AMERICANS IN ROME
Musica Elettronica Viva’s Trastevere Commune
by Valerio Mattioli
from Superonda: Storia Segrete della Musica Italiana (2016), pp 182-202
Translated by Joseph Sannicandro
Trastevere, as the name suggests, is the Roman neighborhood that is “on the other side of the [river] Tevere”, that is, on the opposite bank from the heart of the historic city. It is a geographical peculiarity that is difficult to grasp, now that additional settlements on the other side of the river have taken steps to widen the boundaries of a city that is urbanistically chaotic, illogical, and with typically patchy expansion. Yet there remains the singularity of a piece of Rome that lived for centuries as a bubble: the decentralized position of this tangle of lanes and crumbling buildings leaning against each other seemed made to transform it into a sort of independent enclave, isolated and indifferent both to the glories and to the miseries of the official city. The histories tell us that the original inhabitants of this most popular district belonged to a category of their own: they were by nature eccentric, weird, all that was missing was a separate language. Alien creatures by statute and abundantly mythologized by an immense repertoire of songs, legends, and little tales, the people of Trastevere have for centuries evoked the exotic charm of those who live in a land where the laws of the civilized world were tacitly suspended, if not openly rejected. Even the women were more beautiful, elusive, brown hair and mysterious eyes. At least that’s what legend would have us believe.
The fame of a borderline oasis has accompanied Trastevere since its birth, something like two thousand and more years ago. Even at the beginning of the 1960s, it was an ultra-popular [populare] neighborhood with an ambiguous reputation: tourists began to savor its “sincere”, anarchic atmosphere, inaugurating the process that would lead it to transform itself into a huge Disneyland for foreigners on the hunt of typical trattorias and clothes hanging from windows. But at the same time, its dark and twisted streets continued to be the scene of fights, battles of cold steel, as well as spontaneous parties and gatherings in which the inhabitants mingled with the composite crowd of “foreigners.” It goes without saying that for that community of aspiring poets, irregular artists, outsiders, and simple idlers who badgered the sequins of La Dolce Vita, Trastevere was practically the ideal refuge. And indeed …
Even before the birth of venues such as Filmstudio and Folkstudio, Trastevere had seen the birth of Carmelo Bene‘s Teatro Labortorio in 1961, closed by the authorities just two years later due to an unmissable unscheduled performance: during a performance of the already controversial Cristo 63, the artist Alberto Greco had pissed on the Argentine ambassador present in the audience, and the gesture was not without consequences. But even more important were the squares, the alleys where one could stay outdoors, the stairways on which to snooze on summer afternoons. Year after year the neighborhood began to be populated with dropouts, long-hairs [capelloni], thoughtful beats and unspecified strange creatures: the rents were cheap, there was always something to keep busy, and the natives welcomed the new arrivals with the salve of hospitality: “the people of Trastevere were not surprised at anything, on the contrary they were very friendly,” the journalist / militant beat Emanuela Moroli recalled years later. “The whole neighborhood was a big commune, all the doors were open.”
It is on this kind of parallel planet that, in late 1964, a young American composer named Alvin Curran landed. Originally from Providence, Rhode Island, he had studied at Yale with Elliott Carter, one of the great names in American modernism; then he spent a year in Berlin, where he was able to smell the air that was blowing in Europe and deepen the work of his compatriot John Cage. When he arrived in Trastevere, Curran was 26 years old and he’d had time to develop an irreversible intolerance towards what he still calls “the dodecaphonic church”: he had grown up with jazz, he called himself a “popular music junky”, and saw nothing but sterile, brainy snobbery in the Darmstadt’s nebulous house debates. Significantly, however, at least a couple of Darmstadtians won him over to the point of pushing him not to return to the USA: in the works of Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono, Curran sensed “a lyricism I could not resist (…) They were men of the Renaissance, but dressed in the manner of moderns ». From Berlin, he decided to aim straight on Italy. Arriving in Rome, he found accommodation in a dilapidated apartment near the Regina Coeli prison. For young Alvin it was all new, dangerous, exciting. “I didn’t know how to decode the Mediterranean lifestyle,” he will recall decades later. “The impact was shocking.”
Fortunately for Curran, just above Trastevere (on the Janiculum hill to be precise) was the American Academy in Rome, the institution that a group of American magnates had founded at the end of the nineteenth century to promote the culture of the New Continent in Italy, music included. Residents of the Academy at that time included Larry Austin, the man who had guided Franco Evangelisti on the path of free improvisation; a short time earlier there had been Alvin Lucier, destined to become a nodal presence in the post-Cagean experimental school; and also at the Academy, John Eaton had recently founded a small electronic music studio where among other things he presented to the world the Synket of Paolo Ketoff, a proto-synthesizer heir to that Fonosinth that Ketoff himself had developed years earlier with Gino Marinuzzi Jr.
When he arrived at his apartment in Trastevere, Curran was more or less ignorant of that universe: characters like Austin and Eaton were leading the way for a small colony of Americans that in some time would brand the Sixties, and Curran would soon become one of the colony’s most prominent exponents. At the beginning, however, it was not a compatriot but an Englishman who encouraged the young Alvin in his Roman adventure: Cornelius Cardew was officially in Rome to study with Goffredo Petrassi, but in reality he was already committed to reconsidering his past with Stockhausen with a critical eye, and imagining new possible post-Cage developments, including improvisation. Curran became his copyist: it was the first of a series of encounters for the young American that will prove to be as many illuminations.
The composer recalled that “it was like finding yourself in a children’s book: every time you turned a page, you discovered a new character. And they weren’t just any characters: at the bar you met Fellini, Antonioni, Bertolucci (…) I met people like Julian Beck and Judith Malina of the Living Theater, and Robert Wilson who came out of nowhere (…) Nam June Paik suddenly arrived with Charlotte Moorman. Then Earle Brown. Morton Feldman. Elliot Carter, Barbara Mayfield …” The presence of avant-garde jazz musicians such as Steve Lacy, Gato Barbieri, Don Cherry and Paul Bley didn’t escape Curran, either. And then there were the artists like Cy Twombly and the young people who came to visit [Mario] Schifano and his circle of beautiful people. It is easy to imagine the excitement that the Roman environment aroused in the young expatriate: “I mean: this place was blowing up!”
But the definitive revelation, the moment after which Curran’s life and music will change forever, comes through another encounter: one with the shady, contemptuous, implacable Franco Evangelisti. If the impact with the lively Trastevere community had been shocking, that of the founder of Nuova Consonanza was even dramatic: in his first months in Rome, Curran had never stopped writing music, perhaps imagining “crazy collisions between Art Tatum and Stockhausen.” Evangelisti’s judgment, however, was without appeal: “So you would be a composer? But don’t you know that there is no more music to compose?”
Curran has repeatedly recalled the effect of that provocation, assuming it was a provocation. While not as famous as Berio or Maderna, Evangelisti was nevertheless a respected name. The verdict according to which “there is no more music to compose” sounded like a challenge, or better still like a pure and simple aggression: “It was violent (…) I was a naive boy who came out of nowhere, and I meet this tumultuous guy with dark glasses (…) who attacks me without measure ». Understandably, Curran didn’t like that “tumultuous guy with dark glasses” at first. And yet over time he will become one of the most important figures in his life, both from a human and a musical point of view. To begin with, Evangelisti introduced Curran to Giacinto Scelsi, the future inspiration of many pages of the young American; he then pushed him to reconsider the precepts on which he still founded the self-styled serious music; and indirectly stimulated him to listen with new ears to that “24-hour long symphony” which is Rome; recorder in tow, Curran began to capture on tape the noise of the streets, the fountains pouring water, the shouting of the markets: it was practically music that composes itself.
Meanwhile, if only to survive, the young expatriate in love with jazz and pop music is employed as a pianist in the clubs of via Veneto. What he is waiting for is the right way to make use of the wealth of experience accumulated since he came to Italy. And when the opportunity finally presents itself, it has the face and accent of two old acquaintances from overseas.
Richard Teitelbaum arrived in Rome in 1965. He was Alvin Curran’s roommate during the years he spent at Yale, and he too came to Italy to study with the usual Goffredo Petrassi. Together with the sheet music and university memories, Teitelbaum brings with him an absolute novelty: a Moog synthesizer. It is the first specimen to enter Italy, as well as one of the first in Europe. He goes to live at number 66 on via della Luce, still Trastevere, on the opposite side of the neighborhood from the Regina Coeli prison.
Still on via della Luce, a few street numbers from there—at number 55 to be precise—some time later Frederic Rzewski also takes up his home. The same age as Curran and Teitelbaum, of the three he has the most experience: he studied with Luigi Dallapiccola, played with Stockhausen, he has long ago repudiated integral serialism, and he already lived in Rome during the early 1960s, seduced by films of Fellini and by the the myth of la Dolce Vita. Rzewski is also the one with the most distinctly political personality: a former student of Princeton, he converted to a revolutionary Marxism with more than a few anarchic overtones. He has long hair, an unkempt beard, and has just returned from a four-month American tour with John Cage and David Tudor. At twenty-eight he is now a small celebrity: he is one of the best pianists on the market and his fingers run across the keyboard at the speed of a brand new Ferrari GTO. For some time, however, the piano seems to no longer interest him: too classic, too overused, too bourgeois. Rather, he begins to take an interest in contact microphones, amplified instruments, valves and transistors: it is what his friend Teitelbaum calls junktronics, low-cost and scrap electronics, stuff more suited to repair antennas than for the study of sound. The sounds of non-instruments are strident, raw, sometimes annoying; duly amplified, they resolve into metallic noises of barely manageable volume. Curran and Teitelbaum are fascinated by it: spurred on by Rzewski, they convert to the cause—musical and revolutionary together—of a kind of total anti-music.
The three Americans transplanted to Trastevere were young, intoxicated by the novelty of an environment that seemed to provide them with continuous stimuli, and as if that were not enough they all lived a few blocks away. Spontaneously, they decided to join forces and compare their respective creations, all rigorously at the antipodes of the avant-garde formalism that still dictated the law in Europe: noises and sounds of cities captured on tape, oscillators that process heartbeats and brain waves, objet trouvés, looped filters, amplified plates … Technically, it’s all stuff that would go under the heading “electronic music”, except that theirs was an electronics so poor and homemade that compared to the works of Stockhausen it looked as a rusty toy rocket would look at NASA laboratories.To be clear, more than the aseptic technological panoramas evoked by Nono and Maderna, the anti-music of the trio brought to mind a landfill of waste and sharp shards: it was a dirty, noisy thing, perhaps even a little smelly, in a nutshell it was the exact equivalent in music of an alley in Trastevere, but it was also a music that fits naturally into the Roman environment of those years, when those such as Vittorio Gelmetti and Domenico Guaccero abdicated any academic presumption for collaborating with beat poets and experimental theater companies.
Gelmetti in particular became a kind of putative father, adviser and supporter for the trio of Americans; one day, while he watches them fumble with their tools in Rzewski’s apartment, he suggests a name: “Musica Elettronica Viva”, or MEV for short. To the three it sounds appropriate, even if (or perhaps precisely because) a touch presumptuous: if the electronics of Rzewski and his companions are alive [viva], it means that that of all the others—from Stockhausen to Maderna—is at least implicitly dead, or if nothing else arid, empty, bloodless. Put in these terms, the abbreviation found by Gelmetti was not limited to marking a boundary: it was a real battle name, a guerrilla slogan of the pentagram, a call to arms. And at the same time it was a name that sounded suitably vital, bright, optimistic: it seemed made to reflect both Rzewski’s barricadero temperament, who had he stayed in the USA might have ended up joining the ranks of newborn movements like the yippies (with a Y), and the more placid and good-natured one of Curran and Teitelbaum, who were hippies with an H and that’s it. Basta.
Depending on the point of view, the trio could be interpreted as a revolutionary cell about to launch the ultimate attack on the sanctuaries of power, or as a group of stoners captivated by everything that sounded bizarre, crooked, strange: they were, in short, a microcosm that reflected the aspirations of a generation undecided between political conscience and existential revolt, but for the moment the main concern of the newly baptized group was to find a space to try in absolute freedom. In short: they needed a seat for the collective, or, if you prefer, the place to found a commune.
In search of a studio suited to the needs and volumes of MEV, in the spring of 1966 the three decided to rent the shabby rooms of a former wire mesh factory in via Pietro Peretti, naturally also in Trastevere. It wasn’t exactly what you call a comfortable environment: “When you say ‘studio’, you think of an elegant space,” recalls Curran; “If you went to places like Utrecht, or the famous studios in Cologne and Stockholm, you went in and everything was immaculate, in order, perfect. Instead, we were in the midst of dust, dirt, filth, waste, humidity …” The newborn MEV studio doesn’t even have a toilet worthy of the name: “There was only a Turkish bath, always clogged. You know, squat style.”
The move to the studio on via Peretti led to a significant change in the music of the trio: at the beginning, MEV existed as an entity in which the three founders had the opportunity to rehearse their respective compositions. But soon, stimulated by the exploits of the Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza (GINC) and the communal atmosphere of the space, the rehearsals slipped into the wildest group improvisation. At that point, MEV’s goal had become, in Teitelbaum’s words, “the fusion of the individual into the collective”: in a clear gesture of anti-bourgeois protest, Rzewski had a sheet of glass cut out in the shape of a piano, a final insult to the instrument of which he is also a virtuoso; he applies a contact microphone to the glass and scrapes, scratches, and strikes it, with the sole aim of producing sounds as deformed as possible. Curran, on the other hand, picks up an old dented trumpet from a dumpster: he can’t play it but it doesn’t matter, the important thing is that it makes some noise. Not satisfied, he remedies a five-liter can of Agip oil, a kalimba bought in Africa, and connects everything to the mixer: the effect is a massacre of industrial debris that once transmitted by the speakers succeed in making the auditory apparatus of less prepared listeners bleed. Finally, Teitelbuam uses his Moog to process the signals coming from his body, to which he applied electrodes and transducers. This technique, called biofeedback, was very popular in the transcendental Sixties. Every now and then the synthesizer breaks down, but there is no problem, as the engineer [Robert] Moog arrives directly from Buffalo to repair it: “Do you realize what kind of generous genius he was?”, Curran still remembers amazed. “From America he came to Rome to fix Richard’s synthesizer. He makes you understand how much the first synthesizer manufacturers cared: they went around the world to repair them as if they were their own children.”
After the first tests, the trio opened up to external collaborations, and the formation began to expand to other elements, several of whom also belonging to the American expatriate community; first on the list is Allan Bryant, who actually claims to be (with Rzewski) the real founder of MEV. Bryant was a self-taught genius musician and master of do-it-yourself electronics: he had built a synthesizer himself and spent his time assembling “amplified junk” and stringed instruments powered by motors and bands. John Phetteplace also arrived with him, bringing a cello as a dowry that Rzewski and his associates immediately took care to electrify. Another neighbor, singer Carol Plantamura, contributed with creative shouts [versacci] and vocalizations.
The only Italian in the group at the beginning is Ivan Vandor. The former saxophonist of the Roman New Orleans Jazz Band, as well as collaborator of the GINC, was also the only one to use a non-amplified instrument, but nevertheless it became for MEV the pivot around which to build loops of sick electronics and furious jams beyond the threshold of noise. On his part, Vandor began to subject his instrument to a number of abuses—chewed reeds, multiphonic techniques, puffs, trills, howls—which brought him closer to the most daring names in American free music such as Albert Ayler and Anthony Braxton, but which actually brought back Franco Evangelisti’s lesson once again. Within MEV, Teitelbaum recalls, his “wild moans” took on the guise of “long, high, prolonged screams or low, guttural sounds like a horn, moving over dense textures that gradually evolved and grew in time to violent climaxes.” Given the preconditions, it takes little to understand how the walls of the former mattress factory soon began to shake.
Listening to the surviving recordings of the period, MEV’s is not so much live electronics: it’s more of a pawing monster, a runaway beast. In the history of electronic music—and more generally in the events of so-called experimental music—MEV represents a trauma whose echo will reverberate for decades, and it is difficult to imagine anything further away from the contrite scientists in white coats who only a few years earlier frequented the milky environment of the Rai Studio di Fonologia: if anything, MEV were a group of stoned hippies [capelloni sballati] with a certain taste for the deformed, for which every sound was potentially music, as long as it was … a sound, in fact. Rzewski recalls: “The sounds were generated partly electronically and partly by striking objects and materials of different natures. You never knew what sounds you were making, and which ones were coming from others (…) It was easy to get lost and make mistakes, but that was what made it interesting. We were in the Sixties, and whether you used them or not, the influence of certain substances was always in the air, and this led to semi-mystical experiences. Collective improvisation was the natural consequence of that type of environment.”
MEV were in short the reckless godchildren of Giacinto Scelsi and Franco Evangelisti, a sort of insane version of the GINC, and at the same time the prototype of the typical freak out high. Their music still sounds spontaneous and irrational, unpredictable and blatantly unscientific; the dreary worries of the serious avant-garde become a grotesque memory rather than water under the bridge: to put it again to Curran, “the guys who needed a hundred-piece orchestra to make their music, it was there problem to solve. That stuff had been around for two hundred years already. For us, however, it was more like thi, ‘no, I want to scratch a glass; I want to make a Happening; I want to do a song on the river; I want to make music in the trees; I want to make music from the trees, with the trees; I want to do something in a cave, with wolves.”
Read in retrospect, the MEV affair is on balance a single, uncontrolled acceleration in the direction of the final confrontation. Almost immediately, being a community experiment as well as a smelly rehearsal room, the studio on via Peretti was opened to anyone passing by. If someone is homeless, they can stay and sleep on a cot specially placed inside the smelly former factory (the first to take advantage is Steve Lacy). At the entrance, a box collects any subscriptions from visitors. MEV spend any money they get from public offerings at the nearest tavern, with the rather uneasy name of Obitorio [morgue].
Determined to export the clangor hitherto confined to the alleys of Trastevere “to the world out there,” between 1966 and 1967 MEV organized themselves to perform in the most respectable haunts of the Roman avant-garde: after all, however hairy and badly dressed, they were still composers. Rzewski affirms that after the first concerts at the Roman Philharmonic Academy [Accademia Filarmonica Romana], no one wanted to know anything more about them and therefore they were forced to hole up in the protected oasis of via Peretti and other underground haunts, but in reality the American’s exploits immediately won the sympathies of the many outsiders who flocked to Rome in the Sixties. In addition to Vittorio Gelmetti and Franco Evangelisti, who remained the semi-official godparents of the training, and together with Giacinto Scelsi, who became a sort of spiritual guide for MEV, the other composer to whom they were linked was Giuseppe Chiari, who was dropped in Rome to spread the word of Fluxus. In addition, at the Accademia Filarmonica they find themselves sharing the stage with another American collective called the Sonic Arts Union, founded by, among others, that same Alvin Lucier who had lived in Rome only a few years earlier. In the United States of the mid-sixties, the post-Cage moment was giving light to a number of experiments spiritually similar to both MEV and the so-called “other avant-garde” of which characters such as Franco Evangelisti and Giuseppe Chiari were the whimsical representatives in the land of Italy. And between the two geographic realities—the immense United States and the, all things considered, small Italian capital—a relationship of intimate complicity, as well as mutual interest, began to mature.
As Americans living in Rome, MEV thus became the natural referents for a varied musical galaxy that ideally held together the electronic antics of the R7 studio and the free jazz heresies of the AACM of Chicago, the self-satisfied pupils of Goffredo Petrassi and the ecstasies by La Monte Young, the Beat 72 and the lofts of Yoko Ono, Trastevere and the Village, Scelsi and Terry Riley, Gelmetti and Robert Ashley.
In addition, Curran’s past (and Rzewski’s ideological affinities) with Cornelius Cardew also bridged what Stockhausen’s former aide was doing in England with the AMM group, perhaps the real, most immediate comparison with MEV. After all, Franco Evangelisti’s abstract nebulae with GINC still betrayed a marked “cultured” heritage. On the contrary, formations like MEV and AMM instigated a rebellion that was not only musical, but also philosophical, political, behavioral, in perfect contiguity with the climate of the time and the slogans of the counterculture, psychedelic and otherwise.
With their long hair, amplified instruments, easy-going American manners, MEV seemed to all intents and purposes a rock band, and in some small way they really were. At least, they found no valid reasons to establish a precise boundary between what they experienced in the Trastevere studio, and the bright colors of the new Anglo-American pop: Frederic Rzewski will affirm that “today the Beatles’ claim to be avant-garde is as equally valid as that of Cage, or anyone else. The reason is that current music does not yet exist, it is in the making. The categories are invented by commercial exploiters: avant-garde music, electronic —which is not a genre—, psychedelic, jazz, rock, etc., etc., ad nauseam. It is our task to find a music that is the music of our civilization, that destroys those categories.” A typical MEV concert, according to Alvin Curran, ended with people “unraveled, half naked, wandering out of tune”: scenes more acid test than conservatory essay.
And then MEV was also an entity with a very strong political imprint—exactly like AMM in England. From this point of view, the ideologue of the group remained Frederic Rzewski, who in collective improvisation saw not only the overcoming of Darmstadtian theses, but a revolutionary language with the typical Utopian-libertarian connotations: the declared goal was “to marry the moment, the creative moment in which the organism approaches existing in such an immediate way as to perceive the highest possible future, that is, its natural path in the direction of joy.” Except here, the concept of joy would not seem very appropriate for the music of the collective, all a shapeless chaos of extreme noise, physical pain and jarring volumes; if anything, one of the functions of MEV was to unleash the cathartic element of making music together: that uncontrollable flow of energies that, if left at full speed, can lead to ecstatic rapture as well as to the Luciferian abyss. And it is not certain that the two things do not coincide.
In 1967, MEV presented to the public a work entitled Spacecraft which by their intentions is a first, very laborious attempt at “formalized improvisation.” Once again, in describing the work, Rzewski seems more to evoke some satanic rite than the serene peace of mind of the hippie nation: “The musician is possessed: the first sound he produces must be a sound of terror. Breaking the silence must break the spell of stupidity that envelops the soul. This sound, which we can call ‘anti-music,’ awakens the soul in its demonic state; and only then can the exorcism begin, the struggle to throw the hook, through tumult, to another soul.” The crude sounds of the piece, Alvin Curran recalls, “took on the appearance of a prolonged primal scream.” MEV begins to carry this primordial scream first around Rome and then throughout Europe, crammed into the Volkswagen van owned by Allan Bryant. The dates come thanks to the contacts of Rzewski, still in great demand as an avant-garde pianist. Ivan Vandor tells it as a “very amusing experience (…) Everyone showed up with jeans and long hair, except me, who was dressed as I normally dress, that is, with a jacket, sometimes a tie, and the audience was wondering what I was doing there. Then we started with these very funny, and I think very successful, improvisations. Once we played with actors from the Living Theater, in a casino in Belgium, a large nineteenth century building, at one point you could see a black cloak on the floor … then when you approached you saw that there was someone under that cloak: it was Yoko Ono.”
In 1968, Steve Lacy joined the group on a more or less permanent basis and moved his home directly to their studio in Trastevere. The formation of MEV has always been variable, by its nature permeable to the collaborations of anyone who shares its aesthetic and political structure: as mentioned, more than a group it is a collective in which no one plays the role of leader and everyone contributes according to their availabilities. But the dimension of an open ensemble is no longer enough for the trio of founders. The utopian zeal, the rigorous political program of Rzewski, the peaceful hippie nature of Curran and Teitelbaum, and above all the relations with the Living Theater, which in the same years conceived its Paradise Now in Italy, push them to review both the meaning and the role of MEV, starting with the tests in the former factory in via Peretti. And just as Paradise Now is a piece of radical theater in which enormous weight is placed on improvisation and the participation of the public, MEV makes a clean sweep of any authorial vanity melting in the climate of the time, at the exact moment in time at which the whole world is shaken by protests, protests and street riots.
Because in the meantime, 1968 has broken out.
In the collective imagination, the Italian ‘68 bears a key date: on March 1, at the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Rome, students engage in a furious battle with the police, an event that has entered national memory as the “battle of Valle Giulia.” In reality, Italian students had already been showing signs of turmoil for some years, at the same time when their younger brothers were being challenged by the proclamations of weekly magazines such as “Big”. The battle of Valle Giulia, however, represented a watershed with nuances for the student movement … well, let’s say epic, albeit forcing of the case; as the singer-songwriter Paolo Pietrangeli sang in the pompous hymn dedicated to the event, if the policemen “grabbed their batons and beat them as they always do,” on the other hand, “a new fact: we haven’t run away anymore!” Put simply, “he would charge the police down / but the students chased them away.” One to zero for us, finally.
The battle of Valle Giulia formalized the birth of the Italian 68 even a couple of months before the French May, although it is true that clashes and occupations never took on the insurrectional dimension that was typical of the Parisian événements. However, the Italian 68 achieved another record: instead of being limited to a month of barricades, it lasted almost ten years, overwhelming every single sector of society in one fell swoop from the good years of the boom, from workers to the unemployed, from women to the military conscripts, from doctors to practicing Catholics, from young to old, without of course forgetting artists and intellectuals.
In Italy, as elsewhere, 68 also meant a fracture that was never completely recomposed, between the countercultural underground growing in the shadow of the beat and hippie utopias, and the new youth groups of the revolutionary left, with the former accusing the latter of reapplying worn out dynamics of power, and the latter replying by accusing the former of indifference and disengagement. But there was also an immense and perhaps majority gray area that spontaneously combined political commitment and unconventional lifestyles, street marches and libertarian yearnings. Of this gray area, MEV was a typical example: for the convinced Marxist Rzewski and the rest of the Trasteverine family, participating in the upheaval of 68 was a spontaneous act, rather than a moral obligation; from shifts in the factory to the arrangement of hospital beds, from grades at school to those who had to set the table for dinner, there was no role that was not questioned, and this could only apply to the most classic of hierarchies in the musical field, the one that separates the musicians from the public. And so, given that one of the slogans of the period was “let’s open the doors of asylums,” the group decided not only to open the doors of the studio on via Peretti once and for all, but to transform it into a permanent laboratory at the service of the revolution.
The plan is simple: every day, seven days a week, from evening until late at night, the MEV studio in Trastevere opens up its spaces to anyone who comes within range, be it acquaintances, fellow musicians, simple passers-by, homeless, children, youngsters who ran away from home, in short: everyone. Anyone who enters, regardless of whether they know how to play or not, is invited to participate in huge collective jams in which the original MEV mingle in the midst of a crowd of dropouts who have never taken an instrument in hand and inexperienced visitors who cannot distinguish the group’s junktronics from an intercom. The performances—whose goal, according to Frederic Rzewski, is to produce “massive sounds,” nothing more, but also nothing less—quickly involve dozens and dozens of people, so much so that the studio lacks the space in which move. No more distinction between the public and composers who graduated from the conservatory: “we want to establish a more or less direct, reciprocal and physical relationship of equality between musician and listener,” declares Rzewski, who years later will remember: “if people knew how to emit even a single sound from a trumpet, then they could join us and make their contribution.”
The name alone given to the performances is enough to set the mood of the experiment: Free Soup [Zuppa Libera]. This will go on for almost two months, until MEV—exhausted by the experience—will reduce the opening of the studio to the public to only twice a week. The result of the free soups is rather easy to imagine: a chaotic mixture of deafening volumes in which everything happens, both musically and otherwise. The studio on via Peretti becomes a magnet for a whole host of what Curran will call “lost hippies,” stoned young people from the four corners of the globe who, when it is necessary to take the community spirit of the experiment literally, certainly do not hold back; Ivan Coaquette, a long-haired French transplant to Rome since 1964, goes so far as to take possession of the same MEV acronym and to publish a record, the otherwise interesting Leave The City, without any of the founders knowing anything about it: unexpected effects hypothesized by the usual Rzewski when he stated that “people have a strong desire to move and to produce sounds. The operation is to help this natural desire find its way into fruitful channels, rather than excite it.”
The soups of 1968 nevertheless provided MEV with the basis on which to build what will be their last, gargantuan project outside the walls of via Peretti, a live performance entitled Soundpool that invited the public to “bring with them any source of sound that can then be thrown into the common source.” It was essentially a clear, candid instigation to “come and make some noise,” especially as the Soundpool theater was no longer the protected areas of the Trastevere studio but the more canonical stages of concert halls and serious musical institutions. For the members of MEV it was their personal Paradise Now, the overturned overcoming of the musician-spectator dichotomy; but it was also an explicit guerrilla action that aimed to export the incendiary chaos of free soups to the sleepy environments of bourgeois respectability: “the idea was a stroke of genius,” Alvin Curran will recall in due course; “Even if it was quite dangerous …”
Soundpool was presented in 1969 in the gardens of the Accademia Filarmonica Romana, on the aristocratic and haughty Via Flaminia. The small, pretty internal park is desecrated by a crowd of onlookers with tools of all kinds in tow, who in a short time transform it into a hellish circle of noises and animalistic verses. The atmosphere of the performance, however, is festive, and for once it really seems that MEV has been able to move the participants “in the direction of joy.” The problems come when the group takes Soundpool out of Italy: such is the intensity of the performances, that at the Purcell Room in London the most possessed in the stalls uproot a tree; in Belgium, at the University of Leuven, a fire is started; at Brown University in Providence, the audience destroys the hall; invited to “bring any source of sound with them”, the participants in the happening tear up furniture, stage riots, demolish parts of the stage. The performances are interrupted by the police, the firefighters have to intervene, and sometimes it seems to be more in the middle of a street clash than a concert.
With Soundpool, MEV went beyond the limits of collective ecstasy to unleash moments of pure group psychosis: “It was no longer a concert activity: it was a social experiment,” Curran recalls. From exhibition to exhibition, what Rzewski called the reverse snowball effect increased: instead of interacting with each other, the participants in the improvisations ended up perpetrating in an increasingly extreme way a form of abuse of objects as an end in itself, each abandoned in a state of unconsciousness dangerously close to violent catharsis. Massive sounds become mountains of sound with titanic dimensions and a ferocious impact; the final performances result in unsustainable, vehement, sometimes senseless chaos.
There is also a disc version of Soundpool, released in 1970 and only partially indicative of the intensity of the experiment: the annihilating masses of sound in which sirens and screams merge, orchestral thuds and metallic percussion, make the toxic electronics of Spacecraft a harmless freak prank. In 1969, MEV had released yet another record—titled “Friday” and, incredibly, released by a colossus like Polydor—in which the group held themselves on the side of a mephitic electronics occasionally infected by the sounds of the possibly even more sinister trombone and saxophone. But poisonous and disquieting as it was, it was nothing compared to the fury that the band could unleash live. Some time later, Allan Bryant will publish on his own initiative a series of tapes recorded between 1967 and 1968, which truly seems to be in the filthy former factory on via Peretti surrounded by sheet metal and smelly waste. According to Alvin Curran, “we had long discussions in which we criticized the recordings of our performances, sometimes with pleasure and sometimes with disgust. When there were long passages where nothing happened, you would say “my god, it’s just horrible. How can we waste so much of our lives doing nothing?” But it is always Curran who admits that in those recordings there are “moments of a profound sense of transcendence, both personal and collective.” Of course, it was often a transcendence that had something malignant, or at least slightly reassuring: this is partly why almost all the future standard bearers of noise, from Throbbing Gristle to Wolf Eyes, are already all in here. But for Rzewski, Curran and Teitelbaum the Soundpool social experiment represented more than the apotheosis of the community experience born in Trastevere, “a collective suicide,” the point of no return that inevitably leads to the end of the group.
In 1970, a song by MEV found space in the soundtrack of Zabriskie Point: in Antonioni’s film, the buzzes of the Italian-American collective accompany the protagonist Mark while on board his pick-up wandering through the endless industrial suburbs of Los Angeles. Then the landscape changes. The pylons and warehouses are replaced by palm trees and tree-lined avenues. Mark goes red. It is the first stage of a story that will lead him, towards the end of the film, to be shot by the police.
As a metaphor for the end of the hippie dream, it’s not exactly subtle; but at least the soundtrack assembled by the director—in addition to MEV, there are Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, John Fahey and the Kaleidoscope—is worth a bit as a small breviary of Sixties moods, as well as a confirmation of the excellent musical tastes of a man who, according to him, did not want to hear music in his films.
Still in 1970, the three founders of MEV perform in the United States, where while they are there they welcome people like Anthony Braxton and Maryanne Amacher into the formation. At that point, however, Rzewski and Teitelbaum remain in the US. Curran alone returns to Rome, undecided on what to do and grappling with a context that has replaced the sunny utopias of the Sixties with the grim omens of the years of lead. He will have to leave the role of the radical noise-maker and replace the Agip oil cans with the most innocent sticks of incense, to churn out at least a couple of other beautiful works.
In many ways, MEV had been a glorious failure. They had embraced the revolutionary cause with sincere enthusiasm, and in a few years Rzewski would end up composing variations on the theme of El pueblo unido jamàs serà vencido; but when they played for the students occupying the universities, it was not uncommon for the public to protest that the music was too elitist and too little … of the people. Conversely, the noise aberrations of things like Soundpool managed to irritate even those most sensitive to the mystical side of the Sixties. Even Stockhausen objected: “Okay, you were very physical. But now you have to become spiritual!” With their strident, feral, even repulsive anti-music, they clashed both with the rhetoric turn on, tune in, drop out, and with that of the Libretti Rossi on the barricades. “When I go back to that period,” Rzewski will reflect in due course, “I think my ideas, as well as those of many of my colleagues, were quite confused …”
Like so many contemporary experiments, MEV ended together with the 1960s, and it is symptomatic that after some time Rzewski himself considers that period “overrated”. It is as if the massive sounds produced by the collective of which he was the main ideologue ended up breaking on the impassable barricade of the end of the decade, an assault on the sky that ended badly, a charge followed by a hasty retreat. In the rehearsals of the seventies, both Rzewski and Curran will opt for the more brooding reiterations of the minimalist school, which sounds almost like a crisis of rejection towards monstrosities like Soundpool, or if you like the admission that the social experiment called MEV could only be wrecked. “We had impressions, insights into what was about to happen. In 1969 it was easy to imagine that the way the world was organized was about to change, ”Rzewski will always remember. “We were wrong, we were terribly wrong.”
Valerio Mattioli is the author of numerous books including Noisers (2009), Superonda (2016), and Remoria (2019), as well as Italian translator of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, for NERO Editions, the publishing house in which he works as an editor. He was one of the founders of Prismo and has written, mainly about music, for various publications including Il Manifesto, Blow Up, La Repubblica, Vice, Noisey, and many others. Mattioli is also an accomplished musician, most notably as half of Heroin in Tahiti, with Francesco De Figueiredo, a group that was at the forefront of the so-called Italian Occult Psychedelia movement.