Musica Elettronica Viva

MEV 40
New World Records 80675-2

Consisting of a nucleus of academically trained composers who promoted free improvisation and group interaction, Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV) was the sort of musical aggregation that could only have been born in the 1960s.

Yet as this absorbing four-CD set of MEV performances – from its beginning in 1967, to its 40th anniversary – proves, the group’s triumphs are musically sophisticated as well as sociologically notable. Willingly subsuming the vaulted tradition of a single composer into group interaction, MEV’s most notable pieces added the smarts of jazz improvisers and the sonic versatility of increasingly complex electronic instruments to the compositional stew. Furthermore, the group has survived all these years because it never allowed electronics to submerge its initial humanistic and populist approach.

Founded in Rome by three American composers studying in that city: Alvin Curran (b. 1938), Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938) and Richard Teitelbaum (b. 1939), MEV members were at that time some of the few so-called serious musicians performing for young hippies and politicos in that city’s coffee houses, universities, factories and open- air plazas. Audience participation in these free-form extravaganzas was a norm, although the first-class tracks on this set showcase only professionals.

For more than 30 years, probably the most important MEV fellow traveler was expatiate American soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy (1934-2004). Paris-based Lacy’s experience in first Dixieland and then Free Jazz not only added a lyrical construct to the group’s performances but replaced a reliance on electronics with masterful acoustic techniques. Another valuable associate was trombonist Garrett List (b. 1943). An American though Belgium-based, List is more affiliated with theatre pieces and New music than jazz, but his erudite instrumental control strengthens the performances still further on the pieces on which he’s featured.

Ironically, “Stop The War”, recorded in 1972 without Lacy but with percussionist Gregory Reeves and Karl Berger on marimba as well as List, Curran, Rzewski and Teitelbaum, is the most jazz-like – as well as the most programmatic – track. Commenting on the Viet Nam war, the output from the synthesizers used by Curran and Teitelbaum is almost visually descriptive. There are fortissimo allusions to explosions, jagged beeps, watery whooshes and short-wave-like static. Meanwhile List honks and slurs, Berger whaps his wooden keys to produce full-force reverberation, Reeves taps out an intermittent marital beat and Curran’s piccolo trumpet asides add to the contrapuntal timbres that underlie the performance. Among the broken octaves and split tones, Rzewski provides his own commentary with metronomic piano chording. Among the recognizable melodies he plays are a sardonic “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and a concluding “Taps”.

Lacy, who appears on tracks recorded in 1982, 1989 and 2002, gives even more focus to the proceedings. By that point the core trio had graduated from using such jerry-built instruments as home-made synthesizer, a thumb piano attached to motor oil can and an amplified glass plate with springs to using poly Moogs, modular synthesizers and microcomputers. Yet during a more-than 87-minute performance from 1982, stretched over the first tracks on two discs, the soprano saxophonist’s straightforward acoustic exposition encourages everyone to substitute shape for self-indulgence

Tentatively and authoritatively affiliated staccato timbres from saxophone and trombone (List) not only provide obbligato reflections of one another, but are captured and processed by the electronics. Added to this is Rzewski’s processional prepared-piano chording. Eventually the aggressive thumps, clanks and pulsated textures from the blurry synthesized flutters are pushed to one side. Eventually the trombonist’s braying plunger work and the saxophonist’s concentrated split tones join Curran’s raucous piccolo trumpet for a definite, raucous finale.

Even more breath-taking is Lacy’s final recorded appearance with MEV in 2002. By this time samplers and Max/MSP real-time digital manipulating programs were the norm for Curran and Teitelbaum. Yet the shimmering wave forms still don’t dominate. The acoustic side, which includes Lacy’s soprano, List’s trombone and Rzewski’s piano is further strengthened by the addition of George Lewis (b. 1952), equally proficient on trombone and computer. Meanwhile the other two use the electronic interface and programmed applications to create unique sampled and reprocessed sounds. At one point, dexterously harmonized horn parts share space with sampled snatches of cantorial chants and a loop of vernacular street phrases.

Meanwhile Lacy’s discursive reed outlines the double-stopped theme as Rzewski kinetically vibrates cadenzas with sympathetic soundboard echoes. As the electronics shimmer in wave-modulated bursts, the pianist’s burlesque arpeggios turns serious, backing up interaction among Curran braying shofar tones, chirping soprano saxophone trills and arching trombone slurs. By the time the head is recapped at a slightly slower tempo, List has even movingly growled the lyrics of “You Are My Sunshine.”

Completing the set are a quiet, almost completely electronic track by the core trio from 2007 and a 30-minute free-for-all from 1967 that added a vocalist and tenor saxophonist. Every track balances anarchy and formalism to create something more then improvised, electronic or so-called serious music. MEV performs sui generis modern music period.

— Ken Waxman

— For Whole Note Vol. 14 #10