Black Truffle is pleased to announce Symphony No. 107 –The Bard, a previously unheard archival recording of the legendary improvising ensemble MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva), captured in concert at Bard College, New York in 2012. Formed by a group of American expat composers in Rome in 1966, the MEV ensemble played an important role in the development of free improvisation, bridging the live electronics tradition begun by Cage and Tudor and the high-energy squall of free jazz. Early recordings like Spacecraft or The Sound Pool unleash volleys of metal and glass amplified with contact microphones, howling winds, primitive synthesizer bleep and raucous audience participation, the intensity of which puts much later ‘noise’ to shame. In later decades, the ensemble would go through many iterations, often including legendary free players like Steve Lacy and George Lewis. In its final years, MEV settled into the core trio of founding members heard here: Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, and Richard Teitelbaum, using piano, electronics, and small instruments.
Curran, Rzewski, and Teitelbaum were life-long friends blessed, as Curran says, with ‘incompatible personalities’: major figures in the post-Cagean experimental tradition, they explored countless divergent and even contradictory paths as composers and performers, from agitprop songs to brainwave-controlled synthesis. MEV is the sound of these three personalities coming together, their contributions radically individual yet attaining a state of ‘fundamental unity’ that Rzewski, in a text written in the collective’s earliest years, defined as the ‘final goal of improvisation’. Of course, listeners familiar with aspect of the trio’s individual works might hazard some guesses about who is doing what: the crisp piano figures are probably Rzewski’s, the cut-up hip-hop samples most likely Curran’s, the sliding, squelching synth possibly Teitelbaum’s. But often these identities are dissolved in a constantly shifting hall of mirrors, the listener unable to tell which of these pianos is live and which is a sample of a past virtuoso, or whether a horn blast derives from ethnographic documentation or Curran cutting loose on Shofar. The two side-long sets here occupy a similar terrain of constantly shifting texture and instrumentation, unexpected interruptions, and moments of sudden beauty. The first set is sparser, at times almost ominous, as a bell repeatedly sounds across wheezing harmonica, seasick orchestral textures, and creaking wood, making room for episodes of yodelling and delicate prepared piano before exploding into a storm of buzzing synth and piano fragments. The second set is more frenetic, moving rapidly across centuries and continents: cars crash into post-serial piano pointillism, wailing voices collide with chopped and screwed hip-hop samples, Hollywood strings are buried under layers of electronic gurgles. The performance slows in its final moments, making way for a sampled voice repeating the phrase ‘protest and the good of the world’, reminding us that MEV’s idea of freedom was always more than musical. Symphony No. 107 –The Bard is a beautifully recorded example of the endlessly multi-layered later MEV sound, accompanied by new liner notes by Alvin Curran (now the only surviving member of the group) and a selection of previously unseen photographs from across the many decades of the group’s activity. Arriving in an elegant sleeve bearing a beautiful photograph by Francis Zhou of the Olin Hall at Bard College where the concert was recorded, this is an essential document from a major group in the history of experimental music. As Rzewski wrote, this music is ‘like life, unpredictable, sometimes making sense, mostly not’.