so you wanna get into... gruppo di improvvisazione nuova consonanza

"We are working to find a listening method, but it is really more of a cybernetic action-retro-action system, like a listening feedback." - Franco Evangelisti

(photo by roberto masotti via wikipedia)

welcome to issue #12 of “tusk is better than rumours,” a newsletter featuring primers and album rankings of experimental and ‘outsider’ musicians. artist primers are published every other monday, and on off-weeks i publish a variety of articles ranging from label and genre primers to interviews to guest writers.

this issue is a guide to the great italian improvisation group gruppo di improvvisazione nuova consonanza, which means something like “improvisation group for new consonance.” if you’re looking to get into some really far-out improvisational music, and i’m talking way out there, like you can’t even see ornette coleman in the rearview anymore, then this the place to start.

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gruppo di improvvisazione nuova consonanza bravely broke the mold of three-letter ‘60s improv groups, showing nme, mev, and amm that you can have an unnecessarily long name and still be successful. that said, i don’t want to type their long-ass name out all the time so i’ll stick to “il gruppo” or “the group” here. il gruppo is now mostly known as “that weird band ennio morricone was in before he became a famous soundtrack composer.” but during their tenure the most important member by far was franco evangelisti, a composer who grew tired of the division between composer + performer and decided to create a group of composer/performers who would compose spontaneously.

this is important—“compose spontaneously.” il gruppo represents a different strain of improvisation than that which grew out of jazz. evangelisti’s background was academic, and he thought that the 12-tone serialism that informed his education had played itself out. to evangelisti, this type of tone-based combinatrics was a dead end and had to be superseded by other categories like timbre. at a fateful meeting in 1964 with nme’s larry austin he had an epiphany: austin’s group’s improvisatory ethic could help him out of the impasse that he had encountered in the bourgeois world of academic composition. so he enlisted other composers to help him explore the possibilities of spontaneous composition, including morricone, roland kayn, mario bertoncini, john heineman, ivan vandor, and frederic rzewski, all accomplished in their own right before they joined the group. aside from this main set, others came and went throughout the band’s career. the goal was an open group of revolving membership who would collaboratively compose pieces in real time by responding to each other’s cues and miscues. with their combined knowledge of composition, they would not only improvise, but adapt, correct, and build upon one another’s input to create complete, discrete works. together they would answer questions like

  • can a form of listening be studied/taught that allows for musical development to naturally occur among a group of individuals who are simultaneously making their own sounds?

  • is “improvisation” as such even possible if your choices are always informed by a set of innate assumptions about tone + structure that you’ve inherited from centuries of western music?

  • can turtleneck sweaters ever look cool?

all three questions would remain unanswered. of course the goal was also political, as evangelisti was a socialist who wanted to destroy or at least disturb the traditional hierarchy of composer/conductor/performer. in his group, everyone would have their say, and everyone would be listened to (er, except for women—in a great scene in the documentary linked below ivan vandor says rightly that “it is a real pity that there are no women playing with us”). the group didn’t always meet this goal, as evangelisti himself was sometimes a controlling force. a paradox emerged in which evangelisti became the de facto leader of an explicitly egalitarian group, which caused tension in the band. in david toop’s great book Into the Maelstrom, rzewski describes evangelisti as “an oddball,” “not always easy to talk to,” who “thought of himself as an unrecognized genius” and became “suspicious of his friends” (189). not a great look for a collectivist.

there is a shape to il gruppo’s career. they started with noisy experimentalism, in which the acoustic properties of instruments as objects were explored, and then moved toward more traditional percussion-led “jam session” improvisations, and then ended back again at the noisier experiments. the first arc occurs from their beginnings in 1964 through 1969. then the more melodic (and pleasant) albums were produced in the early 1970s. finally, their last albums in 1975-76 mark a return to their original interests. evangelisti died in 1980, and although the group continued in various iterations its driving force was gone. however, in recent years there has been a renewed interest in the group, marked by a series of archival releases on labels like die schachtel and the roundtable.

below i’ve divided il gruppo’s output into three categories. i’ve rather cheekily collected their more traditionally melodic music under the heading “consonanza” and the noisier stuff under “dissonanza.” then, i’ve highlighted a couple of morricone’s soundtracks for which he enlisted the help of his il gruppo friends.

Consonanza

i think i’ll lose some cred here among improv and noise freaks but i do like a melody now and then. for me, the greatest period for il gruppo was the early ‘70s, when they combined their experimentalism with influences from krautrock and psychedelic rock. this run of albums is where you should start if you’re less interested in experiments with timbre and such:

  1. The Feed-back (1970): this is the greatest of their albums (fight me), although it’s the least unique in some ways. one could mistake it for an instrumental can record, which i mean as the highest praise. each track is driven by vincenzo restuccia’s drums, the Secret Weapon of this era. but listen closely and you can hear that this is all built upon the results of their more experimental period: scrapings of piano strings, horn blasts strangulated into odd shapes, coughing and throat-clearing are all high in the mix. original vinyl of this album has become extremely collectible, though it has since been re-issued as well.

  2. Niente (1971, released 2012): this is supposedly the follow-up or even “sequel” to The Feed-back, recorded quickly afterward but for unknown reasons never released until 2012. unlike The Feed-back, which features three long jams, Niente has sixteen tracks that average about two minutes apiece. this means more variety but less groove: as soon as you get into the mindset of the frenetic “hei!” you’re tossed into the laid-back chill of “sieben.” you can pick out moments here that eclipse moments on its “prequel,” but ultimately this is the lesser album.

  3. Self-Titled (1973): annoyingly there are three self-titled il gruppo albums. this one from 1973 begins to reverse the trajectory established by the other albums in this category, anticipating the return to more free-form experimentalism that they’ll explore in their last two albums. but for a brief and glorious moment (actually 25 minutes) you can ride the wave between the two styles on “macroforma,” one of their longest and most interesting tracks. it begins normally enough with string scratchings and horn blortings but builds into a dramatic 5-minute denouement of uneasy horrorshow atmosphere.

  4. Eroina (1971, released 2011): alright so the rather cringy idea behind this album was to record a series of tracks that aurally recreate the experience of being on certain drugs. the album is great by itself— “haschich” and “metedrina” are a couple of my favorite tracks in the group’s oeuvre—but it is simply not a good conceit. and the album artwork doesn’t do one bit to help. yikes. buy it and listen to it but maybe never explain what it is to anybody.

Dissonanza

i personally dig this set less than those above but they are, to be fair, the more important group of recordings. in the second half of the 1960s il gruppo made their name with their first self-titled album along with their second, Improvisationen. they returned to this sound in the late ‘70s after the great run of albums starting with The Feed-back. here, the focus is less on melody or structure and more on exploring the sounds that instruments can make—all the sounds an instrument can make. expressing frustration with the constraints placed upon classically-trained performers, evangelisti wanted to eliminate the distinction between “object” and “instrument,” leading to such things as pianos being played with household items and solos consisting of chairs scraping on concrete.

  1. Self-Titled (also released as The Private Sea of Dreams) (1966): start at the beginning. the improvisations here explore the potentials of the instruments featured and thus expand the vocabulary of the players (future players as well; you can draw a line from these experiments and somebody like colin stetson’s manipulation of the saxophone-as-metal). at the end of “improvvisazione per otto,” for example, saxophones, trumpets, and trombones honk and screech at each other like birds in a bar fight. the quieter “string quartet” is no less disturbing with its ominous scrapings. “cantata” is a piece for manipulated voice in which decontextualized syllables, poppings, purrings, growls, and grunts come together to create the vivid sensation of being trapped in a nightmare jungle. in some ways this approach was nothing new—playing the strings inside the piano instead of the keys had certainly been done before the mid-60s—but this album lays the groundwork for the group’s future works by testing the boundaries of their communal territory.

  2. Azioni/Reazioni (67-69, released 2017): for a long time the years between the debut and the second album Improvisationen were a blank, but in 2006 the archival set Azioni was released, and then followed up in 2017 with the massive set Azioni/Reazioni. after the 1966 album you should go here just for the sheer amount of material: 3.5 hours of insane improvisations. one notable thing about this set is the sense of space throughout. from the very quiet beginning and ending of “concreto 1” to the subdued hums of “a7” to the rustlings and tinklings of “improvvisazione 1,” you get the sense that the group is moving beyond the sheer novelty of sound-making exhibited on their first album and purposefully using a dynamic range of volumes to create tension within their compositions.

  3. Improvisationen (1969): this is the Bridge: the first two tracks here are pure ‘60s gruppo, but the final three tracks say goodbye to their first era and usher in their second. the almost ambient “light music,” followed by the playful horn workout of “ancora un trio,” then the radio-static-driven “credo” hint at a new direction for the group. with the hindsight that the Azioni set gives us, this album is less of a surprise, but fans at the time must have encountered this one with some confusion.

  4. Musica su Schemi (1976): this is the better of the two late albums recorded after the band returned to their early exploratory mode. its first three tracks fit comfortably into that paradigm, but i want to highlight the fourth and final track “omaggio a giacinto scelsi,” an homage to the great italian composer and poet. this track veers close to drone, with long foreboding low notes held until panicked and piercing horns cut in. after the frenzy of horns, the low notes slowly quiet into silence. a fitting piece to honor scelsi, and a fitting end to the band’s career—although they didn’t know it at the time, this would be the final album produced with the original members and evangelisti at the head.

  5. Self-Titled (aka Nuova Consonanza) (1975): by 1975 the group moved away from the relatively structured grooves of their mid-career output and again began to explore long, formless meditations on pure sound. this set of songs is quieter than their late ‘60s output, and for that reason is less of a shock to a new listener. but by 1975 there was nothing terribly exciting here either: it could be said that this is more thoughtful music, but at the same time it could be accused of simply being tame.

Soundtracks

during the mid-late ‘60s, at the same time as il gruppo was gaining international prominence, ennio morricone was making a name for himself as a soundtrack composer. sometimes he would call the boys in for a session. i want to briefly highlight two examples of morricone soundtracks that feature il gruppo: the thrillers Un tranquillo posto di campagna (1968) and Gli occhi freddi della paura (1971). i prefer the music of the latter myself, as it has a noirish jazz vibe that works well even without the visuals of the film. Un tranquillo posto’s soundtrack is a stranger bird that works better as a compliment to the movie. but you’re in luck! because in the…

Quarantine Quorner

i’ve got a few videos, including that very film, to tide you over the rest of the week:

the insane ‘60s Italian psychosexual thriller Un Tranquillo Posto di Campagna (A Quiet Place in the Country), for which il gruppo did the soundtrack, is available in full on youtube with sort of cringey overdubbed english (but it gets more tolerable the more you watch). may be of interest to cinephiles or fans of odd cinema.

theo gallehr directed this 45-minute documentary on il gruppo. the dates i’ve seen place the documentary at 1967, though much it must have been shot much earlier because the interviewers make mention of the fact that no recordings of the band are yet available.

demdike stare were invited to re-work recordings by il gruppo and perform the new piece in front of the surviving members for the 53rd “festival nuova consonanza.” an intimidating assignment, but they pulled it off. they selected clips from the il gruppo archive and edited them together with plenty of murky demdike stare fx to create this collage, released in 2018:

alright folks that’s it for this week, come ‘round next week for more exciting Content.