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Martin Archer: Making A Difference, Doing Things Differently

Duncan Heining By

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"I've never been able to learn conventional music notation," he says. "There's a lot of things about music—what the rules are in terms of harmony and chord construction—I just don't get. Or rather I get it in practice without being able to understand it at a more theoretical level. I'm aware I have a very odd mental relationship with music. That is not the norm."

Yet it doesn't seem to have held Archer back, either as an improviser or as a composer—just a different kind of problem to solve. He began by playing jazz-funk when he was 15 but, at university, started listening more and more to free improvisation. It was a period that saw no real separation between the more "out" end of jazz and the more "left-field" rock of Can, Faust and Magma. In a way, these connections continue to inform Archer's work. Having finished his studies, he put an ad in a local record shop, seeking musicians of like mind, and so began a journey that would take him more and more into the sounds of AACM. First there was Bass Tone Trap, formed with saxophonist Derek Saw, guitarists Neil Carver and John Jasnoch, bassist Paul Shaft and drummer Pete Infanti—a heady and timely mash-up of Pigbag, Rip Rig & Panic and Prime Time Ornette Coleman. That was followed by the sax quartet, Hornweb.

"The frustration with Bass Tone Trap was that it was hard to get gigs," Archer recalls. "I thought if I put a sax quartet together it will get a lot more work and I was right. Hornweb went on to do about 150 gigs over ten years. That was all I did for ten years—I played soprano sax in a saxophone quartet and the model for that was very much an AACM-based music. There were some very fancy saxophone groups around at the time. The music I find the biggest turn-off on the planet is eighties British jazz, when the first generation of "jazz goes to college" players started to emerge and inflict their wretched whimsy onto a bunch of gullible journalists. I hate all that stuff. We wanted to be a horrible, greasy R&B saxophone quartet veering off into AACM abstraction, and that's precisely what we did for ten years."

It was around the mid-nineties, that jazz began to struggle once again in provincial Britain. The clubs died and the gigs dried up. It became clear to Archer that a different approach needed to be found, if he were to continue making the music he heard in his head. An introduction from writer Benny Watson to bassist and electronics enthusiast Chris Bywater paved the way forward.

"We immediately hit it off and bought synths and sequencing stuff," he explains. "I had used synth to compose and bash out scores but I realized this was an instrument I can play. For a time, I stopped being a saxophonist and used technology to create the more abstract music I was hearing."

Together they formed Transient v Resident, an improvising synth and acoustic instruments duo. As Archer says, "For a time, I preferred to be in the studio making records. I did a 180-degree turn, stopped playing saxophone, stopped doing concerts because there weren't any around worth doing. From 1994-2004, all I wanted was to make records. The musicians I used never heard the tracks they ended up playing on. But things have moved now. Since then, I've begun to integrate everything I know and have increasingly introduced live elements into the music."

In fact, the emphasis now is increasingly on playing live. His Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere offers a huge, exhilarating, mind-blowing melange of sounds that recalls the best of prog rock, whilst taking it somewhere new, vital and visceral. I can't wait to hear them live—and, yes, they do have a light show. Engine Room Favourites are about to make what will be Archer's first tour in years, whilst nothing could be more live than his Juxtavoices project. Check them out on You Tube. One set includes a wild and weird outing with the Orchestra.

In fact, there is just too much music to cover in one article. But since first being introduced to Archer's world of sound with English Commonflowers more than a decade ago, his work continues to fascinate and travel to places new, as well as to some that are familiar but heard afresh filtered through Archer's musical imagination. His three albums with Julie Tippetts—FiNiN, Ghosts of Gold and, most recently, Serpentine—make this point perfectly. Tippetts' work with life-partner/pianist Keith Tippett is wonderful, but so, too, is her Sunset Glow. from 1975. Her records with Archer, most particularly Serpentine, are wonderful collaborative efforts that draw on that amazing voice, on Tippetts' refined skills as a lyricist and ability to create her own musical universe. So, how do two such distinctive, perhaps unique, musical talents work so effectively together?

"In the case of the records with Julie, we have a very regular working method," Archer explains. "I make all the instrumental tracks first and send them down to her basically already complete. She'll then write all her own words and melodies before coming up to Sheffield and then we'll typically spend three or four days just recording vocals and sculpting down the vocal arrangements. We both do that together, though Julie calls the shots. If there's a part of the music which isn't working, we'll maybe make some fine tunings or make a new overdub but generally we don't change the music much—in fact, Julie prefers things to stay as she first hears them, in case the thing she liked disappears!"

It might even be suggested that these albums do not just equal Tippetts' 1969, Sunset Glow and Shadow Puppeteer; they represent an apotheosis in an already distinguished career. Archer goes so far to suggest that the working methods they have devised, which involve use of computer technology, may be a factor in enabling Tippetts to reach new heights in her art.

"It's very much a joint production," he says, "even though we don't actually sit and write together as such. Julie has really got into the computer side of things and it's very liberating for her, after years of making records where she had to live with stuff that wasn't perfect 'cause they ran out of time. So, like me, she really does like to micro-manage every second of every sound on our records and, fortunately, we seem to have the same taste in sounds. We don't often come to blows."
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