Dropping Out Into Music: The Audience as Orchestra
The Village Voice (August 7, 1969), Pg. 27.
Rome – On the left it said “messieurs” and on the right it said “dames.” It was in the Museum of Modern Art in Paris in May. The tall tiled room next to the toilets reverberated to sounds and movement the group MEV had never hoped to set in motion. A few of its members had wandered away from the modern enough concert room, found the splendid acoustics near the toilet, and had been followed like the piper of Hamelin. Suddenly the whole audience was in there, playing, swaying, drumming, dancing. In the end they danced themselves into the moonlight, under the dark silhouette of the Eiffel Tower. Some said it was a tribal urge, a search for ritual. As Ornette Coleman had said of an earlier performance of MEV in Paris, it was “some pretty deep shit.”
Two weeks later in Rome, their home base, MEV played in the gardens of the Filarmonica Romana. Under the dimly lighted trees it was Early Summer Night’s Dream. On the grass, in the audience, everyone was doing their own: playing regular instruments, transistors, alarm clocks, best of all grass blades. The members of the group were on stage; Fredric Rzewski playing the piano, stretches of Bach, Debussy, himself, on and on, like a “divine sewing machine”; Richard Teitelbaum making unearthly sounds with his Moog synthesizer; Ivan Vandor’s sax bursting into sudden climbing arabesques; Alvin Curran playing his trumpet, drumming on an amplified Italian gas can, singing primeval guttural chants; Franco Cataldi lankily stalking, blowing his glittering trombone. MEV and the audience kept it up, no one could tell who was the more enchanted. A web, an interplay was woven, something was taking place, one could take home an experience.
The three letters MEV stand for Musica Elettronica Viva—Live Electronic Music, a group founded by American composers in Rome in 1966.
It happened in a church crypt: I had a show at the American Student’s and Artist’s Center in the round gallery in the basement of the American church in Rome, Alvin Curran had written a tape called “Watercolor Music” to go with my watercolors, and when one day several composers came to listen to it they said why not have a concert here. That is how it started more or less.
They were Fredric Rzewski, Allan Bryant, Alvin Curran, Jon Phetteplace. They were born and trained in America and had come to Europe on foundation grants, scholarships, prizes. An American artist, after he has received his degree, can widen his horizon abroad, make the Grand Tour. But after that he must come back, Come Home. Back to what? To be absorbed into the airless atmosphere of colleges or similar institutions? The main thing that makes MEV unusual is the refusal of its members to do exactly that. Dropping out, they have existed, subsisted, for over three years in Europe, entirely on their own music.
Fredric Rzewski has been the leader and organizer, the angel and the demon of MEV. Always interested in trying something new, a philosophy, an activity, an attitude, his way of dropping any of these once he has experimented with them is not easy on the others; but his changes, his drive, create a wakefulness which pushes them on, never leaves them static or complacent. He studied at Harvard and was a well-known pianist. Among other things, he wrote a tape piece in Berlin called “Zoologischer Garten” which is poised and full of severely beautiful metallic echoes. In MEV improvisations, his own special baby, he plays on glass as if it were the piano, on the piano as if it were glass—and whatever he manipulates, bedsprings, furniture, he makes it respond to his own singular controlled touch.
Alvin Curran, who studied with Elliot Carter, is the most musically inventive in MEV. His written pieces at first seem secret and complex, but if you let yourself listen simply, they become poetic and humorous—sometimes there are even tunes! His tape pieces go with sophisticated action, solar slides, cooking. They are clear and naturalistic. “Day in the Country” is like a movie, full of vivid images of every day [sic] sound. “Community Sing,” based on a few composed rules, can be elaborated upon by group and audience and has become part of MEV “repertoire.”
Richard Teitelbaum is the first to have brought the Moog synthesizer to Europe. The pulsating sounds from this strange box throw other more conventional ones into sudden relief. Sometimes he employs Barbara’s heartbeats while her eyes are closed; when she opens them the steadyness [sic] is broken by bursts of crinkly sound. Once he placed an oscillator on the pulpit under the altar at the American church in Rome, and Barbara’s brainwaves became a visual accompaniment for his “In Tine.”
Allan Bryant composed long pieces for boxes stung with rubber bands at first, then for a kind of electric guitar he had built from elongated pieces of wood and wires. Several people played several of these, making long sustained bunches of sound which could go on indeterminably, becoming an over-all texture. Later, like a Yankee inventor, he made a machine from an old accordion, with colored plugs and connections, which he plays, suspending mysterious swarms of sound.
Jon Phetteplace from California and the Hungarian-born composer Ivan Vandor have been members of the group, composed for it, played with it, stayed with it on and off. While the constants have been the original musicians, strong personalities have entered the group and influences it, wandered in, wandered out: the marvelous Dada composer from Florence, the incomparable Giuseppe Chiari; Vittorio (“Red Desert”) Gelmetti from Rome; Cornelius Cardew from London; Carol Plantamura with her lovely voice; Simone Whitman Forti from New York; Steven Ben Israel from the Living Theatre; the jazz musician Steve Lacy; the Torinese pop artist Pistoletto; Ivan Coaquette from Paris… all have had a say with MEV.
They have played in all the capitals of Europe, made recordings for the BBC and German radio stations, have performed in night clubs and churches, factories and galleries, in cafes and prisons, in the street, in their own studio, a machine shop in Rome’s Trastevere and—oh yes—in ordinary concert halls.
In the beginning there were mostly written pieces, then there was more and more experimenting with electronics, and MEV improvisation emerged. (Recently there has been a tendency to less amplified playing again.) Whether it is called “Spacecraft,” “Play,” “Soup,” or “Sound Pool,” MEV improvisation always offers a starting point for freer attitude in music. Can we seriously sit still and mute in a confined space while sound is poured over our heads? (In other centuries we were allowed to promenade or genuflect.) MEV creates a tense atmosphere, so that even if you don’t take part with an instrument, or dance, or sing, you are always on the verge of doing so. You can’t remain passive.
Of course it is in the nature of improvisation that it is unpredictable and depends on fortuitous conditions. At the International Poetry Festival in Palermo last Christmas harassed and distracted members of MEV, the Great White Hope of the still-born festival, simply couldn’t take wing, couldn’t get off the ground. When it is good it is very good, when it is bad it is horrid.
When they are good! The following, in Virginia Woolf, describes in perfectly: “At first something interesting occurs, it might be useful, one must keep on, without for a second relaxing the intensity of emotion, the determination not to be put off, not to be muddled, hold the scene in a vice and let nothing come in to spoil it; you want to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time: It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.”
The freedom and roughness of MEV music astonishes the formal Europeans again and again. “Our Americans are better!” cried Patrizia Vicinelli after a visiting group of composers from America, all connected with colleges, by the way, had performed in Rome. MEV has never been dry or academic.
Somewhat Europeanized, they remain inexplicably American: they are adventurous, different from the cautious, meticulous Europeans. They can be messy or strident, but they are rarely dull. Anything can ride on the ever-changing pageant, their music that unifies player and listener.
Edith Schloss (1919-2011) was one of America’s great expatriate artists intrinsically linked to the milieu of postwar American art whose paintings, assemblages, collages, watercolors and drawings border on the bittersweet, fragile, intimate and naive.