Perfect Sound Forever

Il Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza

The Composer as Improviser as Composer
by Daniel Barbiero

The idea of exploiting new instrumental techniques and bringing the vitality and inventiveness of improvisation into new art music was something that was in the air in the late 1950's and early 1960's. Contemporary composers experimented with new forms of notation and formal organization that would allow performers to take a decisive role in forming the work at the local level; others went further and set out little more than verbal hints to guide performers, who would in effect become co-creators of the realized work, or eliminated the pre-existing score entirely. This was an international idea, not confined to any one country's avant-garde, as shown by composers like Earle Brown, Cornelius Cardew and Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, and groups such as the New Music Ensemble in America, and the Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza in Italy.

History & Prehistory

The Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza (GINC) was a composers' collective founded in Rome in 1964 and dedicated to creating freely improvised music grounded in new compositional and instrumental techniques. GINC's prehistory traces back to 1959-1960, when a new generation of Italian avant-garde composers located in Rome began to develop plans to found an association dedicated to advancing and performing works of new music. There was a general sense among them that the official Roman musical establishment had failed to engage with contemporary music in any useful manner and that, in effect, they would have to do it themselves. The original association consisted of Mario Bertoncini, Mauro Bortolotti, Antonio De Blasio, Franco Evangelisti, Domenico Guaccero, Egisto Macchi and Daniele Paris, though the trio of Evangelisti, Guaccero and Macchi became the core members responsible for much of the group's activity. The name "nuova consonanza" was suggested by the critic Alberto Pironti--a name meant to signify the desire to bring music up to date and to put forward new music otherwise consigned to the margins of musical life. The first concert the group put on, in 1962, featured a program of all electronic music and including work by composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Gyorgi Ligeti and Evangelisti.

It was two years later, in 1964, that Evangelisti formed the Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza as an improvising ensemble. The immediate catalyst for its founding was Evangelisti's meeting Larry Austin when the latter was in Rome. Austin, who had founded the California-based improvising group New Music Ensemble (NME) in 1963, played some recordings of NME for Evangelisti, who subsequently felt that Austin had "given [him] the courage"* to form a similarly improvisational group. What distinguished GINC was that it was, in Evangelisti's words, "the only group in Europe formed exclusively and entirely of composers."

During its lifespan, which effectively ended with Evangelisti's death in 1980 just a few days after his fifty-fourth birthday, the group's membership consisted of a small nucleus and a changing outer circle of more occasional collaborators. The nucleus, in addition to Evangelisti, included Bertoncini and Macchi from the Nuova Consonanza association, as well as Walter Branchi, John Heineman, Ivan Vandor, Roland Kayn and Ennio Morricone. In light of his later renown, it's interesting to note that by the time he became a member of GINC, Morricone had already begun writing the film soundtracks that would make him famous. In 1964, the year that he joined GINC, he had done the soundtrack to Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars--which in a 2006 interview Morricone dismissed as Leone's worst film and his own worst score. Notwithstanding this later judgment, it was Morricone's soundtracks for Leone, and especially for the Dollars trilogy, that brought him widespread recognition. But Morricone was also a committed avant-gardist who remained with GINC until 1980 and even employed the group on some of his film soundtracks, most notably for Enzo Castellari's 1971 horror film Gli occhi freddi della paura.

Out of the Cul-de-Sac & Away from Composition

On the evidence of Evangelisti's manifesto-like liner note to the group's first, eponymous album, GINC was envisioned as a response to the state of advanced music in the early 1960s, as he and like-minded composers perceived it. They regarded the contemporary language of postwar composition, in which the vocabulary and syntax of serialism were prominent, as having pushed music to the outer limits of what could be done with the equal-tempered scale. Serial music, with its use of all twelve pitches in the octave and its codification of pitch relations as well as other musical parameters, had simply exhausted the possibilities available to contemporary composers. In short, the equal-tempered scale now represented a foreclosure of possibility; it was an inert material that couldn't be developed any further than serial composition had already developed it. As for the aleatory or open form music that followed serialism, Evangelisti saw it as extending the convention of variation to cover the entire composition itself: in place of variations drawn on a theme there were variations "of form itself." But this was still, in a sense, part of the system, representing as it did the logical development of the well-established compositional trope of variation.

In short, Evangelisti thought that Western art music had reached a point of completion or exhaustion, a point at which all of its secrets had "already been revealed and imparted," whether these concerned what could be done diatonically or pantonically or by producing the broadest range of sounds through expansive instrumental techniques. In this view, the character of the twelve-pitch equal-tempered scale was, in a sense, its fate, which took the form of dodecaphonic and serial composition. Having reached this point in its development, composition had come up against a wall. And it was this situation of apparent completion that was the given in relation to which contemporary avant-garde composers found themselves. It was, as Evangelisti termed it, their "inheritance," and one that had to be taken up in a new project and, by virtue of its being taken up, transcended.

But how? One possible answer, and the one that Evangelisti would give, consisted in the radical strategy of abandoning composition altogether in favor of collective improvisation. For him, collective improvisation was "the only magic still possible for music today." And he made the leap needed to put this proposition into practice: By 1964, he had given up composition per se in favor of improvisation as well as teaching and theoretical work. (In a 1982 interview, Austin, who took part in GINC's early activities, remembers Evangelisti denouncing composition as "a contrivance, a manipulation"). With this renunciation, the intellectual and practical foundations for the Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza had been put down.

Toward Collective Improvisation & Timbre

The turn toward improvisation had been foreshadowed by the open form works that composers, Evangelisti among them, had been exploring as a counter to integral serialism. Among the attractions of the open form work was its recalibration of the relationship between composer and performer. Evangelisti saw this changed relationship as entailing a diminution of the role of the composer as the unique sensibility determining the form and content of the work. Instead, in the open form composition the "rapport between composer and performer" was such that the interpreter would bear as much responsibility as the composer for the choices to be made in realizing the score. In choosing what specific values the composition's open parameters would take, the performer's task would widen from its traditional one of realizing the composer's vision to effectively becoming a co-composer.

As with open form composition, collective improvisation would radically reorder the relationships between performer and composer, effectively assimilating each role to the other. The collective improvisation, no less than the open form composition would be, as Evangelisti described the latter, a "field of action" in which the performers would co-create the work. Action here would mean real-time composition, with no single person taking the role of "the" composer. It's important to stress that in this scenario, improvisation would be composition; in an improvising ensemble made up of performers who are themselves composers, any given improvisation would be informed by a knowledge of composition and compositional values.

Evangelisti found collective improvisation philosophically congenial as much for political or quasi-political considerations as for purely musical ones. Evangelisti was a Communist, and as such, he found attractive the prospect of forging an egalitarian relationship between the composer and the performer, one in which the difference between the two, particularly as embodied in a hierarchy in which the former stood above the latter, would be leveled down to the vanishing point. And in fact, one of GINC's ground rules was that no single voice would dominate the others, which meant that a certain "modesty on the part of each composer" would be called for.** GINC thus in principle embodied a particular paradox: it would forge an anti-individualist sound out of the highly individual voices of its contributors.

How it did this was through a process Evangelisti described in a filmed 1967 interview as a "cybernetic" system of "listening feedback." By bringing to bear listening skills as well as skills in performance and composition, each member of the ensemble would apprehend the group's interplay as a whole and within that whole, would situate his own role. The process entailed a high degree of concentration and the ability to hear one's own errors and those of others' and to react immediately to put them right. In short, this was improvisation as criticism and self-criticism, a self-correcting process of ongoing, mutual adjustment. Through this process the "energy of the individual" would be put "at the service of a collective idea emerging from the essence of improvisation." The outcome, ideally, would be a way of crafting, and perhaps limiting, one's own contribution to fit into a fully collective sound. But this doesn't mean that this model of collective improvisation should be understood as necessitating the alienation of the individual player. It was not a kind of eclipse by which one's musical choices and ends are usurped or interdicted by the musical choices and ends of others. Instead, one's own choices and goals would be recovered and realized through the choices of others. Collective improvisation on this model offered freedom, yes, but a constrained freedom; the group would afford "freedom of expression," albeit within certain limits that all accepted.

But some limits were there to be broken through. For although GINC's composer/improvisers had been trained within the Western system of tonal and post-tonal composition, their improvisations were intended to goad this language to go beyond itself. Understanding the limits inherent in a system based on pitch relationships, at the same time they would play in such a way as to transcend it. Doing so would mean going beyond pitch and engaging timbre as a focal, independent musical parameter.

For Evangelisti, this was not a new concern. As early as the mid-1950s, he had shown an interest in new sounds, particularly as they could be had through composing with timbre. His 1955 composition "Ordini," written for sixteen instruments arranged in four groups of four, was built around changing blocks of instrumental combinations; although its organization owed something to serial forms, it opened out to a variety of textural music based on timbral rather than pitch relationships. By the time GINC was founded, he was pointing to "[t]he continuing invention of timbre" and use of electronic devices as means for assuring GINC's contemporaneity.

The First Recording: The Past as Future

Both of GINC's central strategies--collective improvisation and a focus on timbre--are readily apparent on the first recording the group did, which was issued on RCA Italiana in 1966 and has been reissued as a facsimile in CD format. In addition to Evangelisti (piano, prepared piano, celesta, timpani and voice), Morricone (trumpet and voice), Bertoncini (percussion, piano, prepared piano, timpani and voice) Heineman (trombone, cello and prepared piano), Kayn (Hammond organ, prepared piano, vibraphone, marimbula and voice) and Vandor (tenor saxophone), the recording includes Frederic Rzewski (piano, prepared piano, percussion, glass pane, tam-tam and voice) and Jerry Rosen (clarinet).

The pieces on the recording display a compositional sensibility in addition to one geared to sound as such. On all of them, there is an effort to create texturally-informed structures by putting sound elements in relation to each other in deliberate ways--thickly at times, but more often sparsely, or with an awareness of timbral contrast or concord. For example, "Wind Trio," with Morricone on trumpet, Vandor on tenor saxophone and Heineman on trombone, is a pointillistic improvisation that relegates pitch to a noticeably secondary role. The three instruments play short, incisive bursts of sound calling attention to the contrasts of color between them as well as to the different shadings obtained by varied playing techniques. Even more radically, "Improvvisazione per cinque," with Bertoncini on percussion and timpani, Evangelisti on piano, celeste and timpani, Heineman on cello, Kayn on Hammond organ, vibes and marimba, and Rzewski on piano, is a purely timbral essay in acoustic acousmatic music. Throughout much of the performance, it's virtually impossible to trace any particular sound to its source. Similarly, "Cantata," an acousmatic work for electronically manipulated voices, is a mulch of detached syllables and shredded vowels and consonants, very little of which can be recognized as having originated in speech. By contrast, "Quartetto," a timbrally more conventional piece for Heineman and Vandor on trombone and tenor saxophone respectively, as well as Bertoncini and Rzewski on piano and percussion, is a mosaic-like performance whose sonic tiles consist of broadly spaced stabs of piano and tones on tenor saxophone and trumpet alone and in tandem. Negative space plays a significant role here, as the performance seems to be about the dying away of sound into silence as much as it is about the sound itself.

In sum, the sound of the first album is uncompromisingly modern, by the avant-garde standards of the day. But that would change as the group evolved and as its membership changed. By the time the LP Feed-back was released in 1970, the sound had become influenced by then-current vernacular musics and recording techniques. Feed-back, released under the name "The Group," documents an ensemble providing an avant-garde perspective on psychedelic funk rock, a sound GINC was pursuing during that period. But 1976's Musica su Schemi, the last recording the group released during its lifetime, returns them to their avant-garde roots in electronic composition and purely timbral acoustic music.

Following Evangelisti's death in 1980, GINC eventually dissolved. But the recent reissues of their original recordings, as well as the release of archival material, allow us to hear this historically important ensemble in a contemporary context. Their first album in particular sounds surprisingly current--a harbinger of the future, sounding from out of the past--even though it speaks in a dialect of post-tonal musical modernism whose grammar and vocabulary were first formulated more than fifty years ago. It is a dialect still being refined today; if not a lingua franca for freely improvised music, it at least can claim broad and continuing currency.

* Except where indicated otherwise, passages in quotation marks are from Evangelisti's liner note to GINC's 1966 debut album; translations from the Italian are mine.

** In practice the situation could be more ambiguous. A 1967 film documentary on the group by Theo Gallehr clearly shows Evangelisti conducting or otherwise steering improvisations.

Photo from Superior Viaduct

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