To quote from the booklet notes to the first Ensemble CD;“…formed with the object of finding stimulating and satisfying ways of making music with a large number of improvising musicians. One of our approaches to group improvisation is to work within predetermined structures.”
The group was first heard in 1985 at a concert organised by Chris Burn and John Butcher at the LMC premises on Gloucester Rd, North London. As seen from the flyer the personnel was not that of the octet that was established soon after. For the LMC concert the group worked with some very simple predetermined structures. Adherence to some kind of ’skeletal score’ became a key feature of the group’s work throughout their existence; alongside other schemes and freely improvised pieces.
The octet from this period were;
Chris Burn Piano, John Butcher Saxophones, Jim Denley Flutes, Phil Durrant Violin, Matt Hutchinson Synthesiser and Electronics, Marcio Mattos Double Bass and Cello, John Russell Guitar, Stevie Wishart Violin and Hurdy Gurdy
This octet that was to work through the 1980s and ‘90s. They initially gave concerts in London, and a special concert was arranged in the Purcell Room, South Bank Centre in December 1989. For this event a number of scores were devised by Chris Burn, and John Butcher composed his piece ’Fun for All’. Richard Barrett reviewed the concert for the Wire wrote;
‘Chris Burn’s Ensemble is precisely that: the loosely-structured octet music which predominated in their performance isn’t a play of personalities, but a succession of textures of teeming complexities, whose individuals contributions (however striking in themselves) hardly ever draw the attention away for long from the febrile turbulence of their combinations. …….The Ensemble play some of the tightest group improvisation you’ll hear, and some of the most alluring assemblages of sound.’
The following year they performed (with a smaller group) at the SPNM’s Improvisation Day; the octet recorded their Cultural Baggage CD (ACTA 7) and toured the UK
...the restraint and sense of spaciousness to be heard on the groups new CD, ‘Cultural Baggage’, on the innovative ACTA label makes for compelling listening.The group interweaves strings, synthesizer, sax. flute and piano textures, balancing lengthy discussions - as on ‘Influence and Concealment’ and ‘Funforall’ - with concise three to five-minute pieces, and strives for an ensemble ‘sound’ rather than the expression of individual fancy. …….this spontaneous, though paradoxically almost classically organised music should be one of the more fascinating improv meetings of the year. (Jo Hughes, Time Out, 1990)
In 1991 in a concert at the Place Theatre, London, as part of the Crosswinds festival, the group had Evan Parker guest on one piece; Blocks and Arches. A piece by Keith Rowe - ‘Pollock #82 was also performed by the group. This music was later released on EMANEM as ’The Place 1991’ EMANEM 4056.
Through the ‘90s Chris Burn’s ‘Ensemble’ performed at a variety of concerts and festivals in the UK and in mainland Europe. These included Bochum - Ruhr Valley Festival ‘92, Guildford International Festival ‘93, Koln Stadgarten and Ulrichsberg Kaleidophon in ‘95 along with Radio and TV broadcasts for WDR and BBC Radio 3 sessions for Midnight Oil, Hear and Now and Music in our Time.
Both sets are comprised of free improvisations, instead of the more structured pieces that are feature on the Ensemble's three previous albums. Some may say that the group has grown old enough to face improvisation without a safety net, but that would be unfair as compositional canvas usually don't make things easier. Yet, Burn and co. have rarely sounded this focused and vital, the music this appealingly strange. In the intervening years, all the musicians have thrived to push their playing away from the sounds usually associated with their instruments. This is particularly true of Butcher (who breathes, gurgles and burps, but rarely emits a 'note'), Wastell (king of microscopic bow scratching), and Burn who's inside-piano playing has grown very remote from what can be heard on his 1997 solo CD MUSIC FOR THREE RIVERS. The 22-minuteHorizontals White and the closing Still Life on May Day provide spine-tingling moments, but there is not a dull minute on this hour-long disc. Recommended. Francois Couture. - All Music Guide.
Above; Navigations art work from photo of road repair by Chris Burn. Below; Page of score of 'Circulatory' from Navigations.
The flyer for the inaugural Ensemble concert played at the London Musician'c Collective.
Acta 7. Cover photo is of 'The Diplomat' by Leslie Glasgow.
Above; Xavier Charles and Chris Burn discuss which way up Burn's score is best read. Vienna, 2005.
Below; Ensemble, Vienna, 2005.
Two Emanem Ensemble CDs:
Above; The Place 1991,
below Horizontals White.