Most fans of the genre formerly known as electro-acoustic improvisation are fond of investigating source materials like early AMM and others. One of the key documents of early, non-jazz related (and, indeed, non-idiomatic) improvisation is Gruppo d’Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza’s marvelous Editions RZ recording. On those performances you enter a lively, generative, often enchanted soundworld equally defined by Pierre Schaeffer, Musica Elettronica Viva and similar experimentalists. As is well known, the band’s formation in the mid-1960s was heavily influenced by Nono and Scelsi, and the RZ recording featured compositions exclusively.
Forget all of that when listening to Niente. While this 1971 recording features many of the same musicians — Franco Evangelisti, Daniele Paris, Egisto Machi, and perhaps the key voice in trumpeter Ennio Morricone — it’s music of an altogether different sort, marrying inconsistently diverting pulse-based materials with a constrained sonic experimentalism. Long seen as a sequel of sorts to The Feed-back, Niente is certainly not Il Gruppo’s first extended exploration of pulse. But it’s hard not to hear this as some odd amalgam of krautrock on the Morricone soundtrack music much later celebrated by John Zorn and others.
That may sound like heaven itself, but while I enjoy both of those musics I couldn’t get into this record. On the one hand it’s because the grooves themselves are stiff and overly labored, continually reminding me of the same musical loss as Albert Ayler’s groove tracks like “Drudgery.” But on the other hand, it’s because the details in the music aren’t served too well on these brief tracks (and admittedly, this is a soundtrack). The cranking metallic innenklavier or guitar, the swooping winds, the groaning brass drones, a lot of Il Gruppo’s specific textural elements seem to have been preserved. But the thinly funky clatter seems to squeeze all color and effectiveness out of them. As a sonic experience, it’s quite nice, with interesting, often head-scrambling separation of channels and all of that good stuff. But I don’t find it very compelling for the most part, as the improvisation often sounds cluttered (even in more or less open pieces like “Renitenza”) and the grooves just not too deep.
For bird-watchers, you can hear a lot of the elements here (march time and spooky billowing horns) that Morricone would use in his own soundtrack work (which often featured the Gruppo itself). And it’s not that the music is without merit. The understated prepared piano, plinking guitar and didgeridoo sounds of “Padrone Delle Ferriere” work fairly well, as do the simple brass squeaks and boogaloo of “Con Moto” or the high lonesome feel of “Bali.” And the nicest effect on Niente is the welling of dark, tension-filled sounds within or below the radiant, often obvious basic materials. But too much of the album sounds tentative, impressionistic and undeveloped.