company week | a short report


COMPANY WEEK: A short report

Company Week took place 24th to 29th May 1977 in London, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (except 29th at The Roundhouse). The musicians taking part were: Maarten van Regteren Altena, Derek Bailey, Han Bennink, Steve Beresford, Anthony Braxton, Lol Coxhill, Tristan Honsinger, Steve Lacy, Evan Parker and Leo Smith. Altogether they played 37 sets of improvised music, but only twice was any combination of musicians repeated. So there were 35 groups, which consisted of: 1 solo, 12 duos, 11 trios, 7 quartets, 2 quintets, 1 sextet and 1 septet.

Company Week was a kind of international conference on improvisation and playing-together. But all the talk was replaced by improvisation and playing-together. No votes were taken, no resolutions passed, no reports published, and yet it was a week of discussion, discourse, debate, etc., in which “what was said” was “what happened.”

And what, then, did happen? Every delegate no doubt has his own version of that. But certain things were broadly apparent as the week ran its course. They arrived and began by declaring what they already knew (they did what they could already do). This lasted two days. In this a three-way polarisation occurred – three sub-committees were set up: one on fast, high-energy scatter of sound (string band), one on deep, pool-of-sound meanderings (saxophone special), and one on scratch, crash and fiddle-around contrasts (the jokers).

But as soon as the conference got off the ground a great deal of shifting around started – confrontations agreements and antagonisms were set in motion across these polarisations which really taxed resources. Certainly by the third day people were extending their vocabularies, entering unfamiliar fields of discourse and increasingly sustaining their individual pressures on the group acts. Certain specialized departmental seminars were insisted on right through, such as a kind of improvised systemics music copyrighted by soprano saxophone players exclusively, but that didn’t affect the main issues.


The Roundhouse yesterday…

Although I don’t like singling people out, I could mention as an example of what happened, the way Steve Lacy, who I’d thought before was only interested in short pieces of controlled improvisation and composition, plunged with his entire musician’s existence into the free-music context and improvised like a bird right through the week, and also changed, broadened and opened out in response to the musical situation as it ran its course.

This convocation wasn’t aimed at agreement – there was no final sorting-out of differences and ultimate resolution – that would have been sheer compromise. The interaction was the reason for it all; these were all musicians who had “got it together” before this started – they had their own developing vocabularies in improvisation, leaning this way and that or coursing straight down the middle. No unitary collective consciousness emerged to round it off. (There was an attempt, in the septet which occurred near the end, but that never really stood a chance.) No – the musicians insisted on their distinctiveness, and it was the very reverberation of these intact musical existences against one another which maintained the vitality of the music.

Free Improvisation was the central medium of the week, and the only final concurrence was that that medium is valid, is moving, does make the whole thing possible. And it seemed from what these musicians did/said that “free music” still is not a familiar or stylised form of music which exists in a number of recognisable “schools” (“black,” “English,” “Continental,” “serious,” “funny,” etc.) – it seems that the apparent styles of free music represent a regression back to the expressivity of the music’s origins in jazz or composed music, and that when the musicians, wherever they’re from, really grasp their total resources and move into the arena then the music they play is simply their own, personal musics. And these musics can then interact in the most creative way.


The Roundhouse today…

But “what,” I hear someone say, “about the music itself – what was that like?” Well, most of it was quite extraordinary, but if you weren’t there, I’m afraid you missed it. All you’ll ever hear of it lies in what these musicians will do next, now that they’re back home.

Peter Riley, 1977


selected Company recordings:


The Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) is a modern art centre on The Mall in London, England. It is located within Nash House, which is part of Carlton House Terrace, near the Duke of York Steps and Admiralty Arch and contains galleries, a theatre, two cinemas and a bar. It was founded by Peter Watson, Herbert Read, Geoffrey Grigson and Roland Penrose in 1946. The ICA’s founders intended to establish a space where artists, writers and scientists could debate ideas outside of the traditional confines of the Royal Academy. The first exhibitions were held in rented premises organised by Penrose, ‘40 Years of Modern Art’ was followed by ‘40,000 Years of Modern Art’ reflecting his interest in primitivism.

The ICA’s first regular premises were in Dover Street. In its early years, the Institute organised exhibitions of modern art including Picasso and Jackson Pollock, it also launched Pop art, Op art, and British Brutalist art and architecture. The Independent Group met at the ICA in 1952–1962/63 and organised several exhibitions, including This is Tomorrow. Lawrence Alloway acted as assistant Director during the mid to later 1950s. With the support of the Arts Council, the ICA moved to its current site in 1968. For a period during the 1970s the Centre was more known for its often anarchic programme and administration. In 2002 then ICA Chairman Ivan Massow criticised what he described as ‘concept art’ leading to his resignation. The ICA appointed Ekow Eshun Artistic Director in 2005 following the departure of Philip Dodd. The annual Beck’s Futures prize is exhibited and hosted there. It has hosted the onedotzero digital film festival for over a decade (from 1996).

The ICA appointed Mark Sladen as Director of Exhibitions in 2007 to replace Jens Hoffmann who was appointed Director of the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco in 2006.


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