MEV, at 42, is the microcosm of an age—born smack dab between analog and digital life, on the banks of the Hudson and Tiber rivers, on the fault line running down the middle of the late 20th century, where St. Vitus dances convulsed atonally with stark-naked minimalisms and where the avant-garde heavies drank beer with the ultra-cool postmodernists. Where Jazz, Rock and indigenous experimentalists dated seriously for the first time. Where the license to kill the “father” and even the “mother” of all things was regularly granted. These were the times.
Composers all, nurtured in renowned ivy gardens; some mowed lawns. They met in Rome, near the Cloaca Maxima—and without further ado, began like experimental archeologists to reconstruct the origins of human music. They collected shards of every audible sound, they amplified the inaudible ones, they declared that any vibrating object was itself “music,” they used electricity as a new musical space and cultural theory, they ultimately laid the groundwork for a new common practice. Every audible gurgle, sigh, thump, scratch, blast, every contrapuntal scrimmage, every wall of sound, every two-bit drone, life-threatening collision, heave of melodic reflux that pointed to unmediated liberation, wailing utopias, or other disappearing acts—anything in fact that hinted at the potential unity among all things, space, and times—were MEV’s “materia prima.”
Then and ever since, MEV has theorized and demonstrated that there is no relevant difference between composing music and making it spontaneously. . . . Bred on Mozart, the Second Viennese School, and hand-me-down avant-gardisms, we sprang with zeal into the revolutionary trenches where Marx, Buddha, Boulez, Braxton, Buber, Amacher, AMM, Scelsi, Moog, Mao, Ornette, Zappa, Feldman, and Zorn sit in with DJ Karlheinz and Snoop Dog. MEV—which unlike me never dropped a name—was like your neighborhood encounter-group: it cost next to nothing, laid no trip on anyone, was strictly a door-affair, promised nothing, and gave away everything it had: its youth, confusion, exile, charisma, optimism, chutzpah—not to mention its mastery of the latest music linguistics and a shared desire to bury them alive in the hope they would quickly rot, forming a rich compost from which a new musical lingua franca would grow. This language would enable the conquest of time, the abolition of ego, and the democratization of all audible sound, musical action, and memory. It would reclassify silence as an obligatory ethical act and embrace the raw, the primal, and the transcendent as the unequivocal rudiments of music. These were lofty, necessary goals, ones that have since guided our personal lives and careers, ones that say—huh? —early MEV continued where Beethoven’s anarchic last sonatas ended. . . . That is, in spite of all of our carryings-on we still openly embraced our European musical heritage even as the latter morphed before our eyes into a world gamelan jamboree with Ghana car-horn orchestras, conch-shell hippie bands, and phase-vocoded string quartets. At this party all we wanted was to make Cage’s inspired acts of purification swing!—and at the same time drink the healing toxins of free jazz! while lyrically, mystically stopping time like Morty! Do not be deceived, these plain-clothes improvisers were always composers in drag, but by the mid-80s nobody could tell the difference, nor could they care. By then MEV had long become a stable but intermittent act including Steve Lacy and Garrett List among the regulars; this made the group resemble a kind of Kabbalistic Dixieland band, needing only a tuba and a banjo to complete the instrumentation. The meaning of this music as in the beginning years was a staunch affirmation of the original MEV premise: that music resides in all things, all one needs is the will to release it.
So what about the electronics? Electronics, only yesterday considered the musical antichrist, are now the universal subtext of our time. In less than half a century, regardless of genre, all music has become electronic, and the term “electronica” has now come to mean wacky looped dance beats. Anyhow, our prominent use of self-made circuitry, synthesizers, and sampling only partially define the group’s music throughout its 40-year cycle. MEV, while enthralled by Tudor’s “circuitry”—its extreme otherness, its magical powers, its endless home-made promises —never lost sight of the sound-quality and musical potential of a piece of found junk, and never seriously considered abandoning conventional acoustic instruments. Musica Elettronica Viva—Vittorio Gelmetti’s brilliant moniker for MEV—and our determined mission, just happened to coincide with the initial historic practice of live electronic music and its technology.
Maybe MEV now hauls its frayed history book around in a knapsack designed for 70-year-old veterans of the last century’s art-wars. But in today’s interminable sonic traffic jam—the cool jumble of musical practices and the manic eclectic polyphony, liberated from anything and everything but stalled on the freeway—maybe if you listen hard you can hear an old broken horn from MEV’s ’68 Volkswagen bus.
Postscript: this bit of flying-whale overview could use a couple of anecdotes to bring it back to Earth:
At the prestigious Festival d’Avignon in 1968—the one where the complete nudity of The Living Theater delighted and affronted the residents of the Palais des Papes—MEV gave a performance of which I remember only that Cornelius Cardew was playing with us. We did a sound-check in the hot afternoon—all onstage; but at the concert, Cornelius decided to perform unseen from under the huge outdoor stage . . . as I remember he put a contact microphone on the “tubi Innocenti”—the stage’s steel supporting structure, and played the entire concert from “down under”. . . I remember this because it disturbed me; I did not mind that someone dissociated themselves from the main group-attraction on stage, I minded that a music was being made with a component whose origin nobody but us could possibly be aware of . . . and at the time, seemed to be a sanctimonious act of self-denial . . . but therein lay Cornelius’s genius.
Shortly after the MEV group began to meet in the late afternoons at John Phetteplace’s apartment, on the fourth floor of a building which overlooked Hadrian’s magnificent Pantheon building—Takehisa Kosugi was in town and decided to do a living- room performance at Phetteplace’s. Then I had only vague notions of the avant-garde, the Dadaists, and their post-Fluxus/Situationist propagations, but to this day watching Kosugi slip himself into a large leather gym bag, with an acoustic guitar . . . have himself zipped up and then slowly/inexorably roll across the floor, “playing” the guitar however his churning body happened to contact it, is an event which, musically speaking, changed my life.
A comparable epiphany was on hearing Giuseppe Chiari—another unsung master of the Fluxus world—perform his “Maria” and a number of epigrammatic pieces, at a solo concert sponsored by MEV at the American Episcopalian Church in Rome. . . . A piece reduced to an incessant sequence of varied enunciations of the word “Maria” struck me as a potent creative model. Around this time in the same cultural center we all played in Rzewski’s brilliant “Requiem” for chorus, pianos, jew’s-harps, and bull-roarers, another genetic experience in which hard-core atonalism—in flying buckets of roman shards and personal pain—is swallowed alive by the sheer magic of the surrounding archaic instruments. It was in the same church, where Reverend Bill Woodhams gave us free rein, that Teitelbaum inaugurated his custom-made brain-wave machine—a psycho-musical device mystically triggered by the beautiful Barbara Mayfield’s blinking eyelids.
The MEV soundtrack for Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point—primarily done in post- production by Richard (shining on the Moog and the cutting table at Antonioni’s house) and myself—was one of those youthful encounters, common in Rome in those days, centimeters away from real fame and glory; and when Antonioni in all earnestness declared that he liked our versions of the main scenes more than those of Pink Floyd, but that he had to give into the big-boys at MGM, we knew we had genuinely pleased the “maestro”—it conferred on us somehow a “touch of class” even if our music ended up being used, in bittersweet achievement, mostly under the opening titles.
-- Alvin Curran
Listen to excerpts from Stop the War Ferrara concert Kunstmuseum Bern concert New Music America Festival concert Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam concert 1 Stedelijk concert 2