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Pietro Grossi - Combinatoria

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Artist: Pietro Grossi

Album: Combinatoria

Label: Die Schachtel

Review date: Jul. 2, 2010

In 2003, the Italian label Die Schachtel debuted its high-end vinyl editions with one of the first widely available collections of Pietro Grossi’s work and thought. Ironically, that deluxe release (an LP box set with exhaustive liner notes), while a microcosm of Die Schachtel’s future aesthetic and mission, could be said to have slightly misrepresented his work. Grossi had a collective view of his music and ideas, and saw the notion of single creator as a limiting one, so any album putting him at the center of attention doesn’t seem entirely right. Combinatoria, a two-disc set further documenting the Italian electronic music pioneer, comes closer to his rigorous but broad-minded and forward-looking vision. It gives concrete form to his collectivist stance, and even allows listeners to put their own stamp on the music.

Grossi was a concert cellist by training, but an interest in electronics, especially early computers, led him to establish one of the first electronic music studios in Europe, the Studio di fonologia musicale, at the Florence Conservatory, where he worked as a teacher. One imagines that a pillar of academia, collaboration, appealed to Grossi, as he foresaw in technology a chance for a truly open-ended music that could be continually developed and never owned.

The first CD of this set testifies to this spirit — and the time itself — by presenting nine pieces, only two of which bear Grossi’s name alone. These two are studies in hypnotic bell-like tones that overlap and phase, an early example of what these days gets pegged as a drone. Some of it even resembles the microscopic events of granular synthesis found on the likes of the Raster-Noton label. The rest of the works were either realized as part of his electronic composition class at the Florence Conservatory, or by other composers and engineers using the resources of the studio and the class. Two pieces weren’t even composed by Grossi or created at the Studio di fonologia musicale, as Die Schachtel saw fit to include works by Italian electronic studios contemporary to Grossi’s own workshop.

It feels like a mishmash at first, but upon listening to the second disc, Combinatoria starts to feel less like historical odds-and-ends and more living. The 22 pieces on the disc were selected by Die Schachtel from different periods of Grossi’s life and, according to some permutational ideas of Grossi’s, arranged into what they call a mega-rondo. The listener, however, is encouraged to use the shuffle function of their CD player, apparently as a minor way of usurping any authorial control. What you shuffle, then, is a mix of more brief, austere studies in phasing, gossamer tones created with various early software applications and, oddly, interpretations of J.S. Bach’s Art of the Fugue. The contrast can be bracing and enlightening at times, but when the Bach pieces appear, it can be hard to shake the impression that what you’re hearing amounts to little more than early computer music kitsch. The knottier, more baroque paths of Grossi’s “Combinatoria” and “Monodia” pieces are more substantial, as they mix the older, mathematical precision of the Bach pieces with the more intangible data-crunching of computer apps.

As usual with Die Schachtel the packaging is top-notch, archival quality, as is the vision. It’s a shame, then, that they couldn’t have paid the same attention to detail with the notes. These are riddled with grammatical errors and awkward translations, both of which slightly obscure the concept behind the release. But poor editing and kitsch elements aside, the core of Combinatoria comes through: Grossi’s ideas get disseminated further, and the chance that they will be developed — or at least remembered — survives, making this, in true Grossi spirit, a collective work that stretches over geographical and temporal limits.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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