Icebreaker are on tour in Germany and Holland in early 2003. There are no immediate prospects of British dates as far as I can see. Their official web site is the best source of future information. They describe themselves as follows:

"Icebreaker is a 12-piece group consisting of panpipes, saxes, electric violin and cello, guitars, percussion and keyboards. It boasts an exciting repertoire that encompasses some of the best known and most exciting names in contemporary music today and creates a music that appeals to contemporary classical, rock and alternative music audiences alike. Icebreaker has established itself as one of the UK's leading contemporary music interpreters."

The full Icebreaker discography is here. Their first recording was an eponymously titled cassette which I still have, but which I believe is now unavailable.



Distant Early Warning Aesthetics
USA 1999

As a curious footnote to the above, there is an entirely different Icebreaker active in the US at the moment. Apparently ‘inspired’ by, er… the radar defence stations of the Antarctic, this project is the work of two Transatlantic producers and it is funded by NATO. Something to cheer us up while Bush bombs Iraq and starts World War 3, perhaps? Anyway, aside from potential scepticism about music being supported by the military industrial complex, the anonymous review makes it sound aurally intriguing:

Alexander Perls and Simon Break, who create sparse, yet intense electronica, that slots somewhere in between the sound of Brian Eno and Bundy K Brown. Encased in a bleak surround and a mass of swirling atmospheres, ‘Distant Early Warning’s textures remain fairly constant, with tracks like "Co-prosperity Sphere" and the eerie, almost motionless "Reconnaissance Flight" setting the theme. They capture the loneliness and isolation of conflict with an unnerving calmness and sensitivity. "Listening Station" and "The Track North which address the dissemination of data are mysterious and beautiful slices of transatlantic audio. These are tracks where pulsing, high-pitch tones float on an ambient surface, anchored by distant beats, tonal organs and crackling radio interference. ‘



Audio CD (28 October, 2002)
Number of Discs: 2
Label: Impulse 5899452

Here at last is the definitive edition of one of the landmark albums of the twentieth century, John Coltane’s ‘A Love Supreme’. Traversing the limits of bop into free improvisory territory, this is the master at his most expressive, explosive and enduringly spiritual. It opened up a whole new vista of jazz then, and still unblocks ears today.

The first four tracks each contain the working melodic elements of the piece: ‘Acknowledgement’, ‘Resolution’, ‘Pursuance’ and ‘Psalm’. The live rendition follows, and then there are alternative takes and breakdowns of the first two movements - including a contribution from Archie Shepp (long hypothesised before the evidence here came to hand). The new source tape and some deft production really do make a significant difference to our appreciation of Coltrane’s achievement. It still isn't the master, but it is an early generation copy.The outtakes and a classic live Antibes performance reclaimed from what was effectively a bootleg also provide us with fresh perspectives on ‘A Love Supreme’, as it moves towards forty years in our presence.

An unfathomable amount of development has taken place in the jazz world since this extraordinary work was recorded, of course. But it still retains the capacity to surprise, entice and delight even the most over-educated listeners; surely a true testimony to its greatness. Winnowing sax, uncomplicated melodic sophistication, subtle modal development, percussive ingenuity (not just from the drummer) and a spirit of blazing (but well-tempered) religious passion make these inter-twining tracks what they are: wholly entrancing.

As if all this wasn’t enough, there is also a new book which helps to fill in the background to the album, the era that witnessed its birth and the creative force behind it. ‘A Love Supreme: The Creation of John Coltrane’s Classic Album’ by Ashley Kahn (Granta Books 2002, ISBN: 186207545X), has a Foreword by percussion legend Elvin Jones. It is full of information and insight, of course. But nothing can surpass the sonic delights so lovingly re-mastered on this CD. The story is, above all else, in those notes and in the personality and atmosphere that reveals them to be something inexplicably transcendent.

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