Encroachments, from canvas to sand
A writing by Romina Baldoni
For the exhibition on Egisto Macchi, Espressionismo sociale, on view until 23 October 2022 in the CHAMBER MUSIC section, the following is an essay written by Romina Baldoni, published in 2016 in the bimonthly magazine Quaderni di altri tempi. The article traces back through Macchi’s activity, especially in relation to the phenomenon of library music.
ENCROACHMENTS, FROM CANVAS TO SAND
Egisto Macchi (Grosseto, 4 August 1928 – Montpellier, 8 August 1992) lived an existence in the spirit of vastness.
Tracing back through his life and work, an apparent contrast often emerges between his will never to give up on expressive demands open to the widest inclusivity, hence capable of touching on and incorporating different sensibilities, and – at the same time – his desire to always keep the level of communication as high as possible in its quality, forming a musical awareness sensitive to new dimensions. This restlessness, this apparent sense of conflict that reveals his complex personality and human torment, is actually the arduous coherency of a man who pursues grand ideals and strives to reveal the necessity of bringing together, in a system of communicating vessels, what is often kept strictly separate due to presumption or dullness. He embodied openness, the need to draw on different sources to be able to grasp different intuitions; the importance of conscious contamination, but one that is also enriched by the lessons of the past. Macchi explored, perused, experimented, and at the same time he always made all of his research converge towards his unshakeable certainties of moral and civil commitment, never overlooking the mediatic and hermeneutic function of the musical event. He always composed in the awareness that music, and art in general, have to be able to create a contact of sensitivity, to establish a symbiosis between he who creates and he who experiences, without ever stepping or holding back from one’s own expressive potentialities.
In Macchi, everything was always driven by awareness of the increasingly urgent necessity to adapt the language and syntax of sound to new modes of its experience in an evolving society.
His fields of investigation were multidisciplinary, his engagement humanistic, medical, , sociological, and in many ways music was the connecting link, the litmus test. It is not be chance that he never kept his imagination and his flair apart from the aim of containing, inside, always, a syncretic philosophical narrative association, a story images and symbols with deeply, intrinsically anthropological overtones. During the course of a very short time span, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was able to set in motion a series of initiatives that would write the history of contemporary music, in spite of the fact that he always operated on more secluded circuits, apparently less in the spotlight of the chronicles of his time, and in spite of the long series of difficulties he encountered along is professional path. In 1959, with Antonino Titone, Franco Evangelisti and Domenico Guaccero, he published the first issue – unfortunately the last due to the sudden death of the Roman publisher De Luca – of the magazine Ordini: studi sulla nuova musica. In Rome in 1962, with the same loyal friends Guaccero and Evangelisti, and with Daniele Paris, Mario Bertoncini, Mauro Bortolotti and Antonio De Blasio, he helped to create the music association Nuova Consonanza, producing a festival of lectures, concerts and seminars under the same name. In Palermo, from 1960, he began a cycle of six concerts under the name of Settimane Internazionali di Nuova Musica. In 1967 he founded the studio R7, a workshop of electronic music, followed in 1984 by I.R.TE.M. (Studio di ricerca per il teatro musicale). He was also part and leader on several occasions of the Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, which began in 1964.
Recently Cinedelic Records, a label founded in 2001 by Marco D’Ubaldo, has published a series of limited-edition reissues of various recordings by Macchi made for Ayna Records, the label of Aldo Bruzzichelli. Ayna was created by the Florentine entrepreneur Bruzzichelli in the early 1960s, and continued its operation until the end of the 1980s. It was initially directed by the composer Arrigo Benvenuti, demonstrating a lively interest in an entire repertory of contemporary music (Girolamo Arrigo, Sylvano Bussotti, Antonino Titone, Pietro Grossi and Ruggero Lolini). Cinedelic released two recordings in LP format in 2015: Nucleo Centrale Investigativo and Il Deserto. Later (in January-February 2016) the label issued a triple vinyl album titled Pittura Contemporanea, Pittura Moderna 1 e 2 and a boxed set of 3 CDs containing the series Pittura + Il Deserto. Apart from the situations that led Ayna, in 1974-76, to publish – within a series devoted to library music – the four works that became practically impossible to find in the original version, what we would like to reconstruction in this investigation is the genesis of these compositions and their contextual place in the biography and the existential turning points of the composer from Grosseto. The lack of liner notes inside the box, undoubtedly the consequence of an ambiguous, even slapdash or haphazard superficiality that across the late 1960s and much of the 1970s led many record companies to share more specific niche-oriented information on the basis of the fashions of the moment, salvaging “lost” recordings in disorderly and sundry reissues, mostly relying on the formula of the compilation, does not help us to place these compositions in time. Macchi’s discography, in this sense, was one of the most penalized, through the paradoxical focus on his experimental divertissements rather than his more intensive works, those that had somehow created the most heated clashes and discussions in academic circles, triggering to some extent a decisive inversion of direction in the paradigms of the avant-garde and contemporary music. This series on painting clearly takes us back somehow to the compositions for orchestra, to certain tenacities that are the abilities and prerogatives of the master composer. The study of dynamics, spatial effects, metre, variations. This certainly makes it easier to explain, in some ways, his decisive change of direction, that process of breaking up of the series that was to open the way for new expressive languages. In the Macchi Archive, donated in 2014 to Fondazione Giorgio Cini in Venice, there is a dossier titled “Modern and Contemporary Art” where Macchi, writing with a pen on the folder containing the manuscripts, indicates “reg. 9/7/76”. It is a document that presents part of the titles of Pittura Contemporanea (Ayna EML24 S) and Pittura Moderna in a different order.
The exact list is as follows: Mobiles, Chagall, Duo (n. 1, n. 2, n. 3), Siderale, Grafismo, Picasso, Dinamismo, Impressionismo, Mondrian, Espressionismo Pragmatico, Arte Cinetica, Il Sonno, Glaciale, Tappeto di suoni, Inciso (n. 1, n. 2, n. 3), Aggressività, Rigidità, Corpi Immoti, Tema, Pittura Geometrica, Uomo sull’asfalto (1 e 2), Violenza (changed into Arte Meccanica), Jannis Kounellis, Dilatazione, Lucio Fontana.
In some of these titles the name Andreassi is noted down in ink. Raffaele Andreassi was a journalist and director who in the late 1950s and early 1960s worked with Egisto Macchi on a sizeable number of soundtracks of documentaries for the RAI.
Other titles: Pop art, Post-Impressionismo, Espressionismo sociale, Neoromanticismo, Surrealismo, Arte Sociale, Naturalismo, are found in the archives, but individually, and they bear no dates other than an equally enlightening stamp: Edizioni Musicali Rete. Something that still leads back, then, to the early 1960s.
The issue of dating does not seem to be equally important for Il Deserto, a work that can be safely attributed to a later period, after the early 1970s, and bears tangible witness to a fulfilled confidence in terms of intentions and techniques, ready to be fully ascribed to time of complete maturity.
Let’s take a closer look at Pittura Moderna 1 e 2.
In the book published by CIMS (Centro per le Iniziative Musicali in Sicilia) Archivio: Musiche del XX Secolo, a single volume that offers a detailed and complete monograph entirely devoted to Egisto Macchi, at note 48 on page 32 we can read the following specification:
“The first contract signed by Egisto Macchi for the composition of a soundtrack dates back to 21 January 1958: the work, assigned to him by Gianni Hecht Lucari, managing director of Documento Film of Rome, had to do with a documentary made during that year by Palma Bucarelli, titled I maestri della pittura moderna”. (A copy of said contract is conserved in the private archive identified as AM1 in the monograph and corresponding to the dwelling of Miriam Di Tommaso, and it can also be found in the correspondence between Macchi and Antonino Titone, in a letter dated 4 February 1961, car. MT 52 of the Centro di Documentazione della Musica Contemporanea in Palermo, CDMC).
It seems to be impossible, however, to prove with any certainty a kinship between this work and Pittura Moderna. The collaboration with Palma Bucarelli, nevertheless, was to continue throughout the 1960s. In 1967 the Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, for the performances of the festival, would make use of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna. Bucarelli became an honorary member of the association.
The 17 pieces in the work are clearly in line with respect for the tradition, faithful to the dictates of the great fathers of 20th-century expressionism. We can glimpse the vitalistic furore of the composer in an extremely meticulous use of rhythm, carefully favouring slow, ponderous movements, often investigating repetition and a very well-balanced use of micro-variations of the intervals. Certain prophetic intuitions can be perceived in pieces like Dinamismo and Arte Sociale that skilfully alternate obsessive constructions that culminate in almost unreal, impossible serenities. There is canonical use of serial material, but centrifugal thrusts can been detected, certain irregular shifts, a modus componendi that already reveals a tendency towards control of the expansive function, redirecting a new expressivity, a need to communicate the unconscious, the visionary which already (in totally latent form) foreshadows the subversive impact of his language. Impressionismo and Post-Impressionismo are slow, diluted stratifications, steeped in melancholy. The instruments do not group together, but individually trace totally different dynamic trajectories. From the almost industrial blows of Arte Sociale to the apnoeic voids of Picasso. The score is forcefully descriptive, the metre and its variations are used to prompt a growing sense of disquiet and emotional disturbance. In Grafismo the notes are tersely articulated, the vibrations like breaches of the atmosphere, disruptive outbursts that translate the creative energy, the movement of “resistance” belonging to the artist who shapes and forges his work. Each monologue seems to arise from an oppressive static blanket. The intuition, the idea, the existential torment that urges human nature to grant release to inner emotions. The Dionysiac elegies of heartrending beauty of Naturalismo and Surrealismo lead to the vaguely jazzy contaminations of Pop Art.
Coming to Pittura Contemporanea, here we can see a certain breakaway from serial compositional modules. The elements of rhythm and melody are no longer the central focus, while everything is based on intensities, timbral and spatial mobilities rather than extension over time. New factors come into play that are the result of the debates that enlivened European cultural and intellectual circles starting in the 1970s, marking a historical turning point in the formal idea of music. The experience of the Darmstadt Ferienkurse turned out, in part, to be an attempt to bring about innovation with the pretentiousness of erasing the entire precious path of research. This presumption was to implode against the conceptual limits of the ideas to be taken forward, and on a certain slipshod amateurism of many fanatical exponents of the new at all costs. The resurgence of the international-revolutionary-avant-gardist sewer forced the most farsighted and sensitive musicians to responsibly ask themselves about what path should be taken. The magazine Ordini: studi sulla nuova musica was created precisely with the aim of outlining an agreed-upon direction in which to move. The task was to open up a constructive debate, to get beyond the extremism of inconclusiveness (the radicalism of the serial technique or the orthodoxy of the tradition and dogmas), to trace clear, honest lines that would open concrete perspectives for the music of the future. The Rome-Palermo axis, established through a great number of initiatives of the group of comrades that would form a new driving nucleus in the field of new music, was to “shift contemporary musical life,” said Domenico Guaccero, “toward another centre that was not the usual one of Northern Italy” (various authors, 1984). Along this troubled path, however, there were difficulties and obstacles in relation to the cultural establishment and the bureaucratic organisms in charge of channels of distribution. At the same time, though, thanks above all to the quality of the experience in Palermo (it is important to emphasize that the Institute of History of Music in Palermo was helmed by the authoritative Luigi Rognoni, a true supporter of the educational function of music), Macchi became fully aware of the importance of the visual score, of composition through figures, more important than composing by degrees, through processes of progressive addition and construction. Pittura Contemporanea embodies this maturity and this firm decision to definitively acknowledge and adopt precisely the narrative element. For this turning point, his increasingly intense activity in the field of applied music becomes crucial. Many of the most innovative solutions can be experienced with greater freedom in this area. There is the definitive irruption of his writing in the principle of contamination. Pittura Contemporanea takes on that enormous, erupting impact that is the set of visual, poetic, theatrical and improvisational languages. Not by chance, it is dedicated to some extent to several of the exponents of the art avant-garde who in the early 1960s populated the gallery of Bruno and Fabio Sargentini, L’attico on Piazza di Spagna, who came into contact with Macchi precisely through the composer from Palermo Antonino Titone, who was in turn a great lover of art and painting. Art and theatre brought out the urgent need to find new trajectories for the interpretation of new contemporary realities. The magazine Ordini somehow marks the start of a stylistic breakthrough by then considered indispensable. The early 1960s were years of great changes and unstoppable creative fervour. Bruzzichelli promised economic support for the many cultural and promotional initiatives undertaken. Perhaps, following this offered support, Macchi would rediscover several precious scores which he then decided to record (letter to Antonino Titone dated 8 March 1960, carMT44). Perhaps. Also starting from 1960, in Florence the publisher sustained the association of Pietro Grossi, Vita Musicale Contemporanea, open until 1967 to welcome the latest avant-garde trends into the concert season. But to truly take stock of exactly what happened in those years, we can try to outline some key passages. The Gruppo Universitario per la Nuova Musica (GUNM) of Palermo, the first academic institution to promote the new languages, set the objective of the spread and involvement of activities of concerts, cultural initiatives and debates. The definitive acceptance and legitimation of random and aleatory tendencies (dispersion and fragmentation) would have the purpose of bridging the gap between the attitude of the artist and that of the society. In 1963 the magazine Collage. Dialoghi di Cultura began publication, an international review of new music and contemporary visual arts, headed by Paolo Emilio Carapezza and Antonino Titone. Mario Diacono addressed the field of visual arts. Also in 1963, Macchi’s opera Anno Domini was staged in Palermo. This became the start of a collaboration Diacono-Macchi that would lead to the composition A(lter) A(ction). It was undoubtedly the most important theatrical composition for Macchi’s achievement of artistic and aesthetic maturity, freely inspired by the letters of Antonin Artaud written from the madhouse of Rodez. There is also a significant break with the academic tradition and an openly provocative challenge put forward in the work from 1964: Morte all’orecchio di Van Gogh.
In the fifth iteration of the Settimane per la Nuova Musica in Palermo, 1965, Mario Diacono curated the set-up of the exhibition Revort 1. Documenti d’arte oggettiva in Europa, which contained works by Barni, Ceroli, Chow, Furnival, Gaul, Green, Hodicke, Lombardo, Leng, Pino Pascali, Polke, Richter, Tacchi, Tilson, Titone, Whitefield. The festival was based on a multidisciplinary model that along with the musical events included the second encounter with the writers of Gruppo ’63, screenings of experimental cinema and theatre performances (see Collage, 1965).
Ceroli, Burri, Pascali, Fontana and Kounellis were exponents of the new current known as Arte Povera. A form of conceptual revolt against tradition, aiming to rehabilitate primordial structures of language and society. In practice, this was also happening in other spheres of expression, which John Cage made a contribution to channel. We should not overlook the fact that precisely the first festival of Nuova Consonanza, held from 27 May to 1 June 1963, contained works by Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luigi Nono, as well as a composition for harpsichord by Guaccero, Improvvisazione, and another by Macchi, Composizione 4, drawing precisely on further investigations of randomness and indeterminate execution in musical action open to gesture, theatrical and semiotic aspects, and narration in images.
Pittura Contemporanea is therefore a crucial point of connection in the path taken by Egisto Macchi. It marks a departure from the first instrumental production moored in rigid serial techniques, and the start of a new oblique, irregular phase in which the composer attempts to bring out the conceptual side, that of language taken back to its essence. In his article “Produzione e consumo della Nuova Musica” published in Ordini, there is one crucial passage:
“The musical work is not identified with the sounds used for its making, nor with their absolute number, I would say, nor with their quality or their arrangement. The sounds are simply a means to extract from silence and bring to light those relationships of tension and relaxation that constitute the dynamic of spiritual life, like colours in painting or words in poetry.”
For Macchi, acceptance of the aleatory principle represents the desire to offer his audience a work with open boundaries, to trigger psychological impact. Painstaking study of intensities for dramatic pathos, dynamic research as pursuit of innermost, hidden sentiments and sensibilities. It is never a mechanical exercise, nor a provocation as an end in itself, but always the will to discover new expressive forms. In Arte Cinetica there is a propulsive threnody that conveys the idea of communicative frenzy. Also in Optical, the classic instruments are used in an absolutely unconventional way. The listening has to be able to evolve into participation, encounter. Fontana plays with mounting tension, suspension, and Burri makes the aesthetic of the painter become palpable and tactile: the alternation of material densities, black holes, tunnels, cracks, burnt portions, sensory crevices. But Jannis Kounellis is the most surprising apex of Macchi’s creativity. A semi-aleatory crescendo that reveals stylistic affinities with In C by Terry Riley. Kounellis was the leading exponent of the artistic evolution directly derived from American Pop Art. Macchi met him in Rome because he was connected with the painters of the Roman school, on which Macchi focused by writing music for various documentaries; Macchi also wanted him to be the set designer for A(lter) A(ction). Starting in 1964, from his house at Via del Babuino 36, shared with Titone, Macchi came into contact with artists of great quality like Mario Diacono, Pino Pascali, Mario Ceroli and Kounellis himself, all presences in Pittura Contemporanea.
Finally, Il Deserto.
The experience in the theatre and cinema definitely left a permanent mark on Macchi’s compositional method. His procedure of musical invention could no longer be separated from ideological links to the aspects of staging. For Macchi, whether in concerts or in the field of applied music, what counted was the quality, the utilization of advanced languages always purposed for the translation of new, abstract aesthetic and linguistic necessities. Technology and electronics were also used for these ends. As was the case for Deserts by Edgard Varèse, the manifest intention at this point was to smash the idiomatic continuity based on a pre-set order. The mechanism of overlaying and opposition brought out an intelligence of sounds connected with instinct, intuition, a natural order. The maieutic art of making music was gradually replaced by a form of psycho-ergo-therapy. It was realized that precisely the rigidity of certain dogmatic approaches made a range of intentions accessible only to sector professionals. The procedure in sumptuous sonic frescos gradually helped to retake possession of that expressivity which had supposedly been sacrificed, precisely due to the fear that contact with a wider audience could have influenced it. Il Deserto is a composition of rare, heartrending beauty; the common denominator seems to be balance, the perfect gauging of quantity. Effects, amplifications and cut-ups are used to introduce us to an evocative and forcefully atmospheric emotional narrative. The intervals and the calibrations grant voice to silence, tracing a vividly cinematic tensional and participatory montage. Everything is there inside it. The ancestral recollection of natural sounds, ethnomusicology, tribalism and cybernetics, the evocative and timbral suggestion of vocal elements. The sounds depict scenarios and genuine scenographic figurations. We are captivated by these multicoloured auras produced with multiple techniques. The atypical hums of the wind instruments that spread psychedelic vapours like vaguely lysergic mirages, the percussive, disquieting gait, the utterly irregular and unpredictable rhythmical shaping. The titles are precisely explicative of all the situations into which we are plunged. The movement of the Cammelli amidst the dunes, Tuareg rituals, Le genti del Deserto (The People of the Desert) and Suoni per un Rito (Sounds for a Ritual), the implacable gusts of desert wind, Ghibli. But what fills this work with enchantment and refinement to the greatest degree is the intensity with which it opens up and manages to wordlessly communicate a series of feelings, of moods; lyricism and drama that narrate the vivacity and depth of this great composer in the most vivid colours. He left behind a moral legacy, a lesson of life and ethical integrity, which remains intact throughout his whole repertory. It was his need to exert himself and to put himself into constant interaction and audition of his surroundings and of his generational reality, already to some extent, and in spite of itself, projected into the multiple, the inter-medial. This was what Macchi had understood, too early for him to be understood in turn. After this series of precious reissues on the part of Cinedelic, the hope is that the rest of Egisto Macchi’s repertory will finally meet with the reassessment and widespread attention it deserves. In all of its vast multidisciplinary essence. Granting a place for an important facet of our history, which can also provide new stimuli and challenges for the future.
* Thanks for very professional courtesy and expertise: Lamberto Macchi, Patrizia Sbordoni of the association Nuova Consonanza, Marco D’Ubaldo of Cinedelic, Angela Carone of Fondazione Cini in Venice, and Marco Cosci (An).
ROMINA BALDONI was born in Montefalco (PG) on 1 June 1970. She has a background in the humanities, with a degree in Political Science from the La Sapienza University of Rome, after which she specialized in Community Law at the European College of Parma. She is an auditor in the department of Patristic Philosophy at the Università Pontificia Gregoriana with Prof. Flannery and a collaborator in the department of Ecclesiastical Law with Prof. Sergio Lariccia. For over twenty years she has worked as a librarian and in the press office at USMI – Unione delle Superiore Maggiori d’Italia, and she is currently registered at the Scuola Vaticana di Biblioteconomia dell’Apostolica Vaticana. She is a contributor of in-depth writings and research in magazines like Consacrazione e Servizio, Quaderni di Diritto Ecclesiastico, Concilium, and magazines of art, music and culture such as Distorsioni, Krill, Minima&Moralia, Quaderni d’altri Tempi and OndaRock.