The weird sounds inextricably embedded in Ennio Morricone's giallo scores had to come from somewhere, and this 2-CD set provides full-length improv samples where the esteemed composer discovered and refined some of the bizarre trumpet and string instrument sounds he used to evoke schizophrenic atmospheres, follow a buxom babe in serious distress, or underscore a killer indulging in some foreplay before a razor blade was flipped open to spill a rivulet of fresh blood.
Morricone's interest in experimental concepts and idiomatic fusions were readily evident even in his early spaghetti western scores, yet the giallo genre offered a perfect venue to indulge in sounds far too extreme for then-popular sex comedies, spy spoofs, or even most westerns, which themselves required a melodic theme to please hit-hungry producers ever-wanting to recapture the success of soundtrack albums such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
The Guppo di improvvisazione nuova consonanza (or Gruppo, to keep it simple here) was conceived in 1964 as a collective for composer-performers to interact and create works in organized blocks of free-form improvisation, using traditional instruments such as trumpets, trombone, piano, cello, and double bass, and inspired uses of bamboo tubing, and various objects like empty bottles and brushes taped, scrapped, and dragged across de-tuned piano strings.
Begun by Franco Evangelisti, the Roman phase of Gruppo was later joined by Ennio Morricone, and from 1967-69, the two composers, alongside Mario Bertoncini, Walter Branchi, John Heineman, Egisto Macchi, Roland Kayn, Ivan Vandor, and Frederic Rzewski, practiced, performed, and recorded some material that was also played for a live audience at the Gallery of Modern Art in Rome on March 20th, 1967.
This 2-CD set includes music from those recorded sessions, and Theo Gellehr's 47 min. documentary, Nuova Consonanza Komponisten improvisieren im Kollektiv, on a bonus DVD (coded Region 2, and in PAL) which documents the concert, the rehearsals, and includes Q&A sound-bites with most of the composer-performers, as interviewed by a documentary unit from Germany's NDR station (Norddeutscher Rundfunk).
How whacked-out is the music?
Well, it depends on what you, as an open-minded listener, enjoy. Fans of experimental music will probably recognize sounds that have since become somewhat standard today – particularly in the scoring of horror films – but multiple listens of the sometimes abrasive tracks (the string and bamboo screeching is particularly sinus-clearing in “Es War Einmal” on Disc 1) demonstrate some of the order maestro and ringleader Evangelisti actually imposed on the creation of each work: there are clear transitions from screeching strings to twittering bird whistles and chirps in “Es War Einmal,” and the bird sounds shift from lighthearted to frenzied cacophony, augmented by crow-like cackles, sharp twittering, percussive taps, and distant, almost metallic woodwind mimicry.
The whole movement is then underscored by a return to string scraping, sustained dissonance, and bird sounds that have morphed into wailing noises, joined by several string instruments played sul ponticello. It isn't quite filmic (though “Untitled” on Disc 1 and most of the cues on Disc 2 have some strong dramatic textural transitions), but there's a soothing quality to the sounds because the musicians shift from distinct textures, timbres, and cacophony – like sputtering brass mouthpieces (seen in the doc, with Morricone looking like a regressive adult member of some demonic children's kazoo ensemble in need of a good nap), and interplay between clanging gongs, cymbals, and clashing metal sounds with clipped reverberations.
Just as engaging is “Fili 2 (prove concerto '67)” (Disc 2) which, during its 11 mins., plays like a man desperately hanging onto a giant guitar neck, sliding from one end to another as the instrument, centered on a mountain tip, is buffeted by a breeze, and is set to topple down a chasm at any moment.
The first 2 tracks on Disc 1 are in stereo, and track 3 plus all tracks on Disc 2 are in flat mono – a bit of a disappointment, since the stereo image captures the interplay between musicians as they switch instruments and sometimes move around each other (as in the doc, where Evangelisti signals a colleague to come closer with his trombone and drone into the open piano).
The set also comes with a fat booklet, containing an intro by John Zorn, a Gruppo profile by Daniela Tortora (excerpted from the author's profile of the Gruppo, and originally published in Italian), excerpts from Evangelisti's own memoirs, a tribute by Walter Branchi (the source of these recordings), and final notes by John Heineman – the latter 3 printed in Italian and English.
As to which order works best is up to you: those familiar with Morricone's weird brass and string effects will find the music as a kind of audio quarry from where the composer ran with an idea and beat it to near-oblivion before taking the sounds most unique and weaving them into his giallo music. And seen after a listen of either or both CDs, the documentary acts as a visual glimpse into how some sounds were created, how the musicians interacted, and the utter seriousness Evangelisti maintained during the recordings.
Director Theo Gallehr intercuts preparations filmed before the concert, the recording sessions, the concert itself, and several interviews, and he effectively illustrates some of the aesthetic discussions by intercutting performance footage and separate interviews with the composers.
(Some are seated at an exterior roundtable and converse in fluent German, while some corner interviews have more sparse comments by composers in French, English, and Italian. All dialogue and the director's German narration are subtitled in optional Italian and English captions that are ridiculously small, but legible on a big TV.)
Though Morricone is seen only during the opening concert footage (amusingly punctuated by some walkouts) and briefly in some rehearsal and recording session footage (he's never interviewed), one does get a strong sense of each musician's character, which often seems to rebel against Evangelisti's humorless demeanor.
(Early onto the doc, Evangelisti is seen unzipping a small bag, and like a man examining his lunchbox, he meticulously places oddball objects onto specific areas on the piano strings. Just as amusing are a handful of composers shown pulling loose bow strings through the piano wires. Amid other scenes of improvisation is one silent figure, seen in the background; silent bored, and possibly half-asleep.
Assumingly unintentional, there's also an odd bit of humorous irony during the live concert: the musicians are clearly flanked by thin photo panels of buildings and other moderne images, including what seems to contain a famous snapshot of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater – a building that epitomizes the retentive architect's calm yet ordered theoretical and aesthetic philosophy, and is the antithesis of what the wacky group are in the process of performing.)
When both CDs are played in one sitting, one catches strong similarities between cues, and that's mostly due to the use of the same collection of instruments and objects, and one has to wonder whether each period of the Gruppo involved a reshuffling not only of composer-performers, but of instruments and locales to ensure the music didn't settle into a predictable collection of now-familiar improvised sounds.
Die Schachtel's boxed set comes with a small foldout poster, and the graphic design on the CD covers and DVD menu is a first-rate evocation of late-sixties pop art, using spiraling strings interconnected by various strands.
Only qualms: no discography, website links, nor further info on where the composers later exploited their Gruppo work in more individual pieces. What's also needed is further details on why Morricone joined the group, what his own contributions were during his association, and what specific scores were later influenced by his experimentation within the Gruppo.
(A good example is Morricone's dynamic prog-jazz fusion score for Enzo Castellari's Cold Eyes of Fear / Gli occhi freddi della paura, which used the Gruppo's jazz performers to craft a terrifying, super-cool soundtrack, although the liner notes for that CD are also sparse on the relationship between the Gruppo and Morricone, and how the score was designed, realized, and applied to Castellari's thriller. Traces of jazz elements are present in the cue “A7” on Disc 2 of this set, with bass, organ, brass, and chordal surges redolent of the more refined Cold Eyes score.)
Not exactly party music, but genuinely fascinating concepts that demonstrate the rich sounds achieved when composer-performers are forced to use their skills and create free-flowing sonic textures as influenced by their personal style, idiosyncrasies, and professional discipline.
Additional work from the group's studio output is also available from Cometa's 2012 CD Eroina [M] , which features 12 previously unreleased cues from 1971.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan