Franco Evangelisti

[We welcome a young man from Germany, Christian Vogl. Because Christian’s command of English fairly blows our editorial mind, we’ve interfered as little as possible in the way of editing; thus the odd rough spots as earnests of authenticity. We look forward to many more such. Contributions, that is. For now, Evangelisti. Happy discoveries. Ed.]

Christian Vogl

[April 1999. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:5.]

The Berlin music label Edition RZ, with its focus on experimental musical productions with a rather strict and visionary touch, may fairly claim to have released the most important record of the year in the field of composed music: at last we have most of the few works by the Italian post-serialist Franco Evangelisti (1928-1980) on compact disc. We are now in a position to contemplate a release which seems absolutely necessary to any connoisseur of contemporary music. The release appears in an esthetic milieu of postmodernist absence of aesthetical criteria even where one would presuppose some to exist, specifically in the works of New Music’s main exponents, accompanied by an incapability (and unwillingness) to judge any piece of art aesthetically instead of just mentioning its event character.

Evangelisti was a defendant of a rationalistic style of composing all his life, starting from the serialist school with its center in Cologne (Germany) in the fifties which saw its roots in the later works of Anton Webern. As dominating aspects of composition, we then saw an extension of Schoenberg’s dodecaphonic method to other then so-called musical parameters (volume, rhythm, etc.) and a tendency towards ever shorter total duration. Evangelisti did not just assimilate these methods to further repeat them as intact and intact to be kept ones; rather, he continuously aimed at the strict drawing of consequences out of the historical material and its contemporary inner constitution as well as the opening up and running down of some specific alternatives in the musical space, especially the most important one among these alternatives: the indeterminacy of the inner attributes of every new product. The serialists had to be suppress this resistance to systematization. This very alternative was exploited during the fifties and sixties by John Cage, and it was broadly discussed in the late fifties as an endangering of the serialist account, after Cage’s first European concerts, resulting in a handful of trials to encounter the problem of chance. These trials were rather cheap and stupid for the most part (just think of Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI, which consistent in sheets of score to be played without a strict sequence, spontaneously determined by the pianist’s glance directly following the ending note of the foregoing sheet). Unfortunately for the situation of composed music in general, the mid-time consequences were even worse: almost every composer subscribed to the rise of Minimalism and Neue Einfachheit, glad to be free of conceptual ties and to let oneself flow into a (rather crudely conceived) New Subjectivity. Evangelisti did not react with a loosening of conceptual strictness or with dismissing self-criticism, but continued his quest for constructive solutions to the compositional problems, with a stringency paralleled, it seems, only by Gottfried Michael Koenig, the champion of electronic composition, and Jean Barraqué with his life time cycle project after Hermann Broch’s Der Tod des Vergil (Virgil’s Death). In the course of his trials, he created such masterpieces as the string quartet Aleatorio (1959) which posed the problem already in its title.

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But of course even a tough-minded composer like Evangelisti couldn’t find any convincing solution. As a consequence, he decided to stop composing in 1963, shifting his musical activity onto two projects: first he conceived a founding research on the musicological, aesthetical and psycho-acoustical basics, entitled Vom Schweigen zu einer neuen Klangwelt (From Silence to a New Sound Space); this kept Evangelisti occupied the rest of his life and was posthumously published (in German translation) in a fragmentary state. He also founded an improvisation group, the Gruppo di Improvisazione Nuova Consonanza, the first of is kind to consist only of composers (e.g., the well-known Ennio Morricone).

Evangelisti’s step-back was a consequent reaction to his compositional situation in two aspects: as a composer, he had available exactly two possible ways-out of his dilemma between strictness and chance, if there were any at all: he could either withdraw, at least temporarily, from any compositional activity until he had explored the theoretical possibilities of any further composing, or he could refrain from expressing his subjectivity as a composing one, by joining a collective of workers with equal rights and equal weight each, just to see if making music made sense any longer. It marks the seriousness of Evangelisti’s work that he tried out both of these alternatives, and both of them with parallel effort: the first with a scientific rigor, even though his book was a failure which shows almost no trace of any vision of the prospective “new sound space.” The second with an unconventional compositional rigor added to the improvising, resulting in a style which didn’t just produce different improvised pieces, but rather one piece played at different times under different aspects, with the well-known methods of variation and reprise modified for a new context.

With this rigor and consequence, Evangelisti is a major example for what the German music theoreticians Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Rainer Riehn described in their editorial to Vom Schweigen zu einer neuen Klangwelt: “To the ruling consciousness of an era, in which creativity is drooling out of any hole, because, as already appearing to Karl Kraus, ’humanity can’t scoff its fill of its own Last Meal,’ you can hardly explain that the high ranking of a work of art is rather due to the opposite: the self-critical instance in the artist, the filter of negativity which any idea, any eruptive impulse, any construction have to pass during the dialectical process of production, if it is to last, the corroding, self-destructive power of judgement. It is a paradox, and it might be a disaster, that exactly that which alone guarantees the quality and authenticity of aesthetical production, comes out, in its core, against creativity.”

Thus, Evangelisti’s compositional oeuvre is as small as twelve pieces plus seven experimenting and self-testing studies as a young artist (from 1952-53). But what a wealth is opened by these few products: non multa, sed multum. One impression the reader might possibly get from this description I want to wipe off: the impression of academism which rests on the works of the serialists in general, and especially those who didn’t give in to live electronics or stuff like that. Evangelisti’s music is far from academic, rather it’s the opposite with its delicacy of colors and its wide-ranging dynamic tension; it’s full of life as only very few of the contemporary music. The single compositional decisions don’t result in an incoherent series of sound events, but in an entertaining richness of difference and a surprising diversity of acoustical phenomena which in itself justifies the whole rigor by its outer appearance. This is especially evident in the electronic composition Incontro di Fasce Sonore which was created 1957 in the experimental electronic studio at the German broadcast station WDR: if electronic music is filed under ’dry and anti-aesthetical’ by public consciousness and the music market — a prejudice which is fulfilled by very few of the electronic compositions in the fifties and sixties, when these pieces were produced ’with scissors and glue’ (as Konrad Boehmer justly characterized the electronic studio situation), but which is met by many newer electroacoustical music produced with the aid of or totally by computers: the easier electronically composing, the less convincing the electronic compositions — Evangelisti provided an excellent counterexample to such prejudice with this delicately fabricated early work with its deliciously conceived recalling of the polyphonic tradition in instrumental music and the modification of this tradition’s spirit for the new technical means. Indeed any attentive listener, let alone any musicologist analyzing the piece, has to get the impression of a quasi-instrumental use of the electronic sound sources and an almost didactic exercising of a continual and regular overlapping of distinct sound events and periods of silence, which in the course of the musical process is accumulating density and intensity, thus allowing the comparison with a fugue by Bach.

Ten of Evangelisti’s compositions are collected in this 2 CD-set. All of them are represented by recordings that are technically satisfying in all aspects: average to good sound, which is no mean feat, considering the fact that the recordings were made from 1956 up to 1993, and an overall high standard of interpretation with some highlights as David Tudor’s 1957 recording of the piano piece Proiezioni Sonore and the LaSalle Quartet’s performance of the string quartet Aleatorio. I also want to mention in passing the lack of any technical overdrive in all of the excellently remastered historical sound documents. We expect nothing different from a label as serious as Edition RZ. The definitive edition of Evangelisti recordings this 2CD-set becomes with the comprehension of different takes of two important pieces: the string quartet Aleatorio is represented two times, the piano piece Proiezioni Sonore even three times. Thereby, the listener gets a deeper insight into Evangelisti’s composing without having to read the (hardly anywhere available) scores. Specifically, multiple representations make sense without risking redundancy because both of the pieces are aleatoric-chancy to some extent, allowing for different versions.

The set comes with a quite densely written booklet article by Heinz-Klaus Metzger, with nothing new in substance, but at least some comprehensive insights into the spirit of Evangelisti’s composing. This extremely valuable record is definitely a must for anyone interested in modern music. Specifically, I hope that lots of younger music freaks will get a first or second access to modern composing by the rich and rough phenomenal qualities of these recordings, thereby helping to push back MTV culture, one or two inches at least.