A Fickle Sonance
a column by
Il Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza Theo Gallher©2007
Improvisation in the mid 1960s was an open field, especially in Europe, where jazz improvisation – that is, the tradition from Armstrong swing to Coltrane sheets-of-sound – had already been assimilated, and free-thinking musicians were looking for something new, something more, something other. Peter Brötzmann’s extreme post-Ayler expressionism was one avenue of freedom that would prove resilient and attractive to individualist sensibilities, but there was also a feeling of collectivism and a free exchange of new ideas that reflected the tenor of the times, politically, socially, and culturally. It was this sense of shared experimentation that led to the emergence of four important ensembles at roughly the same time: John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble and AMM in England, and Musica Elettronica Viva and Il Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza (aka Nuova Consonanza, or “New Consonance”) in Italy.
Among the values which these otherwise distinctive groups shared were an idealism about (musical and social) equality and interaction, an open-door policy concerning personnel (which meant that members would come and go freely, albeit not necessarily without friction), and an obsession with expanding the boundaries of musical discourse by any means possible. In the case of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, training ground for burgeoning British radicals like Evan Parker, Trevor Watts, Paul Rutherford, Barry Guy, and Derek Bailey, this led to shape-shifting ensembles that mixed Ornette-style lyricism with close-to-the-vest examinations of intervals and timbres more reminiscent of the intensely concentrated structures of Anton Webern than any jazz-related precedent. AMM, too, had their own point of view, which included non-jazz input in the John Cage-related radio play and percussive electronics of Keith Rowe and the presence of Cornelius Cardew, whose résumé featured a hands-on apprenticeship with Karlheinz Stockhausen and his own genre-stretching “classical” and graphic compositions. Musica Elettronica Viva was originally formed by renegade American classical musicians like Allan Bryant and Frederic Rzewski in order to explore indeterminate and alternatively composed electronic and electro-acoustic pieces, but the group dynamic quickly changed as members with classical and jazz backgrounds, like Alvin Curran, Ivan Vandor, and (on occasion) Steve Lacy, joined in.
By devising their own philosophy of activity (involving varieties of musical spontaneity and gestural immediacy – the sounds often arising directly out of physical action, and not just intellectual theory), each group created an identity of sound and improvisational practice that distinguished them from the others. Nuova Consonanza’s centered about the phenomenon of collective composition – arguably, an idiom that differs only by degrees of intent and technique from the others, but one that yields unusual and unique music. Unfortunately, samples have been difficult to find; Deutsche Gramophone released what is possibly their best LP in 1969 but it has never been issued on CD, nor has a recording that appeared in the US on RCA in 1967 under the curious title The Private Sea of Dreams. (I strongly suspect that the album title, along with the hazy, psychedelic-sexy cover art and the inscription “Improvisational mood music for modern dream extensions” were all dreamt up by the RCA marketing department in an attempt to sell such odd, uncommercial sounds to the ‘60s counter-culture.) Three of that album’s eight tracks reappeared on a fine CD anthology of the group’s work from ’67-75 on the German Edition RZ label which should still be available; additionally, there’s a CD release of material circa 1975 on the Cramps imprint.
Fortunately, there is a new release on the Italian label die Schachtel of previously unissued Nuova Consonanza material – two CDs of music from 1967-69, and a fascinating 47-minute, b&w film documentary from 1967 produced by North German Radio (NDR), which not only reminds us of the group’s historical importance and present-day relevance, but provides new insight into their creative processes – crucially adding to our understanding of the potential of non-jazz-related improvisational impulses and activities.
As was certainly the case with AMM, each member of Nuova Consonanza had their own sharpened views about the music and the aesthetics that informed it. Frederic Rzewski, a member of both MEV and Nuova Consonanza at varying times, states unequivocally in the film “I don’t believe in improvisation.” (Of course, this statement begs further semantic clarification, since Rzewski did subsequently include areas of improvisational activity – perhaps meant to be thought of as a kind of spontaneous cadenza – into scores like “The People United Will Never Be Defeated.”) The position of Franco Evangelisti, Nuova Consonanza’s founder and prime motivator (until his death in 1980), was even more complicated. Evangelisti believed that European classical music had depleted all of its compositional resources by the 1960s; his remedy was to involve other composers in a collective creative experience that would result in mutable, unpredictable, continually fresh expressions of spontaneously organized sound. The key words here, however, are “composers” and “organized.” Evangelisti insisted on a performing ensemble that consisted solely of composers in part because of the inherent (even if intuitive) sense of formal logic they would bring to the performance, but also to avoid any taint of instrumental virtuosity for its own sake. Although the performances themselves (whether in concert or in the recording studio) were “free” improvisations, the composers had been meticulously prepared for the moment of improvisation through extensive rehearsals using “exercises” meant to train their ability to respond to, invent, and shape suitable material spontaneously.
In many respects, Evangelisti’s approach to collective composition as “listening feedback” seems more akin to the position of John Stevens than of, say, Stockhausen in his group-channeled “intuitive music” Aus den Sieben Tagen. Nevertheless, though Evangelisti respected jazz (and, for that matter, improvisational musics of Africa and Asia), he saw no need to incorporate any jazz-related impulses – what we may think of as a particular style of energy, rhythmic momentum, emotional expression, or group support – into the musical processes of Nuova Consonanza. This was apparently one of the points of disagreement among the members, and indeed there are times when some of the music suggests a jazz-induced familiarity – but mainly in hindsight, and probably due to our (the listener’s) identification with the instrumentation used. Though they frequently changed instruments, there were times when the group would assemble with trumpet (Ennio Morricone), trombone (John Heineman), tenor saxophone (Ivan Vandor), piano (Evangelisti), bass (Walter Branchi), and percussion (Mario Bertoncini and Egisto Macchi). Not that the results would ever be confused with the Jazz Messengers; still, because of the extended techniques they inevitably used – “traumatic use” was Evangelisti’s term for it – such as Morricone blowing into just the trumpet mouthpiece, Heineman attacking the bass strings, or Bertoncini bowing cymbals, it’s easy for us to relate them to such contemporary jazz-related practitioners of timbral investigation as Axel Dörner, Mats Gustafsson, Barry Guy, Paul Lovens, and the like.
Unlike MEV, Nuova Consonanza began as an acoustic ensemble – though it’s likely that their immediate reliance on extreme instrumental effects was, if not precisely to mimic electronics, to expand the available palette of sounds for the same reason as composers who favored electronics; that is, to provide the listener with unfamiliar sounds to further disorient their connection with “traditional” music and require a re-evaluation of perspective. It wasn’t long before Nuova Consonanza added subtle electronics to their instrumentation simply because the means became available to do so. But their ability to function in the arena of unusual acoustic timbres was one of their strengths, and it’s helpful to see in the film how their extended techniques were applied. The piano, for example, is an especially coded instrument in European music, and watching Evangelisti unload his bag of small objects with which to manipulate the strings – drumsticks, bottles, knobs, a glass ball, pieces of rubber and plastic – one can imagine his glee in undermining the tradition of Beethoven and Liszt. To the same end, there’s Bertoncini’s practice of bowing the piano with wires carefully threaded through the strings, having three participants hunched over the open piano, drawing from it a murmuring forest of drones, overtones, and chimes. Their iconoclasm even emerges in unguarded moments, as when Vandor sits at the piano and jokingly segues from some Wagner to “Give My Regards to Broadway.”
Watching them at work, we can recognize other, now common techniques in their early stages of development – blowing the trombone into the piano to set the strings vibrating sympathetically; the percussionists moving among woodblocks, marimbas, cymbals, and snares in a choreography that fills empty space with sounds (reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s gestures above and within the canvas he was filling with color); a gong struck and dipped into a tub of water; scraping a tube of bamboo on the floor to echo the squeals coming from inside the piano. Evangelisti explained, “We know what comes out of the instruments we have; we need new instruments for new sounds.” New sounds are needed to devise new structures, as Cage wrote elsewhere, and that includes the full spectrum of “effects” that extended techniques offer. The addition of non-pitched or distorted sounds and alienated effects – noise – previously excluded from classical composition, along with the distribution and reconstruction of formal compositional logic from a single source to that juxtaposed among several instigators, all in real time, was meant to blend together into the “new consonance” – not a traditional harmonic consonance, but a new way of hearing which could accept the expanded harmonic systems of Schönberg and Webern as well as the disorienting timbres of musique concreté and electronics, plus these new noises and new forms, with the same unbiased ear.
But the question remains, does this approach to improvisation differ from that of those contemporaneous musicians from a jazz background? Is there an idiomatic difference between classical and jazz versions of “free” improvisation? Apparently there are times when it’s not audible – and when it’s not, it can be argued that there is no difference. When it is, it often is attributed to contrasting degrees of energy, rhythmic emphasis, consensual modes of attack and gesture. Yet I wonder if some of the differences may not be in the sounds themselves, but in the way we respond to them. That is, we tend to listen to composed music with the understanding that the composer has used knowledge, contemplation, and a singular vision to “perfect” a score – to give it a sense of inevitability – and, whether we like the music or not, we accept it as if it could exist in no other fashion. On the other hand, the mutability of group-improvised music makes us aware of how spontaneous, unpredictable relationships can come together in surprising yet satisfying concord; success is measured in the perceived quality of events, details, intensity, interaction, organization. This may be why Evangelisti saw the need to develop a sense of ensemble in Nuova Consonanza’s music – that is, a compositional development of like-minded events with a dependency of parts (although spontaneously derived), as opposed to Cage’s Zen-inspired notion of letting sounds be sounds (without rational relationship) or the common free jazz practice of having the music result from a collision of juxtaposed, seemingly unrelated statements. Do these attitudes affect the way we listen? Do we approach each with different expectations? Do we hear them differently? I think that’s ultimately up to the individual – or, as Count Basie opined, every tub on its own bottom.