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Globe Unity: Then and Now

It has been almost 37 years since Alexander Von Schlippenbach’s first effort to merge big band orchestration with free improvisation. That endeavor hasn’t seen much of commercial circulation since its original 1966 release on the German Saba label, and it is a wonder why. For a group so influential to the improvising small ensemble and large group of the past thirty years, why are more Globe Unity Orchestra recordings not widely available? Yes, there is a true, traceable lineage with respect to Schlippenbach’s early works, and yes, a large number of today’s free improvisors owe the group an incalculable debt with respect to techniques, interactivity, and compositional methods. But the beauty of such music is that its intent is, in large part, to never be repeated, at least in performance. There exists a sizable catalog of Globe Unity recordings, many of which have only been heard by the chosen few (or those with a nice enough disposable income). Be that as it may, enough copies of Globe Unity (Saba, 1966) were pressed originally and in sparing reissue efforts that a decent copy is bound to show up from time to time in the offbeat vinyl store or on electronic auction websites.

Globe Unity was a launching pad for Schlippenbach’s musical ideas, and the music within could be said to reflect his inability to sit still. Consisting of two long-form orchestrations, the record shows two opposing sides to the composer: “Globe Unity” is the side of choice and stands as a key predecessor to today’s “free” improvisation, while “Sun” suggests an early interest in the influences of mid-century “world” music in the Europeans’ task of making a unique, modern voice for itself outside of coexisting American forms.

Together, the album is far from cohesive but the numbers on their own make for an interesting, if not head-first entry into European improv’s semi-recent history. Personnel ranges from genre giants (Peter Brötzmann, Günter Hampel, Manfred Schoof, Peter Kowald, Willem Breuker) to the utterly obscure (Willi Lietzmann, Kris Wanders, Jaki Liebezeit, Mani Neumeier).

The distinctive characteristic of “Globe Unity” is its definable (by today’s standards) structure, a series of improvised solos and off-pairings that come and go by Schlippenbach’s direction within the framework of a large, written score. The solos are exciting enough, full of youthful energy, and the musicians’ interest in making individual statements is not only conducive to the disposition of the piece, but manifest. “Sun”, on the other hand, is a delicate piece of music driven by percussive instrumentation, and marked by a “chorus” that features piano, bass and tuba. Though not an essential piece of music, one wonders how many of yesterday’s Transatlantic groups (Ganelin, Breuker’s, et al.) were inspired by “Sun”. Certainly it has its place in associated lineages.

Considered together, Globe Unity and Globe Unity 2002 (Intakt, 2003) are joined in their own polarities. They have in common their leader, and the now-recognizable voices of a handful of the players. Otherwise, one could be said to be the end of the other. In 37 years the methods have changed, so have the inspirations, and let’s not forget the global environment in which the musicians operate.

Globe Unity 2002 is the controlled free-for-all we have come to expect from such veteran European improvisors as Brötzmann, Johannes Bauer, Paul Rutherford and Evan Parker. Apparently, Schlippenbach laid down no motifs, no scores, and no rules in the moments prior to the concert. Lending further to the concept of external-stimuli-as-guidance is an event shared among musicians and audience: the recent passing of a local music enthusiast and proponent. The music simply opens with the pianist in calm arrhythmic reflection, and the rest characteristically follow. Along the way there are collective breaks, stop-time entries from soloists, subset exchanges among the personnel, and the occasional liftoff to higher planes. The music is as exciting as it is nerve-wracking: at times the horns seem hell-bent on disagreeable pitches through which to howl and holler, others seem exercises in just-how-atonal-can-we-get?. But these episodes are hallmarks of the tradition, and no similar occasion would be complete without them. It should be added that Schlippenbach and the unlikely returnee, a reflective Manfred Schoof, maintain a sense of poise and control throughout all 74 minutes, and, somehow, steer the others from the occasional search-and-destroy operation. To pull from another Schlippenbach title, the 2002 music is, simply, living.

If one thing has remained a constant for the Globe Unity Orchestra in four decades, it is the undeniable presence of political undertones in the music, a trait decidedly apart from concurrent collectives. Michael Mantler’s group, the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, the Breuker Kollektief, the Instant Composers Pool; these all owe in part to Schlippenbach’s vision. And though a large part of that vision has been shared and built upon, none of those have been able to convey their own socio-political environments as pervasively. With Globe Unity, those influences are unmistakable. The riotous atmosphere of the 2002 recording translates well the global instability in which it was operating, while the 1966 session tells of non-conformity and an effort to find permanence – even within the music’s own disorder – in a rapidly evolving musical environment. Globe Unity’s success in expression could be measured by the chances it takes, and music rarely gets as close to tangibility.

Alan Jones

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