Musica Ellectronic Viva - "Spacecraft 1967-1990"

From Aural Innovations #18 (January 2002)

MEV is a renowned group of world-class improvisers, who come out of the context of Academic Avante-Garde Electronic music. Rather than pursue the approaches common to that Avante-Garde (Serialism, Minimalism etc) in terms of composition and performance, MEV took great inspiration from the work of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra, and set about incorporating the work of those innovators into their music, which marked them as true musical radicals within the Western Classical tradition!

MEV was based in Rome during the 1960s, and at the outset began to experiment with including Electronic Music techniques and instruments in their improvisations. Former Piano student Richard Teitelbaum became beguiled with Robert Moog's new instrument, and was one of the first performers to use the Moog Synthesizer in performance. Composition student (and Fulbright scholar) Fredrick Rzewski began to explore the world of contact miking, amplifying the sounds made from a large thick glass plate being hit with Mallets, drumsticks and bits of metal, and a number of large springs of various shapes and sizes. Allan Bryant, who was originally an organist specializing in Bach, experimented with rewiring cheap transistorized organs, while award-winning Trumpeter Alvin Curran began to involve himself in using "found" and "little" instruments. Prize winning Saxophonist Ivan Vandor also joined (he was replaced in 1970 by AACM Saxophonist Anthony Braxton!).

They composed "SpaceCraft" in 1967, and toured throughout Europe that year, often meeting and including Free improvisers from the Jazz Tradition into their performances (I've heard rumors that some of these included Trombonist Clifford Thorton, Altoists Joe Harriott and Noah Howard, and Trumpeter Don Cherry!), and gained lots of notoriety by expressing a radical Marxist-Leninist perspective in both their compositional concepts and public statements! "SpaceCraft" was issued on LP in 1968, (appearing on it with UK Improvisers AMM) issued by Main Stream Records and considered a very Rare LP!

MEV split into 3 factions in 1969; Patrice & Ivan Coquette joined in 1968, and called themselves MEV in order to score a record deal with BYG. Allan Bryant moved back to Rome with Trombonist Franco Evangelista, and has released two CDs (1997, 1999) documenting his version of MEV, which functioned 1968-1970. Rzewski, Curran and Teitelbaum returned to the US in 1969, and with Saxophonists Anthony Braxton and Steve Lacy, toured the US for two years until Rzewski became involved with the Weather Underground/Black Liberation Army, who engaged in radical anti-state activism until repressed by the government during the post-Vietnam era of the late 70s!

The version of "SpaceCraft" that appears here was recorded in Hanover Germany during the '67 tour, and is much thicker sonically than the version released by MainStream, with great crashes and sproings emanating from Rzewski's springs and glassplate, sub-audio rumbles from Teitelbaum's Synthesizer, the banshee wail of Vandor's Saxophone and the clarion call of Curran's trumpet. The skill, familiarity and restraint of these musicians help make the music flexible and fascinating, holding the listener's attention for the entire duration of the track, which at 40 minutes is still too short!

The rest of the CD is filled out with "United Patchwork Theory", recorded in 1990 in Zurich during the 1989-1990 tours. For this one, Rzewski returns to the piano, and the band itself is augmented by Trombonist Garrett List, and saxophone Colossus Steve Lacy! Lacy, whose work on Soprano Saxophone inspired the great John Coltrane to experiment with the straight horn, fits right in and proves himself as a master improviser, adding a melodic approach to the music. Both Teitelbaum and Curran use analog and computer-based synthesizers and samplers to bring the voice of technology in alongside the more traditional instruments.

Having witnessed 3 sets by this version of MEV (At Symphony Space, and 2 sets at the Knitting Factory here in NYC), I can attest to the high degree of musical maturation and cohesion the group exemplifies, and their abilities are unsurpassed as instrumentalists. All the participants have followed many different courses and developed very individual methods with regard to creating challenging music, but strangely much of it has not been issued or made available on CD! In particularly, Rzewski's more political works (like "Holding Together", a piece dedicated to the victims of State terror murdered during the Attica prison uprising in 1971) have not been reissued. As well, the excellent MEV double LP (issued in 1977 by Horo Records, Italy), and the original MainStream recording have yet to appear.

Alan Bryant has attempted to shed light on his version of MEV, releasing two CDs from the 67-68 period over the last 2 years; both are quite fine, although one must wade through Bryant's liner notes (written in Esperanto, a language based upon the concept of developing a truly "international" language), and recently Curran has reissued his 1974 Solo LP, which I highly recommend!

Teitelbaum has been most prolific, and has many solo and group recordings available. His best work (to my ears) has been the numerous LPs recorded with AACM Saxophonist/Theorist Anthony Braxton, and AACM Trombonist George Lewis, whose own works display very strong influence of MEV!

Steve Lacy has recorded 100s of releases, many solo, some featuring his groups, most of which include the highly capable Steve Potts on Alto Saxophone. Lacy, who has played music from Monk to Punk, is a musician so formidable that it seems he has never made a poor recording! All Saxophonists should study his versions of Monk's tunes, as he will take most woodwind players to school!

MEV is a group that has a strong appeal for "SpaceRock" fans, and musicians in that genre could learn lots about the integration of Electronics and improvisation from the band's works, and should be a must for all seeking to move beyond the genre's preoccupation with copying the sounds of Hawkwind, the Ozrics or Pink Floyd!

Reviewed by Doug Walker

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