Il Deserto, Pittura Contemporanea / Pittura Moderna N1 & N2, Africa Minima
The work of the late Italian composer Egisto Macchi has seen a veritable and welcome renaissance in the past few years with many of his long out of print albums being reissued on labels such as The Roundtable, Cinedelic and Sonor Music Editions.
Macchi was born in 1928 in Grosseto, Tuscany, but grew up in Rome where he studied medicine before undertaking a degree in literature and philology. Between 1945-‘53 he took violin and singing classes under E. Guarnieri, and the Polish baritone Anton Gronen-Kubitzki respectively and studied piano with Roman Vlad and composition under Hermann Scherchen, but is still considered to be largely self-taught.
Macchi is probably best known as one of the funding members of the Associazione Nuova Consonanza which he formed in 1959 together with Mario Bertoncini, Mauro Bortolotti, Antonio De Blasio, Franco Evangelisti, Domenico Guaccero, and Daniele Paris. Even though the Association was comprised of a largely heterogeneous ensemble of composers, all its members attended the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music (Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik) and shared a common outlook on experimentation, if different musical ideals. This accounts for Macchi’s early leanings in Serialism, with works such as 2 Pezzi, for string quartet (1954), and 4 Espressioni, for chamber orchestra, (1956), although he was quick to abandon this particular line of practice in order to adopt a more personal and freer style. The collective employed different techniques, from musique concrète, to early electronic music, and aleatory (controlled chance) methods, with the use of chess, for instance, to define key parameters of their music.
The association eventually gave birth in 1964 to the Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, counting Ennio Morricone, amongst its core representatives. The fundamental aim of GINC was the renewal of music in Italy, which was seen as calcified and considered an urgent matter not to be postponed. Furthermore, it strived for joint action in the dissemination of contemporary music while liberating itself from the pressure of the capitalist world without resorting to anarchism, contrary to what has been frequently alleged. By doing so, the group also endeavored to bridge the two distinct lines of music improvisation popular at the time, both in the States and Europe, which fell equally within the jazz camp and its cerebral counterpart of avant-garde classical music. The intention was to initiate an open dialogue with the public.
The seminal album The Feed-back from 1970 is a case in point with its programmatic title, that didn’t limit itself to the sound effect it championed, but aimed at integrating the audience within a circular flow of ideas that encouraged the adoption of a “new and more courageous path within the field of beat music”. On this specific album, Egisto Macchi was in charge of percussions alongside Ennio Morricone on trumpet, Walter Branchi on bass, Enzo Restuccia on drums, Bruno Battisti D’Amario on guitar, Mario Bertoncini on percussions and piano, and John Heineman on trombone and violin.
The intentions of the group are further spelt out in the liner notes, compiled by Franco Evangelisti, whose hope was for the public to “be able to recognize how this group has already abandoned the current musical forms, such as those proposed by psychedelic music and the timid attempts of the underground, with something more realistic and closer in spirit to our age, and which we might call ‘UPPERGROUND’”.
It is useful to bear in mind this context, when considering Egisto Macchi’s parallel career as a film composer. Aside from being an eclectic and engaged musician, who counted Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg, Béla Bartók, and Giacomo Puccini as his main influences, Egisto Macchi also scored many notable soundtracks, for award winning films such as Padre Padrone (Father and Master, 1977) and Mr Klein (1975) and provided music for over 1,000 documentaries and TV shows.
Macchi was also close to the world of visual arts. Back in the 50s he initiated a collaboration with the Venetian painter Emilio Vedova, possibly by virtue of his friendship with Luigi Nono, on the sadly unrealised Crocifissione contemporanea.
Thanks to the stellar effort of the Italian label Cinedelic, we can now appreciate his musical commentaries to modern and contemporary painting collected on Pittura Contemporanea and the previously unreleased Pittura Moderna N1 & N2. The albums cover both different artistic movements from to Pop Art to Impressionism, as well as individual artists such as Chagall, Mondrian, Kandinsky and Lucio Fontana, amongst others.
The first album, Pittura Contemporanea, is where his legacy to Schönberg is most apparent. It takes no hostages and eschews any possible literal interpretation of its subjects. Macchi never aims to be illustrative or to mimic the style of the painters depicted. Rather, he opts for a lateral reading opening up spacious environments in which the sounds are given free reign to explore contingent concepts and ideas. The tone is often meditative and rarefied in its approach, as on Alberto Burri, an artist who was otherwise primarily concerned with the notion of materiality in his work.
Jannis Kounellis marries minimalism with Lino Capra Vaccina’s percussive ritualistic approach, whereas Fontana is wonderfully cryptic and reminiscent of a Galina Ustvolskaya piano sonata with its persistent hammering. The variety at play throughout the whole album is intoxicating.
Pittura Moderna N1 & N2, by contrast, are more reminiscent of some of his more accessible and evocative work such as Città Notte (1972). The music becomes less abstract and elusive. Chagall, for instance, is highly narrative in its intention. Different moods unfold with calibrated tempo as plot denouements. On some tracks, the atmosphere changes abruptly. As soon as Macchi sets a specific tone he undermines it by introducing extraneous elements. Picasso, the longest track, amongst the whole collection, launches into pure ebullient Nino Rota territory before withdrawing into introspective mode with a plaintive melody eventually joined by languid piano notes suddenly high-jacked by discordant violin lines. The progression is seldom linear preferring to draw an ever-changing musical landscape. At other times, Macchi is more distilled and univocal in his purpose.
Tracks like Naturalismo, demonstrates how effectively he could pull the emotional strings with laconic simplicity, just by repeating the same melody on different instruments, piano, flute and trumpet. This, however, is always done with the lightest of touch.
With Mondrian and Kandinsky, Egisto Macchi reverts to contrasting tones of curved and angled piano lines, descending vertically into the structure of the instrument itself, in order to explore sonic extensions, forms and colours.
When not slipping into autopilot, as with the lounge jazz slabs of Pop Art 1a and 2a, Pittura Contemporanea / Pittura Moderna N1 & N2 reaches the creative heights of Sei Composizioni (Six Compositions – 1975, reissued in 2013), which contains the chilling masterpiece Kleines Dachauer Requiem. It also gives probably the best well-rounded introduction to the film and library music work of Egisto Macchi currently available.
If the previously discussed works are all about fluency, contrasts, and variety, Il Deserto is a masterclass in logic and unity. In re-releasing the album, Cinedelic went back to the original master tapes and uncovered the full version of the tracks. Fittingly, Il Deserto is a sparse work, foreboding and disquieting at times. It is not as far removed as Pittura Contemporanea, as it might initially seem, with the track Suoni Per Un Rito (Sounds For A Ritual) being almost a paired down version of Alberto Burri. The overall mood, though, is quite different. It is full of hypnotic rumblings that gain momentum but remain hanging in limbo clearing the scene for layers of hissing tones to weave intricate patterns, sporadically ruffled by the sound of distant trumpets. Egisto Macchi conjures up an intense atmosphere pregnant with menace, reminiscent of the novel The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati, where the protagonist Drogo spends his life in a remote army outpost in the desert in patient vigil for a war that never comes. Il Deserto is an intimidating work with looped voices arising as an acoustic Fata Morgana on La Notte nel Deserto (Night in the Desert), and the abrasive whistling of Ghibli (as the Sirocco is known in Libya), echoing as a mermaid song. However, at no point does it become frightening as Egisto Macchi, never goes for cheap thrills or startling effects preferring to draw ritualistic meditations and haunting dronescapes that are more languorous than sinister. The carefully balanced whispered sounds carry an all-embracing humanism that is both alluring and questioning and has the resonance of an immense and never-ending chant. Ultimately, Il Deserto is a majestic and timeless album that, to me, speaks of the vastness of space and our place in it.
Compared to Il Deserto and Pittura Contemporanea / Pittura Moderna N1 & N2, Africa Minima is a rather different beast, a sort of “divertissment”, which is not just engaging but also sparkling with ideas.
It is amusing, if misleading to listen to Africa Minima back to back with Riz Ortolani’s Mondo Cane and Cannibal Holocaust, both notorious albums in the same exotica category one might mistakenly place Africa Minima in. However, whereas Ortolani’s work is all emphatic sonic gestures, and over the top melodic statements, (the theme tune from Mondo Cane actually won him a Grammy as well as an Academy Award nomination), Macchi opts for a more focused and concise approach.
More relevant is certainly the comparison with the work of another celebrated Italian film composer Piero Umiliani (1926–2001), probably best known via the Muppets for the single Mah Nà Mah Nà, vocalized by Alessandro Alessandroni, also responsible for that whistling on Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. In fact, Umiliani also composed two “African” albums in the 70s, the melodious Continente Nero (1975) and the more experimental Africa (which came out under the moniker M. Zalla).
Umiliani used a broader palette than Macchi, with drums, electric guitars, alto flutes, organ pedals, cymbals, vibraphones, marimbas, kalimbas, and even ouds thrown into a richly woven tapestry of sound, but the two composers shared a similar affinity for introducing ambient counterpoints into an unrelenting rhythmic structure that is not necessarily carried by melody at all times.
In Africa Minima, Egisto Macchi elects the piano as the main driving force. It provides the album’s backbone with the percussions somersaulting over it and alternatively shifting or reinforcing the mood with a contrasting or aligned cadence.
The frequently employed danger evoking intros, peppered with dark drums, as in the track Avvoltoi (Vultures), for instance, hint at the suspenseful arc of his poliziottesco (thriller) soundtrack to the TV series Nucleo Centrale Investigativo (1974 – rereleased 2015) despoiled of any narrative intention, whereas the intermittent languorous melodic lines, parsimoniously distributed throughout the album, on Gli Esploratori (The Explorers) or La Casa Dei Bianchi (The White People’s House), never allow for any genre cliché to emerge and only leave an elusive and short-lived afterglow of soothing warmth that is quickly dissipated by the sustained percussive pulse of Africa Minima.
Egisto Macchi never provides an obvious musical commentary and throws in enough surprising twists and turns in what could’ve turned out to be a forgettable interlude in the career of a lesser skilled film composer.
These are all highly recommended re-releases, that studiously avoid the sugar rush of many recently rediscovered vintage soundtracks and library music albums in order to deliver a more nourishing musical experience that is both equally entertaining and challenging as well as inspiring.
Il Deserto is available in a limited edition velvet cover LP and as a digital download.
Pittura Contemporanea / Pittura Moderna N1 & N2 is released by Cinedelic as a superb triple colour vinyl edition in a canvas case complete with a paintbrush and as a triple CD boxset combined with Il Deserto.