MEV concert, Rome, 1977 (photo Roberto Masotti)



Improvisation is the art of becoming sound. It is the only art in which a human being can and must become the music he or she is making. It is the art of constant, attentive and dangerous living in every moment. It is the art of stepping outside of time, disappearing in it, becoming it. It is both the fine art of listening and responding and the more refined art of silence. It is the only musical art where the entire "score" is merely the self and the others, and the space and moment where and when this happens. Improvisation is the only musical art which is predicated entirely on human trust and love.

The art of improvisation assumes (and for me unequivocally proves) that human beings are musical beings and that not unlike the great natural musicians of the animal kingdom - from crickets and cicadas to whales, wolves and lions - all human beings are born with, possess, and participate in some form of music. Regardless of the musical context (the people place or time, tradition or style) the art of improvisation puts the full responsibility for the music being made on the person/s making it, and for the entire duration of its making. Hence in improvisation the prevailing notions about the origins of music (the gods, collective memory, composers, mythology, etc.) are temporarily eclipsed by the sheer magical energy of the physical person/s making the music - for it is they who are momentarily but fully responsible for the sounds they make. It is they, the improvisers, in whom the traditional roles of composer, performer, director, and teacher are fused into one single role. It is they who in every sense become - literally ARE - the music they make; and, at best, transform everyone and every thing in that physical space into the same music - the sounds being another form of shared air, shared time, and shared space. This is immediately as evident on hearing an improvised cadenza in a Beethoven piano concerto, as it is in hearing Coltrane's endless concatinations on the song "My Favorite Things" or in a Dagar Brothers levitating performance of an evening raga. And this is even far more evident in musics not rooted in tradition, but in continuing experiment and research; such spontaneous musics could be said to be based on almost nothing.

Improvised music is, however, generally based on something: a word, a set of fixed tones, a melody, rhythmic pattern, chordal sequence, timbral change, gesture (crescendo, diminuendo, fragmentation, drone etc), a reaction, a memory, a dream. Or any combination of these. All musical cultures employing forms of improvisation codify these forms around a specific set of sounds developed through a long historical process.

The history of "Western" twentieth century music can be viewed as a series of attempts to liberate music from various forms of tyranny, real or imagined: triadic harmony, memorable melody, the twelve equal-tempered tones, metered regular pulse, European orchestral timbres, ranges of instruments, standardized durations, fear of disorder and chaos, the fear of silence. In the middle and late 1960s we witnessed attempts to embrace all of these aspects of musical liberation while focusing at the same time on the philosophical, political, and economic liberation of music from ITSELF - that is the freeing of music even from the need to liberate itself. Nevertheless, a momentary and generalized "freeing" of music, not only of all former musical ideology and practice but from its fiercely rooted social and economic basis in the West, became the utopian challenge taken up in many different ways by a number of dedicated musicians throughout the world. Lamonte Young in NYC, Larry Austin and Pauline Oliveros in California, Takehisa Kosugi (the Taj Mahal Travelers) in Japan, Terry Riley, Glass and Reich, Tudor and Cage, Christian Wolff, The Sonic Arts Union (Behrman, Ashley, Mumma, Lucier), Franco Evangelisti's "Gruppo Nuova Consonanza," Gavin Bryar's Portsmith Symphonia, Cardew's Scratch Orchestra, individual voices such as Alexander von Schlippenbach, Evan Parker, Peter Kowald, Mischa Mengelberg, The AACM (Muhal Abrams, Anthony Braxton) in Chicago, etc.

Gregory Reeve, Richard Teitelbaum, Frederic Rzewski, Garrett List, Alvin Curran in WBAI studio, 1973 (photo NY Times)


The improvisation groups AMM in London and MEV in Rome, however can be said to have taken the most radical position in regard to this process of "liberation." Musically speaking both groups were attempting to literally reinvent music from zero. With revolutionary fervor, yet in a most pacific way, everything pertaining to the art of music (within their imaginations) was called into question. And while these groups had no boards of inquisitors - there were no trials, prison sentences, tortures, or disappearances - they tacitly agreed on a new musical practice which would invest each member of the group with the responsibility for every sound made, thus heightening the individuals’ listening awareness and playing responses to all the sounds made at any instant (however simple or complex) as well as heightening their overall sense of commitment to the work; they further agreed that any audible or imaginable sound, or sound source ,was equally valid as raw musical material. This, indeed, gave birth to some of the most remarkable musics of the time, and as far as one knew (in l966) there had never before been a music made on such far reaching principles of individual freedom and democratic consciousness; this was COLLECTIVE MUSIC pure and simple - and without knowing it, a stunning artistic example of political anarchy. From my experience in the founding of the group MUSICA ELETTRONICA VIVA, I would like describe what I believe were the principal codes of action and expected behavior and implicit strategies and goals of our group improvisations - the music itself in all of its various phases has been described and documented elsewhere.


AMM (Keith Rowe, Cornelius Cardew, Lou Gare, Eddie Prevost), c. 1968

What the group MEV (along with AMM) essentially did was to redefine music as a form of property that belonged equally to everyone and hence to encourage its creation freely by and through anyone anywhere. This idea alone had great implications for the art of improvisation, for it brought forth a new and quite flexible code of behavior based on the following principles:

0) Any physical space is a potential musical space as is, any time of day or night an approrpriate musical time.

1) All music starts anew each time, as if there had never been any music before it.

2) Any member of the group may utilize any audible or imaginable sound at any time.

3) Musical remembering and musical amnesia are of equal value - in short one could build on past or conditioned experience or try to forget everything ever known.

4) The requirements for musical participation are no longer based on purely musical skills, education, technique, experience, age, gender, race, or religion but on an implicit code of universal harmony and mutual acceptance. This resulted immediately in a form of transnational music.

5) Each player provides his/her own instruments and sound sources.

6) The act of collective performance has no specified duration and performances begin and end by tacit (musically understandable) agreement.

7) Without leaders, scores, or any rules at all, the music should be based on the musicians' mutual respect for and trust in one another, the public, and the individual and sum of all the sounds emitted into the performing space.

8) Because this music is fragile and dangerously based on almost nothing (effimeral sounds and precarious human relationships) the players must cultivate extraordinary levels of attention, vigilance and artistic selectivity - primarily through silence and listening, and appropriate action and reaction - so to prevent the music from becoming literally nothing. This form of personal and collective commitment endowed everyone involved (including the producers and public) with finely tuned ears and magnanimous attitudes.

9) No matter what transpires , a sense of transcendent unity is likely to be the unspoken goal of every improvisational event. (This sense of unity, while indescribable, is very recognizable, almost tangible in certain moments. Especially when you can not answer the questions: "did I make that/ did we make that/ did you make that/ did they make that?"

10) All members share equally in the promotion, economic stability and creative growth of the group - in return for an equal share in received proceeds.

11) This is a space for your own contribution.

NOTE: The original members of the group MUSICA ELETTRONICA VIVA at its founding in Rome in l966 were: Alan Bryant, Alvin Curran, Jon Phetteplace, Carol Plantamura, Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum, Ivan Vandor.

Alvin Curran, in response to Sabine Feisst, for her Doctoral thesis

Portions published in German in "Der Begriff 'Improvisation" in der neuen Musik" by Sabine Feisst, Sinzig: Studio, Verlag Schewe, l997 (Berliner Musik Studien; Bd. 14), in Italian as "Della Musica Spontanea" in Oltre il Silenzio year 2 issue 2, Rome, October 1996, and in English in the Contemporary Music Review Vol. 25, No. 5, October 2006, pp. 485 – 492.

July 15-17, 1995

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