Elio Martusciello
Concrete Songs


Reading that a new solo album by Elio Martusciello was about to land inside my mailbox was for me a nice surprise: though I started appreciating Martusciello for his work with the fine quartet called Ossatura, it was only with Unoccupied Areas (released in 2005 - checking its release date now makes me suspect that maybe I've missed a few intermediate chapters, perhaps?) that I was really made aware of his true worth.

That the title of his new album is Concrete Songs was for me quite obvious and totally unexpected at the same time: if the word Concrete immediately made me think of the Musique Concrète "school" that's one of the most important formative influences on the way Martusciello assembles his music, to me the word Songs sounded quite strange and unusual, to say the least, given what I remember of his past work. The CD cover has Mike Cooper and Sabina Meyer (both needing no introduction from me, I think) as the album's vocalists. I had a quick look at the list of musicians featured on the album (it's a very long list), saw the booklet had no lyrics (which I found quite strange, given the fact that this is supposed to be an album of songs), and decided to listen to it immediately.

First album track, Zeit, starts with the strumming of an acoustic guitar, and a vocal melody - by Sabina Meyer - following the chords. An orchestral outburst of strings and sounds, vocals multiply, the whole doesn't sound too different from the soundtrack to a sad, grey, scenery (picture a documentary with shepherds, goats, hills, rocks, in... Greece). Also very reminiscent of a movie soundtrack (end credits, this time) is the track called Inexplicable: a slow arpeggio played on classical guitar, strings (sounding with more than a bit of a Middle-Eastern flavour), a vocal melody - by Mike Cooper - which would be perfect when sung by the bitter nuances of, say, Charles Aznavour. Fine melodic development, a beautiful flute solo (sounds like it's made of wood to me - it's played by Anwar Naik) which reminded me of a shakuachi.

Starting with "backwards" percussion, clarinet, a snare that sounds just like Chris Cutler's (yep: it's him), electric guitar and bass sounding quite funky, plain vocals (by Mike Cooper), Hidden Well appears to occupy a terrain that's mid-way between Marvin Gaye and Material, circa Memory Serves. Black Dog surprised me even more: an arpeggio on an electric guitar, vocals (Mike Cooper again) which reminded me of Peter Blegvad, background vocals "Made in UK", and - the biggest surprise - an electric guitar solo whose "square wave" timbre and linear melody reminded me of Phil Manzanera in 1974! (It's Martusciello - I didn't even know he could play guitar.)

A melody for strings and the start of the vocals on All'infinito reminded me of Haco's Ash In The Rainbow, but in the end the piece sounds personal - though it features, as I learned by reading the cover, "Variations on a theme by Fryderyk Chopin". But here I have to confess I greatly prefer Haco's "drier" approach, this piece sounding a bit too "big" for my liking. Nice vocal performance by Meyer, fine use of trombone (played by Giancarlo Schiaffini), also treated, that - playing opposite to the strings - reminded me of the role played by Marc Charig's cornet on Islands by King Crimson (from the album of the same name). The only real criticism I have when it comes to this piece is that it took its own title a bit too literally, when half its total length (6' 28") could suffice.

Here I decided to stop listening for a bit, and have a look at the booklet.

I started reading the liner notes, but as soon as I found the words "Jacques Derrida" - line three - I immediately jumped to get the braids of garlic I keep for occasions like this (I wear them 'round my neck while reading). Things are not that bad, really - the main exception being the word "photology": Martusciello talks about criteria and actual ways of working embedded in his work. It's apparent that this album was a great effort for him, but it was definitely worth it. I have the feeling Martusciello greatly feared that listeners could miss the fact that these songs had been assembled according to criteria closely linked, entailed, by those that we regard as being typical of Musique Concrète, and a good portion of his liner notes is preoccupied with this and similar matters. But if "the proof of the pudding is in the eating", I have to say that the whole here doesn't sound too different from, say, Strawberry Fields Forever - a song that (even in 1967!) didn't really need any liner notes. The same being true for the lyrics (which in fact are not featured here).

Martusciello warns us that "There is no hierarchical structure in these songs so that all the 'materials' used (including voice and text) are put together and treated the same". I have to confess I don't get why this piece of information could be of any importance for the listener (while I suspect this could be regarded as being very important in the field of Academia, the same being true of two or three little things that are discussed in the liner notes). It goes without saying that this aspect pertains to the compositional side. But when it comes to listening, it's plain obvious that the whole presents a hierarchy (if it's words one fears, one could say "a functional hierarchy, which doesn't entail any value judgment whatsoever"), as it's easily demonstrated by the volume and spatial placement of sounds (in the Western World, where "song" means "this", but not "that").

The album is very well recorded and mixed. I have the impression that the album's "hidden complexity" was more apparent when I turned the volume knob a bit to the right, readers beware.

Vocals by Mike Cooper, to me the instrumental part of The Elephant features some of the album's better moments. Dramatic-sounding orchestra, echoes, reverbs, also treatments that doesn't sound too far from what Eno did in the mid-70s. Featuring classical guitar, a melody that reminded me of 70s U.K., Mike Cooper on vocals, there's the square wave electric guitar à la Phil Manzanera with a pinch of Floyd, a bit of accordion (Luca Venitucci), a cello coda (by Kees de Vrij), Swimming In Space is one of the best pieces here. Think In An Other Light starts with an arpeggio played on electric guitar, a vocal part (by Mike Cooper) that to me is heavily reminiscent of John Greaves, "fake strings", slide guitar, piano, vibraphone (Stefano Tedesco), some minimalist-sounding bits in the background.

The giant canvas of We Have To Learn To Live In This Hybrid Space pairs an "orchestral cha-cha-cha" to a dissonant orchestra (à la Sun Ra?); this is maybe the album's most layered episode. Featuring Sabina Meyer on multiple vocals, Vanishing Point sounds like a sort of follow-up to News From Babel, the accordion (by Aurora Dessi) reminding me a bit of Zeena Parkins, with the accordion's treatment (by Mr. Martusciello himself) reminding me of Biota. Fine timbral coupling of bass clarinet (Gene Coleman) and strings. Again, we hear a melody with a "Middle-Eastern" flavour.

Harsh vocals (by Mike Cooper) and acoustic guitars for the album's closing track, That Are Raising Dingy Shades. To me it sounds a bit like a "proletarian hymn" (in fact, it reminded me of Phil Minton).

Concrete Songs is a fine album, which in a perfect world could sell quite a bit and give its author the chance to do many quality things for the "audience at large". Should this happen, I hope Martusciello won't be ashamed.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2011

CloudsandClocks.net | Jan. 13, 2011