Music groups form for a variety of reasons but the group’s sound grows out of an agreement, explicit or tacit, among the members about a collective musical strategy or direction, and an acceptable musical outcome. The ensemble evaluates the group sound by asking itself, “How far from or close to the decided mark does the music fall?”
The Philadelphia experimental trio Many Arms has a cohesive sound that combines a diverse range of musical styles. When I heard the band perform at AUX recently with the Tokyo-based experimental musician Toshimaru Nakamura, I was surprised that the primary voice of the trio remained intact, even with the addition of someone with a very specific musical language. Many Arms still sounded like Many Arms.
For the fan or determined listener, pulling apart the threads of the collective unit helps to understand what makes the group’s sound unique, but it is often no simple task. Each musician brings to the band a lifetime of listening and practicing, which in turn evolves into a personal repertoire—an individual musical library or catalog of sorts consisting of musical fragments embedded in the artists’ memory. Often an ensemble’s defining group sound is a culmination of these musical fragments, enhanced by the complexities and fine tuning of each individual voice, the persistence of the collective or individual memory, the ebbs and flows of group interaction, and what happens when musical memory is suspended during play, and reaction and fatigue sets in. It is at that point that the “magic” will carry the music towards its target.
Nevertheless, in parsing Many Arms’ group sound, do we hear hints of the band Slayer in the density of Ricardo Lagomasino’s drums, or the sonic architecture of Mass Projections in Nick Millevoi’s guitars? Do we sense the spirit of experimentation from the torch of freedom set up by Frank Wright? What individual or collective marks have Many Arms set, against which everything is evaluated? We asked each member of the trio to share with us three recordings.
My three choices are tied together by their unrelenting aesthetic. Each of these albums follows one course and seems to explore one idea until its full fruition. This is something that has appealed to me in recent years and has most certainly influenced the way I think of the music we make with Many Arms. From Mass Projection’s extreme, energetic, album-length noise improvisation (only an excerpt of a four-hour concert!), to Bohren’s “uneventful” music (their words), and Andriessen’s dissonant harmony and stop-start rhythms, these albums have all directly affected the way I think about my music.
The music on Unity, Brolt, and Mass Projection epitomizes the idea of energy-driven group improvisation, where each individual voice is relentlessly pushing the others to create a unified sonic texture. This way of thinking and playing has had a profound impact on our band over the years, in the way we compose, improvise, and work together. When we improvise, we are always striving to lose ourselves within a single energetic mass of sound. Our compositions have become vehicles for this experience.
John Coltrane’s Sun Ship was one of the first free jazz records I had ever heard that brought me to tears. It was so beautiful and powerful. It had lift. Mu affected me in the same way, but this time there was complete freedom. Slayer’s Reign in Blood is pure energy, like they’re in full sprint. It’s the combination of the feelings that I get listening to the music on these three records that I want to feel all at once while playing in Many Arms.