Concert review:

Musica Elettronica Viva 
Frederic Rzewski(piano) , Alvin Curran(piano and sampler), Richard Teitelbaum (electronic keyboards), George Lewis (trombone and live electronics).
Mills College, Oakland, California 
February 12, 1994

MEV is something of an irregular institution, a band that has come together intermittently through the years, carrying on work in their own peculiar style of live acoustic/electronic improvisation. The group was formed in the late sixties by Rzewski, Teitelbaum and Curran who were all living in Rome at the time. Over the years the group has had a shifting composition around a core of the original three, but has recently settled to include George Lewis(trombone and electronics). Garrett List(trombone) and Steve Lacy(saxophone) are also members of the group who still live in Europe, and did not participate in this concert. 

The musical performance was one continuous improvisation lasting for nearly an hour. An unforseen circumstance enhanced the air of improvisation: Titelbaum was snowed in in upstate New York and was unable to attend, so at the last minute a modem link was made between his keyboard synthesizer in New York and an identical one on the stage. So Titlelbaum was present in an eerie invisible way, the keyboard sitting center stage before an empty chair. 

There is a tension whenever live electronics and acoustic playing are mixed.  Live instruments only sound when an intentional effort is made to play them: electronic instruments may go on and on whether anyone is paying attention or not. Through much of the hour this type of floating electronic texture provided a ground or medium for the more sharply defined acoustic playing. Curran however uses the sampler in an altogether different role, difficult to characterize: a wide range of unrelated samples of voices, breaking glass, animal sounds, crying babies, followed one another in a speech-like rhythm, forming an almost discursive commentary,  but a commentary freed from the burden of meaning anything.  This "voice" worked well with the angular lines issuing from Lewis's synthesizer, controlled by his computer program which has been learning for years how to play with these guys. 

There were times when the electronics just seemed to obscure the intensity and clarity of the live playing: in fact, to my ear, some of the most beautiful moments of the concert were not electronic at all, when Curran and Rzewski played piano with Lewis' trombone. But any music, and especially this music, is not just about "Great Moments":  this work somehow takes place on a larger field, in which pre-formed, half-formed, un-formed, and mal-formed elements all have a place, and the great range of textures and musical materials reflects an inclusive and tolerant philosophy.  Rzewski: 

The group's work over the years resembles a pot-au-feu, a kind of collective stew which every so often is partially consumed and renewed, but never stops bubbling.
MEV has embodied and carried forward several of the main avant-garde currents that arose in the sixties: an interest in using cheap, home-built electronics in the context of live performance;  improvisation as an extension to written composition,  and an emphasis on the collective and spontaneous aspect of music making. While the means are no longer rough homebuilt electronics -- MIDI has hit MEV as it has many others -- these newer tools are handled in an almost naive and spontaneous way. As Curran says in his hallucinatory "program noats:" 
Like our students' work, a good part of what we do is made in a local Trailways Workstation, but in stark contrast to theirs, we still cook ours on a can of sterno out back.
 The ease and freedom with which these friends were able to explore was a joy to hear: the music came in and out of focus, as improvisation will do -- but there was always a sense of comfort and collective communication. Not comfort in the sense of complacency, but in the sense of confidence: players who were familiar with and supportive of each other, a support which gave them each the freedom to explore, individually and collectively, whatever arose.