Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza - Azioni 1967-69 (Die Schachtel 2xCD & DVD)
It's taken me a long, long, long, long time to get around to reviewing this because it's a hefty package to crack. Two CDs, a DVD, a 72-page booklet and a poster. I've owned it for a few weeks now and I still don't feel like I know any more about it than I did the day I first heard about it. What I can tell you about Il Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza is that they were an open-door collective of composers-performers formed in 1964 at their core by founder Franco Evangelisti, Mario Bertoncini, Walter Branchi, John Heineman, Roland Kayn, Egisto Macchi, Ennio Morricone and Ivan Vandor. Also floating through their ranks at various times and dates were Frederic Rzewski (present on several notable recordings), Carmine Pepe, Larry Austin, John Eaton, William O. Smith, Giovanni Piazza, Jesus Villa Rojo, Antonello Neri, Giancarlo Schiaffini, Alessandro Sbordoni and probably a whole bunch more I don't know about. Il Gruppo continued a few years after Evangelisti's death in the 80's but seemingly fell apart with no one willing (or able) to take the reins of the project. Most involved however seem to agree that Il Gruppo's true period of growth and innovation was from 1968 to 1972, so this set is bound to contain some seriously choice cuts.
Disc one consists of three pieces, a 7-minute one called "Kate", a 25-minute one called "Es War Einmal" and an 18-minute one that's simply untitled. The lineup for all the tracks is Bertoncini, Branchi, Evangelisti, Heineman, Macchi and Morricone. I haven't read the booklet cover-to-cover yet but I'm unable to find out where these recordings are taken from. From Evangelisti's archive I'm guessing. All I know is that, like everything here, they've never before been available in any format. Despite the fact that the musicians work with conventional instruments (piano, strings, brass and percussion), they play them in such unconventional ways that it's perpetually difficult to be entirely sure of what you're hearing. Add to that the prevalent use of non-traditional instrumentation (sheet metal on "Kate" for example) and it really is a mixed bag. GINC's sound falls somewhere between Harry Partch's noisemaking inventiveness and AMM and MEV's pioneering electro-acoustic chatter. "Es War Einmal" is pretty sparse for the first half and slowly grows into a frenetic, busied whirlwind of sound from all directions. Dig the percussion seemingly devised from hitting anything within striking distance, or the sound of somebody (Morricone, if I remember what I saw on the DVD correctly) blowing into some kind of reed mouthpiece, or Heineman's strangled horns, or the heavily prepared and abused piano, or the oddly charming birdsong near-solo. The ending sounds almost cartoony, walrus hornwork, skittery percussion and bowed strings colliding playfully in a mini-tornado of improvisational wizardry. "Untitled" takes a similar form only with quite a few more bouts of silence and tends to get downright musical, especially with the crescending horns and strings as the piece nears its conclusion. It's all very active but at the same time somewhat relaxing. Like I just want to put it on and let the sounds bounce all over my body. Like friendly jellyfish with big smiles on their plasmic non-faces.
Disc two features everybody from before plus Ivan Vandor and Roland Kayn, but not everybody appears on all nine tracks. The group functions in trios (according to Evangelisti's "rules" for the group, Il Gruppo could not perform with any less than three members present - no solos or duos) all the way up through septets. Four of these tracks are taken from a 1967 concerto; "Trix 3" and "A5-4" are based more on extended tones and skull-scraping brass drones while "Fili 2" and "A7-2" are quite cacophonious in contrast with the former shadowed by a lurching piano undercurrent and various brushstrokes over top while the latter moves from near free jazz territory into classic horror film soundtrack moments of spooked out gut-wrenching ambience. As for the other numbers, "Fili" loads up on strained string and piano-gut ratcheting before dropping into the static-laced, dimly lit "Concreto" - very reminiscent of AMM and Keith Rowe's work with shortwave radio frequencies. "A5-3" is another example of GINC's noir diggings, aside from a few saxophone squawks near the beginning and the sharp near-sine wave tones of the conclusion it's another brood-fest. "A7" tangles up the best of both worlds, starting off ominously before launching into an outrageous calamity of jazz-inspired activity. The same can be said for the beginning of the CD-closing "Trio", featuring Branchi, Heineman and Vandor, whose horns are put to great effect. The group benefit greatly from the added space as they appear to play cat-and-mouse with the audience, launching a full scale attack on their instruments before receding into the shadows and preparing their next onslaught. This up-and-down style of playing offers no real beginning, middle, or end - perfect on the whole not only to Il Gruppo's sound, but seemingly their philosophy as an entity as well.
The DVD is a 45-minute black-and-white film by Theo Gallehr and depicts Il Gruppo in various candid stages - in interviews, setting up, recording, working with eachother, and performing onstage. The players showcased here include Bertoncini, Branchi, Evangelisti, Heineman, Kayn, Morricone, Vandor and Frederic Rzewski. It's interesting to watch the composers interact and perform spontaneously as it is to see them preparing the piano by tying horsehair around the strings and rubbing the interior with empty plastic bottles and vaccuum cleaner attachments. Italian and English subtitles and provided, but unfortunately these only seem to come into play when a member is being interviewed and are woefully absent when the group is conversing amongst themselves as they set up while the camera rolls. Too bad. In all honesty I probably wouldn't recommend the DVD if it was a standalone purchase, but it's invaluable as part of this set.
As if two CDs and a DVD wasn't enough, Die Schachtel also put together a thick booklet containing some great photos as well as a brief introduction from John Zorn, a biography by Daniela Tortora, an excerpt about Il Gruppo from a 1991 book about Evangelisti, a letter from Walter Branchi to Evangelisti, Macchi and "friends in music and life", and a personal footnote from John Heineman. These appear in both English and Italian. The only thing it seems that hasn't been translated into English for unknown reasons is an enclosed interview with Mario Bertoncini. But if you can read Italian, have at it. And as if all that wasn't enough, the discs come in their own digipak style cases housed inside a lavish, sturdy, cloth-covered box. And there's a poster. Die Schachtel really went all out on this one and their efforts should not go unappreciated - I tip my hat to them not only for unearthing this music and bringing it to the forefront but by making it look so darn good at the same time. I've already heard people pegging this as the release of the year...certainly a contender, but at this point it's a runaway for the best discovery of the year, period end of story.