CRAM Festival takes place this bank holiday weekend (August 29th – 31st) at the Hundred Years Gallery in London. I was delighted to see so many familiar names on the lineup, although as is the charm for any festival celebrating improvised music, they all come with the guarantee of the spontaneous and unexpected. I threw a few questions at CRAM’s curators.
So in a nutshell, what exactly is CRAM Festival? In fact, would you mind introducing CRAM itself as well?
Cram is an artist-led musician’s collective and independent record label. Primarily focusing on improvised and new music, it is an outlet designed to provide a platform for artists to facilitate their creative processes. It was founded by Benedict Taylor and is curated by Benedict Taylor, Daniel Thompson and Tom Jackson.
The festival is a chance to collectively celebrate a glimpse into London’s improvised music scene. It is an overview of the label’s ongoing recording and performative work as well as being a vital magnification of our recent ongoing quarterly residency with Montse Gallego and Graham MacKeachan at Hundred Years Gallery.
I can see a lot of fantastic names on the lineup, many of which have appeared on ATTN’s pages previously (Colin Webster, Graham Dunning, Jennifer Allum, Alex Ward etc). There seems to be a healthy variety in terms of instrumentation, creative approaches and ensemble sizes too. I guess you must be pretty delighted with how that’s turned out?
Yes, absolutely. The festival draws on various approaches to improvising which illustrates the breadth of activity within London. While it tries to represent a cross-section, it is certainly not exhaustive. It’s a snapshot of an evolving and vital scene.
All three of you will be playing two sets each throughout the weekend. What can you each tell me about your sets and the musicians with whom you’re collaborating? Will you be taking any expectations/preparations into the sets with you, or will you be taking to the performances completely fresh?
Benedict: On Saturday the 29th, I will be playing a duo with my long-time colleague and friend Stephen Crowe. We recently initiated a new project “Alexandertwatz” based between Berlin and London. We’ve been working at this for some time and have made 2 studio recordings, with Alexandertwatz in Berlin releasing very recently. This is however our debut performance so it is an exciting moment for us.
On Sunday the 30th I will perform solo for a set. This is always a real pleasure. I have for some time been focusing on solo viola both through recording and performing working extensively with improvised music, but also with new solo works from a selection of composers written for me. For the festival though there will be no intended preparations – as far as possible I will be playing “fresh”.
Dan: I will be playing a solo set on the final day (Monday) which is always challenging and pleasurable. I have played solo at the gallery in the past and find the unpredictable acoustics of the space particularly rewarding. Playing an acoustic steel strung archtop with a homemade plectrum doesn’t lend itself particularly well to the acoustic, which I think pushes my music in a direction(s) unique to the space. On the second day (Sunday) I will be playing in a trio with Neil Metcalfe (flute) and Mark Sanders (percussion). These are two unbelievable musicians with many years of playing experience and it will be an honour to be joining them. They are both very generous with their time and music and highlight one of the most wonderful things about the London improvised music scene, that being cross generational collaboration.
Other than some usual warm up exercises I might do, the only preparation I bring to playing is all of my previous musical encounters. In a sense I feel I am constantly preparing for the next gig.
Tom: I am playing solo on day one (Saturday). My solo improvisations are a heightened example of the way I approach improvising: seeking a development of my understanding of the clarinet in the performative moment.
On day three (Monday) I will be with my longest collaborators – Ashley-John Long (double bass) and Matt Davison (drums). We all met at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama where classes on improvisation were given by Keith Tippett. That was a very formative time for me.
I don’t anticipate any particular preparation prior to either set.
You seem to have a strong relationship with Hundred Years Gallery. What is it about the space that keeps you coming back? Is there any way in which the space lends itself to, or helps to facilitate, improvisatory music and dialogues?
The curators (Graham and Montse) of the gallery have been incredibly supportive of what we do. Through close collaboration we have nurtured a relationship that allows mutual creative momentum. The space itself has a live and unpredictable sound that contributes to our creative process.
You’ve all been playing together for a while now. Is it easy to stay stimulated by the collaborative company of one another after several years? Has it become any more difficult to surprise each other during improvised performance?
Surprise exists in the “working group” aesthetic as a response to our ever-developing musical tapestries. Rather than resulting from a precise intention our trio develops in line with the excitement that we still experience from each performance and each other. We are interested in the continual development of common languages. As a trio we work.
From the exposure I’ve had, London seems to cater for improvised and new music reasonably well. Do you think the city as a whole does enough to support/house this sort of music? From your experience, how does it fare compared to elsewhere in Europe?
London’s scene is blessed with curators that believe in the music in spite of a lack of financial support (including Boat Ting, Flim Flam, Arch1, Horse Improv, Foley Street, Mopomoso, I’klectik). “Support” is a complicated notion. While it doesn’t define opportunities for listeners and/or performers, it can provide an essential foundation. But this is not limited to money – there are many ways to support and house.
In Britain, London is one of the bastions of improvised music while venues in other cities remain vital components of the musical scene. Europe certainly suggests ways to support improvised music.
Aside from the music, what else is happening at CRAM Festival?
The festival also celebrates our recorded output which will be available to buy during the festival as well as the fine fare of the gallery as well as releases from other artists and labels. Espressos, homemade tortillas and Spanish omelettes washed down with a beautiful Spanish liqueur (that Dan doesn’t yet know about). It’ll be glorious.