PRINT May 2009


Musica Elettronica Viva

MUSICA ELETTRONICA VIVA are a collective that dates from that brave era the 1960s, when art was made unabashedly in the service of the revolution. As Frederic Rzewski, the pianist and composer who has served most often as the group’s spokesperson, explained in a 1969 interview:

We are making the first steps now toward an actively revolutionary music, a music which will not be an instrument of ruling-class “culture” . . . but rather a force in the hands of the people, a special language belonging to everybody. When this happens, the “concert” will come to resemble other liberated forms such as the party or the day off.

MEV’s two best-documented pieces from the period, SpaceCraft (1967–68) and Sound Pool (1969), are exercises in such ground clearing. The former work is a collective improvisation based on a plan conceived by Rzewski, in which each player imagines him- or herself “imprisoned” in a labyrinth. In directions for the piece, Rzewski elaborates on this scenario with a dream logic: At the center of the labyrinth is “a sort of movie screen with a loudspeaker,” from which emanate orders by “an unknown master.” That master, we need hardly be told, is “tradition, that which he knows as art.”

How does a musician escape from this nightmarish scenario? There’s no way out of the labyrinth, says Rzewski, but up: “To get free one must fly.” Up to this point, he could be discussing any number of ’60s-era gatherings, musical or otherwise. But MEV were not only interested in a leap into the void; they had a complicated stance toward received ideas. “To fly is to risk falling,” Rzewski continues, sounding less like a Bolshevik and more like a Zen master. “You will fall into your ‘stereotypes.’ If you . . . suspend judgment and fall into it completely and with grace, then you will fly.”

This potent image of levitating out of a cul-de-sac is emblematic of a number of grand gestures from the late ’60s and early ’70s. The helicopter is a dominating image of the Vietnam War, one that must have been on Rzewski’s mind at the time. But I think now also of Robert Smithson surveying his Earthworks, of rock stars’ arrivals at and departures from Woodstock, and of Nixon leaving the White House after his resignation. Weren’t they, too, choosing up after having tried all other directions?

The difference—one that is perhaps afforded by collective composition as opposed to individual heroics—is Rzewski’s openness to plummeting as well as to flying: “Improvisation is a trap which we must fall into in order to be free.”

THE SUBJECT OF A NEW four-CD compilation, MEV 40, from New World Records, MEV—founded in 1966 by expatriate American composers living in Rome—did not come to their interest in free improvisation via jazz performance, as did their British counterparts AMM and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Rather, this enthusiasm emerged from an interest in using electronics in new-music composition, as pioneered by John Cage and David Tudor. Harvard and Yale educated, and living in Europe on grants to study with Elliott Carter, Luigi Dallapiccola, and Luigi Nono, among others, the core members of MEV were trained at the peak of modernism. Their first collective action was a series of concerts in Rome that neatly surveyed twentieth-century avant-garde composition, from works by Charles Ives, Arnold Schönberg, Cage, and Karlheinz Stockhausen to experiments by the group’s contemporaries, such as David Behrman, Cornelius Cardew, and Alvin Lucier.

The willingness to fall into tradition, and to rise back out of it again, may be what defines the work MEV have made over the past forty-plus years. That is, if anything can be said to define the collective’s work: Their scorched-earth practices of the late ’60s eradicated the features we might use to identify the group’s sound or even their personnel. After SpaceCraft’s levitations, MEV crash-landed into Sound Pool, an anarchic work of audience participation that is not included on MEV 40. “Bring sounds to the performance to throw into the pool,” read the invitation to their New York debut, which took place at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1970. “This is a form in which all the rules are abandoned,” Rzewski had said a year earlier. “When, as has happened on numerous occasions in the Sound Pool, one hundred and more people are grooving together, making free music together . . . you know that you are experiencing something new and revolutionary. It is like . . . the Birth of Gargantua.”

A May 1969 recording of the piece bears this out—the din is so intense as to be disorienting; it has no edges. This may be the boundary of articulated sound. As MEV cofounder Alvin Curran put it a few years ago, Sound Pool “was at once an act of conceptual suicide for the music of the ‘closed’ group and at the same time an act which raised the collective music concept to its most dangerous and unstable experimental limits.”

What does a group, no matter how revolutionary, do to follow “an act of conceptual suicide”? MEV have always been shrouded in mystery, probably because they killed themselves early on, only to paradoxically continue living. Information about the collective was long hard to come by, fragmented, and often contradictory; there even seemed to be mutually exclusive versions of the group operating at the same time. But once the “closed group” of the earliest experiments were dead, it is only logical that multiple MEVs sprang up in their stead. In the ’70s, there were in fact three MEVs, based in New York, Paris, and Rome. Each had an apparently equal claim to the name, given the deliberate lack of claim staking the project entailed. But in that case, why keep the name? Or had the MEV version of a concert been so liberated, as Rzewski had desired, that it might be happening anywhere and everywhere, like the party or the day off?

A retrospective covering forty years of MEV’s recordings, complete with authoritative liner notes by music scholar David W. Bernstein and personal reminiscences by key participants, would seem to contradict the revolutionary dream of “a special language belonging to everybody.” Indeed, MEV 40 is something of a spoiler, as it provides answers to long-standing mysteries (like: who was in it?) and thereby explains the group’s role within “culture.” Yet this collection tells only a part of the MEV story—the part, we might say, that would fit into a four-CD historical compendium. There are no recordings of Sound Pool, tellingly. Neither is there anything by the French branch of MEV or the post–Sound Pool Rome branch, and barely any mention of renegade founding member Allan Bryant, who left the group in 1968 but has been busy releasing his own archive of MEV CDs in fucked-up and photocopied packages, with liner notes written in “fnetc spelingz” to “say thingz I think shd bi sed that arnt. Wi ar muzld by big cmrshl intRsts.”

Not that New World Records represents big cmrshl intRsts. But it does represent “culture,” as Rzewski would have put it in 1969. As a cultural institution—and it’s a worthy one by any nonrevolutionary metric—MEV are a group with clear boundaries, one that puts on “concerts.” Are the concerts worth hearing? Absolutely—they are played by brilliant musicians, including the witty virtuoso pianist Rzewski, synthesizer and computer-music pioneers Curran and Richard Teitelbaum, the late great jazz soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, and veteran avant-garde trombonist Garrett List. These are improvisers of the highest order, and their engagement with one another is an object lesson in musicality.

And yet . . . what do we learn from this box set of the “actively revolutionary music” of MEV?

The survey begins with a previously unreleased recording of the landmark piece SpaceCraft, rather than the version released by Mainstream Records in 1968. Nevertheless, this is the early, fiercely anti-“culture” MEV, with Rzewski eschewing the “bourgeois” piano and opting instead for a glass plate cut in the shape of a piano and fitted with springs and contact microphones, Curran on an mbira affixed to a motor-oil can, and Teitelbaum utilizing “the first Moog synthesizer played in Europe,” according to Bernstein’s notes. Sounds like history in the making.

No doubt I am guilty of a kind of fetishism in privileging the confusing, unnamed sounds of a scarce late-’60s LPs over the clarity of this annotated CD version. Both are, after all, generated by the same players on the same instruments. But listening to the LPs, I never knew who or what had made its sounds. And without that information, I heard them only as sounds. In other words, I believe I heard them as actively revolutionary music.

MEV 40 adds an extraordinary amount to our knowledge of this music: All its recordings are previously unreleased. But apart from SpaceCraft, this is strictly the post-’60s New York MEV, which finds founding members Curran, Rzewski, and Teitelbaum collaborating with downtown jazz and new-music players. Stop the War, a piece recorded by the New York radio station WBAI on New Year’s Eve 1972, is Knitting Factory improvisation avant la lettre, with the players both showing off and subverting their substantial chops. Bits of various styles emerge: nods to extended technique, minimalist repetitions, sly quotations of recognizable melodies (the piece ends with “Taps,” justifying and completing the title).

The collection then jumps ahead a decade, finding the same core group now joined by Lacy on saxophone. Lacy’s contributions strongly color, if they don’t dominate, the MEV recordings he participated in, from 1982 to 2002. With Lacy, the group grows markedly more flexible and articulate in its improvisations, but also—perhaps for the first time—leaves free improvisation behind for arrangements based on Lacy tunes. There are some remarkable spontaneous compositions here, in addition to a deft use of Lacy’s material. But what has happened to the revolution? By a 2002 recording of the last concert MEV played with Lacy, the players spend the first thirty minutes trading extended solos, with little accompaniment from one another. These solos are poetic, funny, and always interesting. But the grand group experiment has given way to individual heroics.

MEV 40 ends with one short, sharp performance made by the principal members three years after Lacy’s death. In 2007, Curran, Rzewski, and Teitelbaum reunited to play Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts—an irony remarked on by Bernstein, who writes in his liner notes that the group “had to face the challenge of playing for a conservative audience in an iconic space.” Certainly this kind of “challenge”—of “gently introduc[ing] MEV’s radical sound world”—is a far cry from the revolutionary challenges the group originally assigned themselves.

Nevertheless, I am happy to report, this performance by the three veterans at Tanglewood is steeped in all their knowledge gained over decades of experience. This most recent recording on MEV 40, titled Mass Pike, is a true group improvisation—one nearly as quiet as the early, skittish experiments, one as fully personal as the group’s later work with Lacy, and, with a nod to a fight that has clearly changed but not disappeared over the years, one that also has some political bite. “This is a democracy, is it not?” screams a shrill sample of a pundit’s voice at one point. “We do have a First Amendment, do we not? Do we not have a First Amendment?!”

“Of course,” comes the cowed answer.

“All right, thank you.”

Damon Krukowski is a musician and writer based in Cambridge, MA.