Edith and Susan among a million antiwar demonstrators in Rome, February 2003



In nearly every epoch and society, music is used as one of the most effective and pacific ways to achieve social cohesion. The language of music is the language of everybody. So by reducing many of music's stimulating styles and traditional differences to few quintessential gestures - loud/soft, short/long, high/low, slow/fast - I believe that one can effectively remove most of the barriers which make "music-making" such a specialized art and at the same time make it accessible to anyone, anywhere. If we redefine MUSIC as the sharing and moving of air (in the same rooms or across continents via satellite) for a commonly agreed goal and pleasurable end, then it is through this very sharing and moving common air, that the unifying powers of sound can, in fact, become the instant domain of everyone.

A consistent and substantial part of my music in the last 10 years has been dedicated to the utopian dream of making spontaneous music with large groups of people. This is, in my view, a way of music-making which transcends specific histories, styles, trends, forms, contents, social origins, and traditions. Implicitly, it demands that the players listen to one another with extra-sensibility and be prepared to embrace silence at any moment and to release hold on one's own ego. It also encourages "supralinguistic" understanding leading people through peaceful means to peaceful ends. Because collective improvisation only lives in the moment of its making, it knowingly risks the depths of abysmal banality as well as the rewards of sublime poetry. But whatever the outcome, the very effort of collectively moving air through space - as in the American Indian peace-pipe ceremony - is a special act of human trust, and as such speaks for itself.

As people, then, are a natural source of music for me, so is nearly every perceptible vibration in nature. My music, therefore, has also been freely inspired by the infinite harmonies, melodies, and rhythms of naturally occuring sounds, which I integrate almost always into my compositions and improvisations. The medium of RADIO offers vast possibilities to a composer: to create and combine sounds in places far beyond the confines of a single concert-hall. One can literally compose with the land, air and sea - uniting sounds from great distances and from totally diverse geographies. My task here is to compose a vast soundscape using all of these elements "al fresco" (live) via satellite radio broadcast, where the medium is not only the message, but a metaphor for human peace.


One of the most essential conditions for music making anywhere and at any time past or present assumes that the performers gather and play in a single designated place, enabling them thereby to adequately see and hear one another, their leaders, and any accompanying events such as dance, circus, rituals, etc. In "1985 A PIECE FOR PEACE" this essential condition is not only transgressed but totally reversed. For the performance (first given on January 1, 1985 at 20:00 GMT) required that nearly 300 musicians, divided into 3 equal groups and located in 3 European cities (Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and Venice) perform with one another simultaneously for 50 minutes without seeing or hearing anyone except the members of their own groups. This would be in no way noteworthy were it not for the fact that all three concerts were linked via radio lines and the combined resultant mix broadcast as a single simultaneous stereo radio concert.

Before the widespread of electricity, jungle drums, runners, horsemen, conch shells, alpenhorns, fires, smoke, and tapping on prison walls were some of the primary means used by man to send messages over great distances. But with the advent of radio, what is very distant can be brought near, and what is near sent far, the past brought into the present and the present into the future all in an imperceptible instant. Radio is the predominant magic of our time - for not only does it make messages from anywhere on the planet available at any moment anywhere else on that planet, but it also confers on the human ear the capability of vision.

Music is above all a human activity which tends to bring people (performers and public) together, unify them in a concerted and harmonious way, and at times even transport them outside of themselves. In such physical circumstances as required by "1985" I felt it was only the persuasive power of radio's magic which could convince so many people to join together, as it were, with blind-faith only, in a single unified performance. Needless to say, the dedicated producers Han Reiziger of VPRO Hilversum, Ernst-Albrecht Stiebler of HR Frankfurt, and Pasquale Santoli and Pinotto Fava of the RAI in Rome could well foresee the technical and musical feasibility of my proposal. But the young musicians really had to stretch their imaginations to be able to "feel" their full participation and to understand their function in this musical event -- it was an exceptional case of human trust on everyone's part.

From my earliest experiences with collective improvisation and environmental sound some 20 years ago, the concepts of human trust and geographical scale have become an increasingly important part of my musical thinking. These ideas are explored fully in various ways in recent works such as in the "DOCKS" where 25 ships horns are performed in a harbor over an area which can cover up to 16 square km. Here the players, in semi-physical and acoustical isolation, must develop a special performance attitude and concentration. In a different way - in Maritime Rites: the Eastern Seaboard - a number of leading contemporary American performers (Cage, Oliveros, Braxton, Amacher, Goldstein,etc.) allow me to recombine specially made recordings of their own musics with my own, which are made from recordings of the principal fog horns on the U.S. Eastern seaboard. But "1985 A PIECE FOR PEACE" is certainly the most far reaching work to date both technically and conceptually in which I explore human trust and large scale geography together.

The music itself is composed as three separate but interdependent concerts whose resulting product can be thought of as a kind of polyphonic motet "a tre voci." The performances take place in three churches (freely open to the public) in three countries with nearly equal groups in each country consisting of: a large mixed chorus, a large wind ensemble (brass band), 2 electric guitars, one accordian, a solo improvising musician, a speaker and prerecorded tapes of local sounds (Amsterdam canals and Zoo, Frankfurt church bells, children in Rome, Grand Canal in Venice, etc.). In each country a mobile recording crew produced a live stereo mix and this was sent to the mixing center at the HR in Frankfurt from whence a final stereo mix was made and broadcast live to the respective participating countries. The music was highly coordinated through the use of starting signals and verbal messages transmitted over a communication network which linked the production centers and the directors of the bands and choruses to the main mixing center in Frankfurt.

The musical materials employed are the same for each country but differently composed, thereby producing a continuously shifting polyphony when mixed together. And though much is left to chance on the micro-level, the macro-structure is completely determined at every moment. All of this becomes evident through the slow moving melodies and tonal chorals which, like clouds, move through one another. In contrast, names of the world's major countries are translated into a musical morse-code and played in sharp repeated rhythmic figures by the brass bands. Similarly, a recitation of 138 names of countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe is made by the speakers and scans the whole 50 minutes in varying periodic structures.

But it is the theme of peace - World Peace - which is the predominant one and "raison d'etre" of this work and the one which embraces my forementioned ideas about bringing people together, human trust, and harmony. To celebrate this theme, I have simply taken several Latin-derived words for the word peace (Paz, Pace, Paix, Peace, etc.) and rendered them for chorus in a universal maritime code language. Example, PEACE = Papa, Echo, Alpha, Charlie, Echo. Finally in the closing chorale the famous couplet of the poet William Wordsworth is heard "....Ring out the thousand wars of old/Ring in the thousand years of peace."

Alvin Curran

Nineteen Eighty-Five - A Piece For Peace (1985). A three nation simulcast radio concert held on January 1, 1985 in three churches in Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Venice for 3 choruses, 3 bands, 3 accordions, guitars, speakers and tape, cello, violin and sax soloists, and 3 percussion.

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