A history of the London Improvisers Orchestra
by Gerard F. Tierney

In 2023, the London Improvisers Orchestra reaches another milestone: twenty-five years of activity. I was the orchestra’s voluntary Administrator until recently, and as I had written a lengthy piece at the time of the 20th anniversary, I offered to write this update. In the five years since the original piece, there have been many changes — some but not all brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic — and yet the orchestra keeps going. Its members still come together, usually once a month, and produce exciting results. The group now has over two hundred concerts and numerous recordings under its belt, as well as a healthy online presence.

I don’t intend to (re)start arguments about composition versus improvisation, or about how conducted improvisation (or ‘conduction’) fits into the picture.There are many groups worldwide involved with conduction; the LIO wasn’t the first, there is no league table, and there’s no right or wrong way. Also, I don’t want to try and describe the orchestra in action, but those who have experienced conduction in concert know what it can sound like (and what a great visual experience it can also be).

Much of the practice of conduction had been developed and codified by the late Lawrence ‘Butch’ Morris, and in late 1997 he led a Contemporary Music Network UK tour with a hand-picked ‘Skyscraper’ ensemble. The following year, some of those musicians came together to see if they could continue and develop the work started on the tour. Among the prime movers were Steve Beresford, Evan Parker and Ian Smith (later known as Ian MacGowan). It became clear that plenty of musicians, some but not all on the original tour, were keen to take part in further explorations. Initially, three concerts were planned, and after these had taken place in late 1998, at the much-missed Red Rose Theatre, the decision was made to carry on. Around this time the LIO name was adopted, and the above three, plus Caroline Kraabel and Pat Thomas, began to make plans, occasionally aided by me — a non-playing friend who turned up as a punter to the first concert, agreed to take the money, and was appointed Treasurer!

From the beginning the net had been cast fairly wide, and although a good number of the participants were experienced in jazz and / or free improvisation, LIO also incorporated musicians from classical, rock and noise backgrounds.This has been the case ever since with over four hundred participants. I’ll mention a few names later, but it’s worth giving a special mention to Jacques Foschia from Brussels and Christoph Irmer from Wuppertal, who both made regular visits to the UK at their own expense and contributed enormously to the music in the first few years.

Twenty-five years! I would argue that there have been a few distinct periods in the orchestra’s life, although demarcation lines are fluid, and there are of course overlaps.

The early years saw the development of a fairly consistent concert format, with a number of musicians coming forward to conduct the players. Steve, Caroline, Dave Tucker and Simon H Fell were amongst the first regular conductors, but others came forward, while concerts also featured small groups, game pieces, songs and poems by Terry Day, and totally  free improvisation. Pieces might be based around special features – Knut Aufermann led one based around the year of birth of the musicians.

Concerts were generally divided into two sets, but there were changes along the way— for a long time, pieces segued into one another, but this approach was then dropped, and later reinstated. For a while, an entire set might be given over to free improvisation, but most of the time the free improvs were interspersed among conducted pieces.

The concerts had a rather unique character, in that they were very definitely not “jams” with anyone invited, yet neither were they heavily planned in advance, as the definitive line-up of the orchestra was only confirmed on the day at a rehearsal, or even later! Of course, there could be some advance planning — if a special guest had been invited (or had asked to play), s/he might well be asked to feature in a concerto and / or to lead a small group. Similarly, orchestra members would often ask in advance if they could conduct, but the final running order would be drawn up on the night, and still is.

The rehearsal was — and remains — an important part of the concert process, being a chance for newer members to familiarise themselves with the range of hand signals used in performance. (The list had been committed to paper by Caroline.)  It was also a chance to learn about the preferences and idiosyncrasies of individual conductors. Some pieces still started with a piece of paper to read, and some of those — Adam Bohman’s text collages, say, or Roland Ramanan’s graphic scores —required a good deal of sometimes anxious rehearsal, but always turned out fine in performance.

New members arrived on a fairly regular basis, usually by approaching some of the known key players, sometimes by invitation. At one point, there was a suggestion that certain individuals could be regarded as de facto section leaders, and that they would have power of approval —in other words, if a brass player, string player, percussionist etc. applied to join then there was someone to rule on them. I’m not sure that this idea was ever taken up — formally, at any rate.

Concerts were recorded on Digital Audio Tape for internal use: the first commercial recordings were double CDs made in a studio (Gateway, in Kingston). ‘Proceedings’ was recorded in 1999, and ’The Hearing Continues’ a year later with almost forty musicians. The first showed LIO incorporating distinctive voices like Terry Day, or Alan Tomlinson (who featured in a concerto); the second had an invigorating double piano concerto for Steve Beresford and Veryan Weston, and a highly entertaining piece by David Leahy, one of the newer members. (Some unavailability was inevitable: as Orphy Robinson had to miss both sessions, a recording of his playing was the basis for a piece on the second CD). The concerto was a feature at the monthly concerts — sometimes featuring regular members like Alan, sometimes featuring special guests. In the case of the inimitable Lol Coxhill, a guest became a member; the recording of his initial guest appearance can be found on his ’Spectral Soprano’ retrospective, also on Emanem.

Some of the 2001 Freedom Of The City performance was on a ‘Large Groups’ double CD; the FOTC 2002 set made up a single LIO CD, while a further single CD was a selection of pieces from the 2003 and 2004 festivals, the ’03 material including Caroline’s riotous conduction with guest artist Jaap Blonk. LIO then featured on the FOTC 2005 double CD compilation, and in ’07 shared another festival double CD with Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, the two groups appearing separately and together; in the latter instance the combined musicians had to find room to play before they could accommodate the audience, the Festival having been forced to move from Conway Hall to the Red Rose. 

Meanwhile, a number of London New Wind Festivals during the ‘noughties’, organised at other venues by LIO oboist Catherine Pluygers, featured both the orchestra and small groups from within its membership.

Though there may have been attempts to get festival slots, the results were not great— but a number of prestigious “away fixtures” did come about. The first took place in January 2006 at the Shifti Festival at the University of Warwick, which had been set up to feature improvisation across various disciplines; the LIO set was favourably reviewed in ‘The Independent’. The same year, at the Prince Charles Cinema in London, 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: remarkable music was produced despite limited rehearsal time, astonishing  Starr and the Film London team. The following year saw two memorable “extras”: a small number of LIO members accompanied early short films at a ‘Smoking Cabaret’ at the Curzon Soho, while an enormous version of the orchestra played at Paul Rutherford’s memorial.  This took place at the Red Rose, towards the end of its existence.  (Ken Vandermark, Ingrid Laubrock, Jim Dvorak, John Russell, Nick Stephens and Lawrence Casserley were among the guests that night.) This can be found on the LIO’s Bandcamp page:

In the period after the loss of the Red Rose, LIO played some Sunday afternoon concerts at the lovely Amadeus Centre in Maida Vale, but soon settled on Cafe OTO, where an enthusiastic audience quickly developed. As a sort of farewell to the Red Rose, concert recordings from 2003 and 2007 formed an improvisation-only CD on Psi, Emanem’s sister label, the pieces captured by the indefatigable Tim Fletcher.

The special events continued. 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 an overseas concert, at the legendary Bimhuis in Amsterdam, a 19-strong LIO playing opposite— and with —Den Haag’s Royal Improvisers Orchestra. Yedo Gibson, who had been playing with LIO before moving to Holland, was the instigator of that enterprise. In July of the same year LIO played the Leytonstone Festival — in an exceptionally large “back room of a pub” —and the following month the orchestra was to be heard at Ronnie Scott’s Club, no less, as part of the Britjazz Festival. This last concert, which included Jason Yarde as featured soloist, was reviewed by ‘The Daily Telegraph’, ‘The Financial Times’ and ‘Jazzwise’. In addition to the Cafe OTO appearances, LIO gave the occasional performance on HMS President, moored by the Thames. The Cinema Museum in Kennington also hosted LIO, in December 2012. (FOTC continued for a while, sometimes back at Conway Hall, later at Cecil Sharp House, where it was recorded by Radio 3).

LIO continued to benefit from new members and from temporary or permanent visitors to London. It might be in order to list a few stalwarts of this period, in addition to those already mentioned: Phil Wachsmann, Adam Bohman, Marcio Mattos, John Bisset, Sue Ferrar, Adrian Northover, Roland Ramanan, Sylvia Hallett, Ivor Kallin, Alison Blunt, John Rangecroft+, Neil Metcalfe, Harry Beckett+, Robert Jarvis, Hannah Marshall, Louis Moholo-Moholo, Roberto Sassi, Noel Taylor, Harrison Smith, Jackie Walduck, Ansuman Biswas, Guillaume Viltard, David Ryan, Rowland Sutherland and Tony Marsh+. Trumpeter Henry Lowther and pedal steel maestro B J Cole appeared with LIO from time to time; more recently, singer extraordinaire Phil Minton has dusted off his trumpet. Among musicians who played with LIO early in their careers, we note Shabaka Hutchings, Áine O’Dwyer, Julie Kjaer, Dominic Lash, Satoko Fukuda, Rachel Musson, Olie Brice, Beibei Wang, Tori Handley…

Thanks to the Swiss government’s cultural policy, Hans Koch and Charlotte Hug both spent time in the UK, and Charlotte has come back on many occasions.  Javier Carmona, Chefa Alonso, Børre Molstad, Yedo Gibson, Sonia Paço-Rocchia, Thomas Rohrer, Anna Kaluza, Barbara Meyer and Ricardo Tejero were regular participants when living here; Anna Homler and Paul Hubweber were two of the visitors who came on more than one occasion. Judith Unterpetinger (Juun), Cyril Biondi, d’incise, Hyelin Kim, Tania Chen, Federico Reuben, Ng Chor Guan and Eugene Martynec added to the orchestra’s range of tone colours; Guillermo Torres and Guilherme Peluci joined the roster of conductors. The orchestra had a Brazilian (Rodrigo Montoya) on the Japanese shamisen; later, there was another shamisen player, Joshua Weitzel—from Germany!

There are a number of orchestras working in similar areas worldwide, and some of them have had contact with LIO members who have appeared with them either as players, workshop leaders or conductors. (In the UK, Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, previously mentioned, had grown up independently, although one of their leading lights, Raymond McDonald had made a number of appearances with LIO.)

Live recordings kept coming. The 2010 FOTC performance at Conway Hall with guests Wadada Leo Smith and Leon Michener became the ’LIO Leo Leon’ CDon Psi. A 2011 concert on HMS President was recorded by Tasos Stamou, a newer member, who releasedit as a limited-edition CD-R, ‘HMS Concert’, on his Kukuruku label (this can nowbe found on the LIO Bandcamp page).

Collaborations with filmmakers, television crews and artists also took place. LIO was filmed by Alex Reuben, the resulting work included in his feature documentary ‘Newsreel’, while Australian artist Cat Hope worked with the orchestra for her commission ‘The Moment of Disappearance’ at  Brockley’s Rivoli Ballroom in 2013.

2013 also saw The Yard Theatre in Hackney used for some extra performances while Epic, a nightclub in Dalston, became another occasional venue. Mostly, though, monthly concerts from spring 2013 were held at St Mary’s Church near Clissold Park in Stoke Newington, mainly in the spacious ‘new’ church, but sometimes in the old church across the road, which is an arts centre. Ashley Wales of Spring Heel Jack came on board as a conductor — and has now conducted the orchestra over fifty times!

LIO began to take note of the Iklectik Arts Lab in Lambeth North, appearing there on the longest day of 2015 and returning for an increasing number of concerts during 2016, and then every month bar one in the following year. 2018 again saw LIO at Iklectik every month, inviting Merseyside Improvisers Orchestra on one occasion — MIO’s Ged Barry had already made a few appearances with LIO. 2018 also saw 20th anniversary shows at other venues: a film / music event at The Cinema Museum organised by Dave Tucker, a concert at Deptford Town Hall (part of Goldsmiths College) during the EFG London Jazz Festival, and last of all a three-day programme of concerts and workshops back at Cafe OTO. For this final event Caroline Kraabel put together a special line-up, including many old friends— some of them involved in the very early days — and some wild cards. This was a line-up she assembled to a very specific remit; unfortunately, there were some — often with very long service —who just couldn’t be included. Right before the event, Phil England wrote an excellent piece on LIO in ‘The Wire’ (issue 417).

In 2019, LIO was mostly found at Iklectik, except when at St Mary’s, or, on one occasion, at Cafe OTO.  In 2020 the venue was due to alternate between Iklectik and St Mary’s, with another big end-of-year concert planned for Cafe OTO... but then came COVID.

Before the shutters came down, though, ’20 Years On’ — a double CD of recordings at Iklectik from 2016 to 2018 — saw the light of day, self-released by the orchestra. The recordings were the work of Jeff Ardron of St Austral Sound, who had become a tireless chronicler of the concerts. A number of people initially worked on track selection (full disclosure: I was one), and a very varied, very representative selection emerged. Some “regulars” didn’t get to make that many appearances, but even so there were over seventy musicians featured, including some one-off guests. The main credit for post-production, and the completion of the final work, goes to Adrian Northover and Ashley Wales. Good reviews followed: Julian Cowley in The Wire, Edwin Pouncey in Jazzwise, Stuart Broomer in NYC Jazz Review. (It’s worth mentioning a superb 2019 piece by Bill Shoemaker in Point of Departure that gave an overview of the LIO while mentioning several pieces on the then-new CD.)

The final concert before lockdown featured the first appearance by Carole Finer, whose son Tom Chant was an early LIO member; tragically, she died in hospital soon after, as a result of COVID-related pneumonia.  (A compact version of the orchestra played in her memorial concert at Morley College two years later.)

As quarantine kicked in, the orchestra began a whole new range of activities, and many members were able to collaborate online, with remarkable results. There were special online pieces for Bandcamp, like ‘Breathing’, ‘Brevity’, or the Robert Nettleship collaboration ‘Boele’. Some were solos, some file-sharing collaborations. Caroline Kraabel, Adrian Northover, Sue Lynch, Charlotte Keeffe, Emily Shapiro, Sue Ferrar, Sylvia Hallett, Dee Byrne, Neil Metcalfe, Pascal Marzan, Dave Fowler, Loz Speyer and Adam Bohman were amongst those who made valuable contributions. 

In addition to the 2007 Rutherford memorial concert and the 2011 HMS President recording, more recent concert material was also posted on Bandcamp. There was a conduction by Sylvia Hallett, and one by Caroline Kraabel (with the words of Brian Eley). Ashley Wales had conducted a piece thatfeatured the cello of Sofia Vaisman Maturana. Phil Wachsmann and Charlotte Keeffe had both conducted pieces celebrating Steve Beresford having reached a significant birthday. An Adrian Northover piece featured Douglas Benford on harmonium — and Carole Finer on shruti box. (Carole’s passing was followed by that of Simon Fell at his French home. John Rangecroft was lost in 2021 and the next year, far too young, Ian MacGowan, the former Ian Smith.)

In the autumn of 2020, there were two small group sets at Iklectik, without an audience, which were streamed; Steve Beresford participated in both, from his piano at home.  Moving into 2021, there was a mixture of online, live-streamed and live material, depending on the lockdown regulations then in force. In October 2021, by which time there had been some return to normality, LIO took part in another collaboration at Iklectik, this time with a group from Norway, Bergen ImproStorband. 

Throughout the orchestra’s history there have been collaborations with individuals and groups. What other line-up could have at different times featured as guests: a key member of MEV (Frederick Rzewski);one of the outstanding second-generation figures from the AACM (Renee Baker);an internationally acclaimed classical conductor (Ilan Volkov); the unclassifiable Hugh Davies; and the poet, MC5 manager and all-round countercultural rebel John Sinclair?! Not to mention butoh dancers, sculptors, writers, artists, filmmakers…

And yet it’s the regular performers who have made LIO such a constant presence on the London landscape. Some have been there from very early days. I’m sorry not to have mentioned many others of the great number who’ve been involved. 

I had continued to help with admin— including taking on some publicity work Luisa Tucciariello had been doing — but checked out in early 2022, not able to do as much as was needed, and with other work to do. (I have managed to see some concerts since, and have been happy to hear the music continue to develop.)

A more significant change also occurred in 2022, with Caroline Kraabel deciding to move on. It’s difficult to estimate the extent of her musical contributions, her enthusiasm and her drive. The work she did in lockdown alone, linking musicians and listeners, was, as I have said, enormously important.

A number of people help organise the LIO’s activities these days. Steve Beresford is still there, and I must mention Adrian Northover, Julian Woods and Sue Ferrar, who are doing much of the admin; Faradena Afifi, Jonny Martin, Douglas Benford and Christopher Hill are among more recent arrivals helping keep LIO’s profile alive.

So, to bring us right up to date: at the start of its 25th anniversary celebrations LIO was featured in an exhibition at the Project DIVFUSE Gallery in Hackney and took part in workshops in Ipswich, while planning appearances in Brockwell Greenhouses and special events at Café OTO and at St Mary’s. And thus the work goes on. It’s been a remarkable ride, and long may it continue…

Gerard F. Tierney, 2023. (With thanks to Adrian Northover and Julian Woods for last-minute tweaks.)

To the memory of Harry Beckett, Lol Coxhill, Simon H. Fell, Carole Finer, Ian MacGowan (Smith), Tony Marsh, John Rangecroft, Paul Rutherford and Ray Warleigh.