MEV2, 1971: Fabrizio Bertuccioli, Paolo Pace, Bernadoni, Alvin Curran, Yvonne, Carla Cassola. Photo, Figurelli
........somewhere between 28th st and Columbus Circle a total freak in dreads, dashiki, sandals and some toy antennae bobbing on his head gets into the number 1, uptown train. - he's clutching a destroyed alto saxophone --looked like it came out of the scrap metal yard. Without any warning he begins to blow into this mangled instrument, emitting screeching sheets of murderous high frequencies alternating with truck-horn-like jolting blats. After an initial assault of about 45 seconds, he cuts short and says, deadly serious: "folks, if you want me to stop playing this music, just kindly drop a coin in the cup." The well-groomed morning travelers offered no resistance, and dutifully dropped coins in this "alien's" cup; as promised, he did not play again. I thought, man! what an original economic strategy - getting the public to pay you not to make your music!!!!! my god, what if after 1945 the new music community - instead of madly searching for the new Beethoven among us - had adopted the brilliant strategy of this New York City street artist: offering NOT TO PLAY ITS MUSIC, IN EXCHANGE FOR MONEY!!!!! - we'd probably all be sipping cool drinks in an Internet cafe in Tahiti today rather than sitting in airless halls listening to interminable grating sonic aggregates, still waiting for some illumination or new saint to appear.
I have just finished listening to and remastering16 hours of recorded
tapes of the group Musica Elettronica Viva - which I co-founded. In its heyday
(1966-1973) this indefinable group was considered benignly revolutionary by
an attentive European mainstream press and was a musical icon on the fringe
of the fringe counterculture. Whatever the merits of the group's music, MEV
- its actions as well as its music - struck fear into the heart of the music
establishment, because we believed that the music was the property of no one
individual or author, but that of the group, and that music is a universal human
right, and any human being, by mere will, can also be a music-maker.
Incidentally, these two beliefs are now again at the center of an ethical and legal debate over the definition of music and its ownership and use on the Internet.
At the beginning of the 30 plus years of MEV history, the original core group (Alan Bryant, Alvin Curran, Jon Phetteplace, Carol Plantamura, Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum, Ivan Vandor) took for granted the inherent value of a fixed group structure as such. But in time, as we became accustomed to playing with many self-invited guests, and even with many so-called "non-musicians" - a concept emerged, largely promoted by Rzewski, to create a music by inviting the general public to participate, without any structure or rules: the SOUND POOL announced, "Bring a sound, cast it into the pool" and people did; they came in droves and and often left at the forced invitation of the local police and fire departments. SOUND POOL was both an open request and an authorization for anyone to make "music" together as they pleased - freely.
These were not Jam- Sessions nor Happenings (both of which are based on determinate themes and structures), but collective music events for many people (usually 50 or more) which, after an initial launching by MEV's catalytic example, inevitably developed into independent throbbing dense polyphonies, multiple walls of sound of any color, speed, density and feeling. The SOUND POOL was often enacted in large rooms, where groups of musicians could form casually, play independently and dissolve into other groups, where individuals could wander from place to place playing offhandedly with an anonymous passerby or stopping to join in a small or large ongoing pocket of music. In short, a sea of freely mutating human symphonies which could at certain moments bring to mind a Cage "Music Circus," a Pauline Oliveros "Meditation", or even a Globe-Unity mass improv, though none of those models suffice to describe the levels of ecstasy or life-threatening chaos generated during some of them.
These were musics characterized above all by a shocking absence of authority or leadership, which at times shocked even us. They were based on the principle that anyone making any sound in any way (alone or in company) could consider this act to be an act of spontaneous music-making. I am not speaking here of "improvisation," which I consider to be a highly specialized artistic behavior, but am merely describing what might be the most fundamental, perhaps primordial level of musical consciousness and state of collective-spontaneous sounding together.
Thus anonymous individuals in the act of collective liberation became their own musics, and the SOUND POOL was the sum of all of them - as if in a mass spontaneous urban psychodrama. This work - a radical assault on the sacred cows of bourgeois culture - was at once an act of temporary 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; it further precipitated an intense debate among core MEV members, - a debate which centered on the nature of music, composition, improvisation and the social limits of these newly created music rituals. To balance the musical needs and sanity of the group a plan emerged where we would divide an evening in two parts: the first focusing on open-form compositions - often works of our own; and the second part, usually initiated by Christian Wolff's "Sticks," would lead to the "Sound Pool" proper.
In the context of these liberational melees, improvisation per se was an academic issue. Yet improvisation and the individual skills we had all quickly developed was a kind of sacred burning bush which has remained a strong source of inspiration to most of us to this day, as well as to a large number of musicians who performed with us in the 70's and 80's (Garrett List, Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, Maryanne Amacher, Karl Berger to name a few). Group-improvisation, as I defined it earlier, is a highly skilled musical art based on refined extensions of classical instrumental technique, lightning fast decision making, repression of the ego, and mutual trust; but above all it centered on the newly emerging skill for the individual players to perceive the totality of music not only in the present, but in the past and future as well.
While these performance considerations of trained composers and performers applied to MEV music at all times, the group aesthetic also embraced a liberational anarchism, in apparent dialectical contradiction - which brings us back to the '60's Zeitgeist. Both in the closed group improvisations of early MEV (often called "Spacecraft") and the mass "Sound Pool" events, one of the main collective goals was the generation of a kind of tribal energy, with whatever means it took: from skillfully crafted improvisation to reckless indeterminacy, from loose associations to free ones, from induced mental states akin to autism and amnesia to illuminating states of unity - awareness of everyone and everything. At once death-defying, life affirming and ecstasy seeking, grounded in a volatile mix of the politics of Anarchy, Communalism, and Transcendentalism, the music was unmediated, idiosyncratic and raw. No Ivy-League-via-Darmstadt bleep-blop, no spotless minimalisms, no frills, no money back, just plain musical vulcanism, straight up. It was these essential qualities that fascinated and terrified the establishment, as they in their mandated ways attempted to tame us and own us and our music - our "work" brought everything into question, including authors' rights and the nature of a public concert. The crude amplified sounds we made often took the form of an extended primal scream... anyone in their right minds would have paid us NOT to play, but alas no one had the imagination or courage to do that. Instead, the mixture of adventurousness, uncertainty and utopian enthusiasm typical of the times spurred our project on.
MEV's founders were mostly composers, refugees from esteemed American academies, living precariously in Europe and dedicated to the idea of experimental music. Youthful, even naive, we all shared a desire to strip ourselves naked, liberating ourselves from the vestments of the past and present. Our techniques and concepts grew directly from the fertile soil prepared by Cage, Tudor and Mumma in the late 50's -early Sixties and by the work of of the AACM (American Association of Creative Music) and the Arts Ensemble of Chicago. But in contrast to the advanced theorizing and mathematical rigor within the the Cage circle, MEV felt its sense of mission as an existential drive to live in the moment, including our hand-to-mouth economy - in fact we often could not see far beyond that to fully comprehend the global meaning of all that was going on. This drive was a manifest reality of the '68 counterculture, and this above all was our guide, the voices of our teachers (Carter, Babbitt, Sessions, Petrassi, Mel Powell) notwithstanding.
What was revolutionary in our vanguard music was the process, even more than the product. The music began as it ended, based on telepathic signals. It did not matter what found objects we rubbed, scratched or banged on, what we blew into or how, what we dropped on the floor or beat on the walls, what instruments we played conventionally or unconventionally, what home-made or sophisticated electronic circuitry was employed etc etc, what mattered is that we did it, 'punto e basta,' that the urgency of the moment to focus our collective attentions onto a challenging act of spontaneous creation was what mattered. Whether the music was tonal or atonal or microtonal, repetitive or disjunct or fragmented, sequential or continuous or sweet/sexy or abrasive, violent or disgusting, banal or even idiotic mattered little, in comparison to the singular task of keeping the musical energy high and unified, efficient and in constant motion.
To do this, to make music obliterating any awareness of related tradition or predetermined structures, required an enormous self-discipline, committment and momentary suspension of the ego. It required above all a new expanded musicality, one that could equate beauty with ugliness and vice-versa. The resulting musics were liberating in every sense... After performances, rather than return to reality as if we had been casually experimenting in a scientific lab, we returned often with the shared knowledge that we had all been somewhere, on a voyage - in the same illusive and unnameable space - unified by making the same music together, as if it had been composed, magically composed....and this music we knew was OURS, we had in fact composed and performed it in the moment - bang-zoom!! just like that.
Whatever else remains of the MEV legacy, we challenged the noble traditions of Western music in a new and untried way: by daring to reverse the "proper" professional balance between technique and passion, by asserting - I'll say it again - that we, and in fact anyone, could make a music based on NOTHING, with any sounding means and without written score, sketch, agreement, leadership or even, we hoped, memory. That in fact we could make a music of powerful emotive content and attraction outside the canons of historical western compositional practice was a profound discovery to all of us in the group and many outside. The collective process and a few early (middle-sixties) electronic technologies allowed us to extract the hidden sounds inside any object, or from the entire sounding environment, or from electricity itself, as well as those drawn from the depths of the human mind and body - this was the nuclear matter of our daily experimental live- electronic group improvisations.
That the utopian cultural implications of this practice were in succeeding decades absorbed, codified, contested, marginalized, and somewhat forgotten is history's natural way. Thirty-five years later, as I sit here in the July heat, it seems to me that the revolution we had the privilege of participating in has evolved into largely standardized improvisatory practices (some still vital, others not) that all in some way had their origins in those mad fortuitous encounters among Free Jazz, Indeterminacy, European structuralist composition, explosive countercultures, and movements for social and economic justice. One could even argue that today's sizeable worldwide free-improvising community, while apparently alive and well, is making music in a temporal cul de sac, that this music may be at an end, buried in no longer provocative atonalisms, collage, and macho virtuosity, and overshadowed by the economic power of mainstream jazz, the gravitational forces of the European New Music "Betrieb," and more youthful forms of Hip-hop, noise and electronica - all which have succesfully incorporated elements of the earlier freely-improvised music styles. So I ask myself, will the myth of Schoenberg outlive the myth of Cecil Taylor, or will both of them fade while Beethoven and Dr. Dre slip away with the bounty??
In retrospect, maybe not much of the sixties experience was truly revolutionary, and less of it had profoundly transformative consequences, but 30 years later, as trends and technologies in music are unfolding at a dizzying rate, thankfully the confrontation between progressive and regressive has not been globalized out of existence. The youth culture without setting a foot in the piazza imagines it can subvert the entire social and economic order by the simple click of a mouse. And with the planet now choking on its own voracious music consumption - music of every kind everywhere all the time - surely someone will be able, once again, to inject it with a wicked dose of orderly disorder. MEV is dead! MEV lives!
Alvin Curran, Gallipoli, august 6, 2000/ edited by susan levenstein
Published in German as "Improvisationspraxis der Musica Elettronica Viva" in MusikTexte issue 86/87, November 2000.