Perfect Sound Forever


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Via Italy, 1921
by Daniel Barbiero
(August 2019)

"If [many of our musicians of genius and originality] remain stifled, whether because of the hegemony of the conservatories, publishers and performers, we must overcome that as soon as possible... we think they can open other doors, ascend other peaks, through the destruction of all musical laws and through free improvisation."

This audacious call for the overthrow of convention and the liberation of musical genius through free improvisation wasnít written during the period of intense musical experimentation in the two or so decades immediately following World War II, but instead is taken from this manifesto published in 1921:

We are convinced that our kind is destined to dominate the world musically as it dominates the plastic and literary arts. Our kind includes more and better musicians of genius and originality. If many of these are unknown and many remain stifled [suffocati], whether because of the hegemony of the conservatories, publishers and performers, we must overcome that as soon as possible. We Futurist musicians have admired our most glorious musical past and we admire the works of the great Futurist musicians and avant-gardists, who have attained great heights of splendor and originality. But we think they can open other doors, ascend other peaks, through the destruction of all musical laws and through free improvisation.

Therefore we avoid:

  1. Any hint of academicism.
  2. Any harmony or motif heard before.
  3. The obsession with tempo, structure, rhythm, formal rules and flashy displays of technique.
  4. The supremely stupid artifice of creating a melody and then dressing it up fashionably (which varies from dissonant to a pasty and slithery style).

Therefore we will get:

  1. Inspiration of infinite originality. In fact inspiration in music is more difficult than in any other art. Inspiration is also fleeting and hard to sustain. Inspiration arises when one is not at all thinking of harmony and musical laws.
  2. Weíll get a natural dissonance much different from the artificial dissonance that many musicians prepare with the idea that the composer must embellish dissonanceís own originality.

Our improvisation expresses itself:

  1. Through performance on piano or other instruments.
  2. Through musical commentary in verse, thoughts, paintings
  3. Through musical dialogues between two pianos, piano and another instrument, piano and sung improvisation, piano and improvised oration. We thus prepare that ideal fusion of all the arts that the greatest artists have always desired. Once the sensibility of the public becomes more developed and no longer is alarmed at every dissonance, we will realize free improvisation of the orchestra. For those who not very futuristically wish to have something to hold onto, so as to retaste and immortalize artistic sensations, there are already piano recording devices to improve.

With this manifesto on musical improvisation we do not wish to destroy anything of importance, but to enrich again, to electrify forcefully, to enhance the spirit of music, the sublime art and most effective hygiene of social uplift.

The authors of this statement--titled Líimprovvisazione musicale--were Mario Bartoccini and Aldo Mantia, two Italian pianists.

Bartoccini and Mantiaís manifesto was one of many manifestoes, on various matters of art and culture, produced under the auspices of Futurism, the art movement launched by poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in February 1909. Inspired by the industrialization and electrification that had come, somewhat belatedly, to Italy in comparison to the rest of Western Europe, Futurism was a movement centered on an ultramodern embrace of the new, the breaking of tradition and the disavowal of what Marinetti called "passéism," and a fascination with the intuitive and non-rational aspects of human action. Futurist painting and poetry rejected conventional formal constraints in an attempt to portray and embody the dislocations and rapid changes of life in a technologically advanced society; it was only natural that any Futurist music would be equally bold.

Bartoccini and Mantia werenít the first to bring music into Futurism. Music had become a component of the movement as early as 1910, when the composer Francesco Balilla Pratella joined its ranks. Pratellaís 11 October 1910 Manifesto dei Musicisti Futuristi (Manifesto of Futurist Musicians) set out the basic program for Futurist music: a rejection of the past, particularly the past as embodied in Italian musical traditions; an appeal to the young to "desert the schools, conservatories and musical academies;" and a call for musicians to "free their own musical sensibilities from every imitation or influence of the past." In sum, a call to liberate music from "doctrinaire, academic and soporific values" and take inspiration instead directly from "intuition and feeling." Luigi Russolo went further and produced LíArte dei Rumori (The Art of Noises), a manifesto originally taking the form of an 11 March 1913 letter to Pratella. Russolo called for a music of noises which, he asserted, would represent the logical consequence of Pratellaís own musical program and would further count as the next stage in the evolution of music: a way of expanding the types of sounds admissible in music in order the better to capture the dissonant sonic ambience of modern life. Unlike Pratella, Russolo was, as he acknowledged at the end of the letter, a painter and not a musician--but all the better to find the daring to "intuit the great renewal of music through the Art of Noises."

But where Russolo called for integrating non-musical sounds into musical works, and Pratella, in his 1911 La Musica Futurista--Manifesto Tecnico (Technical Manifesto of Futurist Music) called for the use atonality, polyrhythms and microtones, Bartoccini and Mantia called for improvisation (they were echoed in this regard by composer Franco Casavola, who in 1924 asserted that Futurismís musical ideal fused performer and composer). Given their early insistence on the value of free improvisation in musical innovation Bartoccini and Mantia were, from the perspective of developments in avant-garde music from the mid-twentieth century forward, prescient.

Some of the motifs of the manifesto were fairly standard for Futurism. There was, for example, the rejection of academicism, the grandiose claims for the movementís aspirations toward artistic dominance, and the more-or-less standard Futurist call for the destruction of existing conventions. Others, such as the stated admiration for the music of the past and the faith in the publicís capacity to appreciate and understand--eventually, at any rate--advanced music, represent something of a break with the typical postures of pre-WWI Futurism. But all of the manifestoís points take on a new shading when seen through the lens of the post-WWII avant-garde.

In fact, many of the points Bartoccini and Mantia make prefigure some of the central themes and goals of the free improvisation that arose in the late 1950ís and afterward. Originality and inspiration were central to Futurismís aesthetic program, but--often rhetorically refigured as freedom and authenticity--they were no less fundamental to the experiments with unscripted music that were percolating through jazz and art music during that period. What Daniel Belgrad termed "the culture of spontaneity" informed much experiment in all of the avant-garde arts of the period--painting and poetry as well as music; it was a significant motivating force behind an improvisational ethic that found concrete expression in groups such as the New Music Ensemble in California, AMM in England, Il Gruppo di Improvvisazione da Nuova Consonanza (GINC) in Italy, and the upsurge of free jazz in New York, Chicago and elsewhere. These groups experimented with fully improvised programs that at the time represented a dramatic expansion of the boundaries of art music and jazz--a leap into the void left by the abandonment of preexisting compositional structures and strictures, no matter how open or vestigial these latter might be. The rationalizations for freely improvised music could vary; for some, the rejection of pre-established forms aligned with a larger, socially or politically-based ideology of an essentially egalitarian, anti-hierarchical impulse; for others, it grew out of a more personal, liberationist ideal that sought expressive authenticity in the creation of music free of received structures and conventions. Both lines of thought Bartoccini and Mantia surely would have understood.

Of all the postwar ensembles experimenting with free improvisation within the context of the art music of the time, the one most tempting to connect directly to Bartoccini and Mantia is GINC. Such a link is difficult to establish though. The immediate impetus for forming a freely improvising ensemble came to GINC founder Franco Evangelisti from America, when NMEís Larry Austin visited Rome in 1964 and played some recordings of his group for Evangelisti. In addition, individual members of GINC were influenced by the practical example of jazz improvisation. Itís possible though that even if Bartoccini and Mantiaís program had no direct influence on Evangelisti and GINC, the artistic ambience of early 1960ís Rome, where GINC was based, would have reflected the influence of earlier generations of avant-garde artists, including the Futurists. If nothing else, a way may have been opened up for GINCís experiments by Futurismís earlier example: certain ways of doing things, certain methods and means that hadnít been there before now existed as possibilities. The Futurist precedent, explicitly acknowledged or not, was there as an available form.

But it also is true that the divergence between the assumptions underlying the Futuristsí project and the assumptions underlying GINC was significant. At a very basic level, Bartoccini and Mantiaís demand for the avoidance of the "obsession" with compositional elements and methods contrasts sharply with Evangelistiís vision of an improvising ensemble made up of composers. Evangelistiís requirement that the ensembleís improvisers be composers implies an approach to improvisation favorably disposed toward the notion of an improvised music pervaded by compositional values--balance, proportion, an emphasis on structural relationships and constraints, and so forth--if not actual compositional motifs. This would seem to be directly opposed to Bartoccini and Mantiaís call for the destruction of all musical laws. Instead, what Evangelistiís project suggests is a refiguration of those laws to serve as a foundation for real-time musical construction.

A second point dividing Bartoccini and Mantia on the one side from Evangelisti on the other has to do with the extra-musical inspiration and justification each cited for the turn to improvisation. Like Futurism generally, Bartoccini and Mantia felt a calling to renew their art for the larger purpose of demonstrating what they claimed was the particular genius and originality of Italian artists. Thus, the source of their appeal to "our kind" ("la nostra razza").They were motivated by a more or less truculent nationalism which was pervasive within Futurism and which isnít surprising given Italyís situation as a recently formed and imperfectly unified country universally perceived to be developmentally backward relative to the rest of Europe. Far from a nationalist, Evangelisti identified as a communist and envisioned GINC--which had an international membership--as a unit that would reject distinctions of hierarchy. GINCís core mission of free improvisation represented one way Evangelisti attempted to square the circle of his profession as a composer on the hand, with his transnational and egalitarian ideology on the other.

Even if the egalitarian spirit that inspired many, if not most, of the free improvisation ensembles of the 1960ís differed from the chauvinism that animated Italian Futurism, these later ensembles did realize Futurismís call for an incisive music in which the functions of performer and composer would be blended, and in which musical forms would evolve in response to the exigencies of the moment.

As, in fact, did the Futurists themselves. Both Bartoccini and Mantia participated in Futurist events, as noted in Marinettiís 1921 manifesto Il teatro della sorpresa (The Theater of Surprise). These evenings of Futurist performances, which were held in some of Italyís major cities, included what Marinetti described as "discussione improvvisate di strumenti musicale"--improvised "discussions" for pianos and for piano and cello, as played by Bartoccini and Mantia as well as a "Vittorio Mortari"--was this actually the pianist/composer Virgilio Mortari, then 19 years old?--and Franco Badi.

An odd footnote from half a century later. Bartoccini and Mantiaís 1921 prediction that orchestras would improvise was in fact realized in a notorious episode involving Leonard Bernstein, John Cage and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Bernstein had included Cageís "Atlas Eclipticalis" as part of a three-night festival of avant-garde music Bernstein put together for the orchestra in early February of 1964. Cageís piece, along with work by Morton Feldman and Earle Brown, was presented as an example of "Music of Chance." During the introduction to the performance of "Atlas Eclipticalis" Bernstein--over Cageís previously expressed objection--led the orchestra in a brief, freely-improvised performance Bernstein described as music "spontaneously invented" by the Philharmonic. The audience was amused; Cage, who at that time was in the habit of dissociating his music from improvisation, was not. But there it was, a full orchestra playing a free improvisation in a performance that was surprisingly cohesive, given the circumstances, and actually quite beautiful as a mobile mosaic of orchestral colors. An open question though is whether that 1964 audience actually had the "more developed" sensibility Bartoccini and Mantia understood would be the prerequisite for acceptance of freely improvised orchestral performances. Certainly, the New York audience did appear to receive the piece warmly, possibly because of Bernsteinís attempt, in his spoken introduction, to invite them in to what he knew would be an unusual musical experience for most of them.

As much as we might fault Bernstein for betraying his apparent reservations about some of the music he was presenting--defying Cage on the matter of improvisation, occasionally joking at the expense of novel musical ideas--he does seem to have made a sincere effort to develop public sensibilities by playing avant-garde music and by explaining unconventional ideas in a way audiences could understand. In that sense, he was helping to realize what to Bartoccini and Mantia in 1921 must surely have seemed to be a speculative dream.

(Note: The translation from the Italian of Bartoccini and Mantiaís manifesto is my own.)

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