A history of the London Improvisers Orchestra
The London Improvisers Orchestra has reached the age of eighteen. Time, perhaps, for a quick look back at what’s been achieved so far. This might in turn generate some ideas for the future.
Strictly speaking, the groundwork was laid in 1997 with the Contemporary Music Network UK tour by the “London Skyscraper” ensemble conducted by the late and much-missed Lawrence ‘Butch’ Morris. However it was in 1998 that some of the CMN participants came together to see if they could continue and develop the work that had been started on that tour. Amongst those involved at this juncture were Steve Beresford, Ian Smith (now Ian MacGowan) and Evan Parker. It soon became clear that there were plenty of musicians, some but not all on the original tour, who were keen to join them in exploring further possibilities in the area of improvisation generally known as “conduction”. Initially, three concerts were planned, and after these had taken place in autumn / winter 1998, at the much-missed Red Rose Theatre, the decision was made to carry on. At some point around this time the name of London Improvisers Orchestra was adopted, and some of the above-named, plus Caroline Kraabel and Pat Thomas, began to put together a few plans, occasionally aided by this writer – who had found himself Treasurer after agreeing to take the money at the first concert...
I would argue that there have been three separate periods in the Orchestra’s life to date, although some demarcation lines are fluid and there are of course overlaps. The first period would cover the early years at the Red Rose, with concerts most months (including annual appearances at the Freedom Of The City festival), plus quite extensive documentation on Emanem Records. The second would show LIO, with its growing reputation, invited to perform at a number of one-off events, while having to come to terms with the loss of the Red Rose and the need to find a new home for the regular monthly concerts; during this period many of the latter were held at Cafe Oto. (Freedom Of The City did also continue during this period.) In more recent years, there has been a third period - fewer “special” concerts, and with the regular monthly events held, in the main, at two other venues. New members have always come on board, but during this last period there has perhaps been the largest influx of newer, mainly younger, members.
The early years saw the development of a fairly consistent concert format, with a number of musicians coming forward to conduct the Orchestra: Beresford, Dave Tucker, Kraabel and Simon H Fell were amongst the first, but there were others too, and concerts and recordings also featured small groups, game pieces, and totally free improvisations. Although concerts were recorded on DAT for internal use, the first commercially available recordings were not live work but studio work, made at Gateway Studios in Kingston: the double CD “Proceedings” was recorded in the summer of 1999, the double CD “The Hearing Continues” just over a year later by a massive line-up of almost 40 musicians. The former showed the way that LIO could incorporate the likes of Alan Tomlinson (featured in a concerto) and Terry Day; the latter had a most invigorating double concerto for Beresford and Veryan Weston, and a highly entertaining piece by David Leahy, one of the new faces appearing within LIO. The concerto was quite a regular feature at the monthly concerts - sometimes featuring Orchestra members like Tomlinson, sometimes featuring special guests. In the case of the late-lamented Lol Coxhill, a guest subsequently became a member. The recording of Lol’s initial appearance turned up on his “Spectral Soprano” double-CD retrospective, which was released on Emanem, as were the LIO studio recordings mentioned above, and several live ones from the years to follow. Some of the 2001 Freedom Of The City performance was on a “Large Groups” double CD, the FOTC 2002 set was a single CD, while a further CD came from a selection of pieces from the 2003 and 2004 festivals, the ’03 material including Kraabel’s riotous conduction with guest Jaap Blonk. LIO was then featured on a double-CD compilation from the 2005 FOTC, and in ’07 shared yet another double with Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, the two groups appearing separately and together. In the latter instance the musicians had to find room for themselves before they could accommodate the audience; the Festival had been forced to move from Conway Hall to the Red Rose. It should also be pointed out that during this in the middle of the ‘noughties’ the Orchestra, and some sub-groups, made three appearances at the London New Wind Festival organised by oboist - and LIO member - Catherine Pluygers.
One of the first of a number of prestigious “away fixtures” took place in January 2006, at the Shifti Festival. Held near Coventry on the University of Warwick campus, this Festival featured improvisation across a number of disciplines; LIO’s set was reviewed in “The Independent”. Later that year, a very special performance took place at the Prince Charles Theatre, when a 17-piece LIO played music for the premiere of “Theda”, a medium-length silent film made for Film London by the artist Georgina Starr, the music produced after fairly limited rehearsal opportunities. Late the following year some LIO members provided accompaniment at the Curzon Soho for a selection of early short films at a “Smoking Cabaret” event.
In the period after the loss of the Red Rose, LIO played some Sunday afternoon concerts at the Amadeus Centre in Maida Vale, but soon settled on the newly-emerging Cafe Oto, where an enthusiastic audience quickly developed. Meanwhile, improvisations from selected Red Rose concerts (three in 2003, one in 2007) were captured for release on Psi, Emanem’s sister label. Further special events followed. A concert entitled “Directed and Undirected” was held at London’s new Kings Place in the autumn of 2009 as part of their “Out Hear” series of events.
Then in January 2010 came the first overseas concert, at the legendary Bimhuis in Amsterdam, a 19-strong LIO playing opposite and with Den Haag’s Royal Improvisers Orchestra. In July of that year LIO played at the Leytonstone Festival, and the following month at Ronnie Scott’s Club, no less, as part of the Britjazz Festival. This last concert was reviewed by “The Daily Telegraph”, “The Financial Times” and “Jazzwise”. In addition to their Cafe Oto appearances, the Orchestra occasionally played on HMS President by the Thames. An extra, and special, concert was held at The Cinema Museum in South London in December 2012. Freedom Of The City continued for a while, taking place at various venues – sometimes back at Conway Hall, later at Cecil Sharp House.
All this time, LIO continued to benefit from new members and from temporary or permanent visitors to London. For some time, the Orchestra had someone who played the Japanese stringed instrument the shamisen, but he was Brazilian – later still our shamisen player was German!
The two most recent recordings were again live ones - LIO and guests Leo Smith and Leon Michener recorded the “LIO Leo Leon” CD (back on Emanem) at Conway Hall in 2010. Then a special December concert on HMS President in 2011 was recorded by Tasos Stamou, who had joined the Orchestra, and released as “HMS Concert” on his Kukuruku label.
A number of collaborations with film-makers, television crews and artists have taken place over the years. To mention just a couple, LIO was filmed by Alex Reuben, the resulting work included in a feature-length documentary, while Australian artist Cat Hope worked with LIO for her major commission “The Moment of Disappearance” at Brockley’s beautiful Rivoli Ballroom in 2013.
2013 saw The Yard Theatre in Hackney used as the venue for performances on a Friday night and a Sunday afternoon while Epic, a nightclub in Dalston, was another occasional venue, in 2014 and 2015, but since spring 2013 the monthly concerts were increasingly held at St Mary’s Church near Clissold Park, initially in the spacious “new” church, but sometimes in the old church across the road, which functions as an arts centre. Finally, LIO began to take note of activities at the burgeoning I’klectik Arts Lab in South London. Initially appearing for a performance during the longest day of 2015, the Orchestra returned for an increasing number of monthly concerts during 2016. The 200th concert was the next highlight to occur.
The monthly concerts have nearly always been divided into two sets. There have of course been changes along the way: for a long time, pieces would segue into one another, then this approach was abandoned, later still it was reinstated. For a while an entire set might be given over to free improvisations; most of the time the free improvs have been interspersed among conducted pieces.
It could be argued that the regular monthly concerts have a rather unique character, since they are very definitely not “blows” to which anyone is invited, yet neither can they be heavily planned in advance, as the line-up of the orchestra on a given day will only be confirmed after a rehearsal and shortly before the concert starts; frequently the Orchestra is more than 20 strong. Of course, there can be some advance planning – if a special guest has been invited (or one has asked to play and this has been agreed), then s/he may well be featured in a concerto and / or asked to lead a small group. Similarly, an orchestra member may ask in advance if they can do a conduction, rather than at the rehearsal. Generally, though, the final programme for each concert is drawn up on the night.
As we enter 2017, the decision has been made to hold all the year’s concerts (February to November) in the one venue, I’klectik, with the unavoidable exception of March in 2017. And thus begins a new chapter in this ever-developing story.
Gerard F Tierney, January 2017