Conversations with music and time


Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom,
David Toop (Bloomsbury)

beauty things

The Beauty Things,
Mark Edmonds and Alan Garner (Group VI Press)



David Toop is a careful and considered writer, he is also not afraid to go off at tangents or follow a thread of an idea and see where it might lead. Into the Maelstrom is the first volume of two to document and discuss improvised music and offer a substantial history of an elusive and wide-ranging music, in this one up to 1970.

Toop is both an author and a musician, which gives him a rare insight into this type of music which is made out of the relationship between musicians, listening and playing in the moment. It is instant composition, it is conversation and argument, discussion, noise and silence, precarious clusters and contradictions of sound held in a specific time frame, impossible to pin down or describe. And yet, Toop does. He roots this music in jazz traditions, but also draws on contemporary classical and electronic works, he spends time writing about  musicians such as Joe Harriott and Derek Bailey, he jumps forwards and backwards in time tracing musical and cultural influences and connections, inventing impossible (in the literal sense) dialogues across history and geography as he goes. And he discusses concepts such as ‘free’, ‘time’, ‘absence’, the nature of music, creativity and the imagination.

There are many surprises, mainly in the breadth of his frames of reference (although there is little mention of improvisation within popular music or early rock – perhaps in volume 2?) and a vivid sense of personal engagement and hierarchies, that is Toop often thinks bands or individuals important or key figures that many would not know of or regard as peripheral. This includes the surprising arrival of Yoko Ono and John Lennon screaming along to Ornette Coleman late in the book, and earlier an intriguing section on Eric Dolphy’s late and posthumously released work, albums which I have been listening to in the last few days as a result of Toop’s enthusiasm and description.

Honesty compels me to admit I am looking forward to the second volume and post 1970s music. The LMC (London Musicians’ Collective), Lol Coxhill, Henry Cow and ROI make brief appearances here, as do many of the mainstays of the British improv scene, but this stuff is what I know, what I grew up with, and it will be interesting to see the new frameworks and links of association and ideas Toop brings to them and, I’m sure, many names and genres new to me.

This is a long overdue book, and there is no-one else who could have written it. It is an astonishing achievement, and a highly readable and enjoyable one too.

Just as Toop can conjure sound and silence on the page, Alan Garner (in conversation with Mark Edmonds) can both describe unusual and personal objects and infer a history that lives on in the present.

The Beauty Things is a beautifully designed book that ranges across items such as stone axes, a Tibetan prayer wheel, a stone book, a corner cupboard and the Jodrell Bank telescope across the railway from Garner’s house. Garner expounds how they came into his life, why they were and have remained important to him, and discusses their past or possible past. This is no Antiques Roadshow though, nor is it – as the Introduction makes clear – A History of Alan Garner in 100 Objects; this is a series of personal riffs by Garner on Garner’s (sometimes inexplicably) sacred objects and how they have fed into his storytelling. This is evidenced by an astute selection of quotes  from his fictions.

Mark Edmonds is a subtle presence here once the book proper starts, but he has done an exquisite job of design & production, of editing and selecting from the conversations which provide the material collected here. Delineated only by single or double quotes (Garner is in double) the dialogue cleverly circles  each chosen subject/object here. It is not only for those interested in the work of Alan Garner, but for anyone interested in the intersection of the past and present, how writers work, creativity, history and ideas.


© Rupert Loydell


The Beauty Things is available at



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