A previously unheard archival recording of the legendary improvising ensemble Musica Elettronica Viva (Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski and Richard Teitelbaum), captured in concert at Bard College, New York in 2012.
Formed by a group of American expat composers in Rome in 1966, the MEV ensemble played an important role in the development of free improvisation, bridging the live electronics tradition begun by Cage and Tudor and the high-energy squall of free jazz. Early recordings like Spacecraft or The Sound Pool unleash volleys of metal and glass amplified with contact microphones, howling winds, primitive synthesizer bleep and raucous audience participation, the intensity of which puts much later "noise" to shame. In later decades, the ensemble would go through many iterations, often including legendary free players like Steve Lacy and George Lewis. In its final years, MEV settled into the core trio of founding members heard here: Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, and Richard Teitelbaum, using piano, electronics, and small instruments.
Curran, Rzewski, and Teitelbaum were life-long friends blessed, as Curran says, with "incompatible personalities": major figures in the post-Cagean experimental tradition, they explored countless divergent and even contradictory paths as composers and performers, from agitprop songs to brainwave-controlled synthesis. MEV is the sound of these three personalities coming together, their contributions radically individual yet attaining a state of "fundamental unity" that Rzewski, in a text written in the collective's earliest years, defined as the "final goal of improvisation". Of course, listeners familiar with aspect of the trio's individual works might hazard some guesses about who is doing what: the crisp piano figures are probably Rzewski's, the cut-up hip-hop samples most likely Curran's, the sliding, squelching synth possibly Teitelbaum's. But often these identities are dissolved in a constantly shifting hall of mirrors, the listener unable to tell which of these pianos is live and which is a sample of a past virtuoso, or whether a horn blast derives from ethnographic documentation or Curran cutting loose on Shofar.
The two side-long sets here occupy a similar terrain of constantly shifting texture and instrumentation, unexpected interruptions, and moments of sudden beauty. The first set is sparser, at times almost ominous, as a bell repeatedly sounds across wheezing harmonica, seasick orchestral textures, and creaking wood, making room for episodes of yodelling and delicate prepared piano before exploding into a storm of buzzing synth and piano fragments. The second set is more frenetic, moving rapidly across centuries and continents: cars crash into post-serial piano pointillism, wailing voices collide with chopped and screwed hip-hop samples, Hollywood strings are buried under layers of electronic gurgles. The performance slows in its final moments, making way for a sampled voice repeating the phrase "protest and the good of the world", reminding us that MEV's idea of freedom was always more than musical. "Symphony No. 107 – The Bard" is a beautifully recorded example of the endlessly multi-layered later MEV sound, accompanied by new liner notes by Alvin Curran (now the only surviving member of the group) and a selection of previously unseen photographs from across the many decades of the group's activity. Arriving in an elegant sleeve bearing a beautiful photograph by Francis Zhou of the Olin Hall at Bard College where the concert was recorded, this is an essential document from a major group in the history of experimental music. As Rzewski wrote, this music is "like life, unpredictable, sometimes making sense, mostly not".
Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV) was begun one evening in the spring of 1966 by Allan Bryant, Alvin Curran
, Jon Phetteplace, Carol Plantamura, Frederic Rzewski
, Richard Teitelbaum and Ivan Vandor in a room in Rome overlooking the Pantheon. MEV's music right from the start was also totally open, allowing all and everything to come in and seeking in every way to get out beyond the heartless conventions of contemporary music. Taking its cue from Tudor and Cage
, MEV began sticking contact mics to anything that sounded and amplified their raw sounds: bed springs, sheets of glass, tin cans, rubber bands, toy pianos, sex vibrators, and assorted metal junk; a crushed old trumpet, cello and tenor sax kept us within musical credibility, while a home-made synthesizer of some 48 oscillators along with the first Moog synthesizer in Europe gave our otherwise neo-primitive sound an inimitable edge. In the name of the collectivity, the group abandoned both written scores and leadership and replaced them with improvisation and critical listening. Rehearsals and concerts were begun at the appropriate time by a kind of spontaneous combustion and continued until total exhaustion set in. It mattered little who played what when or how, but the fragile bond of human trust that linked us all in every moment remained unbroken. The music could go anywhere, gliding into self-regenerating unity or lurching into irrevocable chaos—both were valuable goals. In the general euphoria of the times, MEV thought it had re-invented music; in any case it had certainly rediscovered it.