ROME — My first professional gig was during World War II, accompanying my father, who played in the trombone section of the Providence, R.I., Local 198 Union big band. On Sundays we would go to the Majestic, a shabby vaudeville theater in Pawtucket, where the show was jugglers, hypnotists, magicians, saw players, and spoons players followed by filmed war news and a feature film. My job, sitting 5-year-old-proud in this amazing brass army, was to hand my father his mutes and new sheets of music and fantasize myself sliding the slide and emptying the spit valve just like him.
Nights, after Lone-Ranger-Green-Hornet radio, I’d lie in bed and listen to the kabooms of nearby trains being coupled and the symphonic ship and fog horns in the port of Providence – cornerstone inscriptions of my later harmony and melody books.
My Uncle Chick inaugurated the family’s first record player. We gathered in awe to hear a killer Spike Jones 78 — the “Beetlebaum” side did us in, everybody rolling on the floor in whooping laughter trying to keep down Grandma’s kasha knishes. …Aunt Adele, they said, pulled out her cornet once a year on the 4th of July and played “Oh say can you see” from her tenement porch in Worcester, Mass. My mother Pearl accompanied silent movies on the piano in Central Falls and my father had the best tenor voice this side of the Jordan River; my brother, sister and I all studied piano with Mr. and Mrs. Einstein, who taught the “Odessa” technique. God only knew where Odessa was. This was 1940s musical America.
My first real concert was “Cielito Lindo” (”Ayyyyy, Ayyy, Ay, Ayyyyy!”) on trombone, in junior high. After practicing this piece for a solid two months and rehearsing with our music teacher Miss McVay, I came out and bombed on the first note. Miss McVay played the piano intro, and then I, as if possessed, started to play the piece in the wrong key. We stopped, checked my tuning, everything O.K., started again and I was still playing in B-flat, exactly one whole step lower than the C it was written in.
Panic locked me into continuing my polytonal shambles of “Celito Lindo” to catcalls from the audience. But then like out of nowhere it all became right. Miss McVay, a great musician, coolly transposed her accompaniment part at sight into my mistaken key – saving me from a lifelong case of post-traumatic stress disorder. From time to time I go back to this heroic story and think not so much that I was saved in the nick of time but that whatever tics and weird forces were guiding my breath, arm and lips that day, causing me to spontaneously play the right notes in the wrong key, they’ve been at work ever since, keeping me always out of step and slightly out of tune.
Also around that time — the early 50s — my best friend and future poet Clark Coolidge and I, on a permanent high from the local Newport Jazz Festival, formed a band inspired by Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker. We knew their book cold and could sing the counterpoint lines. Clark and I spent summer hours up in his apple tree spitting on ants and dreaming of being out of time. Once we imagined that maybe we could make music based on nothing, music with no tunes or chord changes, no beat even. Back in his house we actually tried it out on drums and piano, and it worked. Nearby Storyville in Boston became our second home, and the Word of Brubeck, Getz, Miles, and Coltrane became our Gospel.
In that same apple tree we decided we had to become “artists” at any cost, because American life in the 50s – its obsessive fear of communism, sweat, and cancer – was nightmare-scary. Clark jumped first, dropping out of Brown University after two years and moving into a one-room cold-water flat in Greenwich Village to live the streets, books, beat poets, and jazz meccas — the Five Spot, the Village Vanguard. Holed up in Horatio Street he began writing. I stayed straight long enough to write two musicals plus a Noh-based opera at Brown and get a master’s degree from Yale before I hurled the tweed and ivy into the Tiber River in 1965. At least my diplomas and the river both spoke Latin.
In June 1958 I was playing piano in the Brunotes, a traditional Dixieland band from Brown University, and we sailed out of New York on the Johan van Oldenbarnevelt – a Dutch South Seas hulk then serving as a summer student ship to and from Rotterdam. The ballroom was designed by some Indonesian madman whose jungle-sculpted mahogany trim was crawling with a whole peaceable kingdom of lizards, monkeys, snakes, butterflies and birds. In that memorable room a trio of homesick Dutch musicians in frayed tuxedos appeared daily at tea-time and right through the cocktail hour playing heart-rending potpourris of light classics on violin, cello, and piano. After dinner our band donned its crisp wash-and-wear seersucker suits and Mickey Mouse hats, and began blasting Dixieland spackle to fortify everyone’s ocean-queasy stomachs. We alternated the upbeat Rampart Street stuff with ballads played so slowly that the beat disappeared in the ocean around us.
The Johan van Oldenbarnevelt dining room stairs
One calm sunny day the old Johan gave a terrifying jolt, coming to a dead stop in mid-Atlantic; one of its propellers had dropped off. The kids cheered, and one fool caused bedlam by jumping into the sea for a swim and had to be fished out. Instead of 10 days it took 18 days to cross — 8 extra days of whiskey sours, Manhattans, and sidecars. We got in a lot of practice for our upcoming Carnegie Hall college Jazz fest gig. In 1963 I read how that ship, which had been bought by a Greek tour company, had burned and sunk off the coast of Madeira.
Excerpt from “Inner Cities 11 (Aglio Olio Peperoncino Blues)” by Alvin Curran, performed by Daan Vandewalle.
The big draw that summer was the World’s Fair in Brussels – high Modernism, the “Atomium,” millions of kids in sandals and lederhosen. The Brunotes got to play two concerts at the American Pavilion, then the largest circular glass building ever made. But across the way loomed the gravity-defying Philips Pavilion, an experimental masterpiece by LeCorbusier and Iannis Xenakis, which housed one of the world’s first large-scale multimedia works, “Poeme Electronique,” running all day at 10-minute intervals – featuring Varese’s legendary electronic tape piece, spatialized from more than 300 internal speakers. Outside, “Concret PH” by the self-same Xenakis was broadcast around the perimeter in massive sheets of sliding dissonance. I must confess I never went inside. The lines were long, there was a narrow tunnel (I’m claustrophobic) and the dissonance was too bewildering for my hipster’s beret. Today I’d give my right anything to have experienced that collaboration among visionary artists whose prophetic embrace of time, sound, and space are the foundations I now stand on. Anyway, I was there – so something must have rubbed off.
Elliott Carter told us the first day of composition class, “You can bring anything in here you want, except octaves.” Nowadays you might get the impression octaves is all I write notwithstanding my indoctrination in the Columbia-Princeton gospel of No tune! No center! No beat! That’s what they handed me at the Yale Music Madrassa in 1960 and said, “memorize this.” Octaves are in essence sandwiches with nothing inside, and I love them.
When I stepped on stage at Yale’s Sprague Hall last February to take a bow after a roaring student performance of my “For Cornelius,” I remembered my last bow there: in 1963, for a setting of Dylan Thomas’s “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” probably my last 12-tone piece. Now I’m more likely to write for fog horns or flying pianos… When I was a student there John Cage, considered a plague, was banned by the Yale Music School – so the Philosophy department defiantly invited him, and his 10-turntable “Imaginary Landscape” performance caused a near riot.
Most Yale students today are super-savvy but writing music light years from the experimental tradition. In my book there’s plenty of trouble to be made yet, in this culturally disabled America which leaves composers virtually no workplace except the university and a neo-Brucknerian Hollywood.
Carter invited me, Joel Chadabe, and Frederic Rzewski to be Young-Residents under him in West Berlin in the initial year of the Ford Foundation’s renowned DAAD program. It was 1964; nothing was easy or normal in that shell-shocked, walled-in city. I lived and wrote music in a one room garret in outlying, unsettling, Nikolassee. There were daily sonic booms (Russian- and American-made) and audible machine gun fire from the U.S. troops training in the nearby forests.
One night on an empty S-Bahn platform, a crazed blond kid came up to me and punched me hard right in the gut. I hollered, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” He turned around and said in English, “Hey I’m sorry, I’m Finnish and I thought you were German.” Another night I met Stravinsky – “Maître,” we were told to call him. Assembled in a room with Louis Andriessen, Rzewski, Yuji Takahashi, Chadabe, Gilbert Amy, and Luciano Berio, I shook Stravinsky’s hand as he coolly cruised in then out, nodding and mumbling before each of us – pope and devil rolled into one, with a handshake like a fish. Not like the inspirational warmth and humanity in Varese’s hand when I had shaken it the year before in New Haven.
When I got to Rome in December 1964, Chadabe took me to meet Franco Evangelisti, rebellious founder of the “Nuova Consonanza” Improvisation Ensemble. He was an intense husky composer in shades – think Belmondo. While my hand was still out Franco hurled an unforgettable opener: “So you’re a composer. Don’t you know that there’s no more music left to be written?” Here I was, a rube of 26 years, full of unsprouted composerly beans, and Franco Evangelisti had already stopped putting down notes on paper. I said to myself , “What’s this guy’s problem?”
Soon I became friends with the composer Giacinto Scelsi, always in an elegant fur coat winter or summer, always wearing lovely embroidered oriental caps with a pretty woman on each arm. He paid people to put his strange notes on paper. An eccentric nobleman who hugged trees, and created a lively court for a cosmopolitan entourage – you didn’t have to be a mystic visionary like him to sit under his Dali paintings and share his total love for the magic of sound and his total disregard for compositional “good behavior.”
In 1965 I got a call from John Sebastian Sr. (father of the Loving Spoonful singer, John Jr.) to join him as accompanist on a three-month United States Information Service tour of Africa. John was a renowned harmonica virtuoso. I was a young nobody between piano-bar gigs on Via Veneto – what luck. We spent 10 days rehearsing Mozart’s “Turkish Rondo,” Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun,” Gershwin’s “American in Paris,” and pieces by John’s pal Alan Hovhaness. This repertoire plus an American passport got us in and out of some touchy situations in the volatile early post-colonial Africa.
One Friday in Yaounde, Cameroon, we set up to perform; Friday, they told us, was a bad day since the burgeoning middle class liked to get tipsy after work. By concert time the room was full and out of control – a loud, jolly, wobbly crowd that wouldn’t get seated. Unruffled we came out: two white guys in tuxedos in a hot humid town hall. A moment of curious silence. I sat down at a Hohner Piano, a clunky battery-powered electric keyboard, John adjusted his mic to a small portable amp, lifted his harmonica and hit the first bar of the “Turkish Rondo.” The whole place blew up in side-splitting laughter. Like pros we kept playing until the howls forced us to beat a retreat. We came back to finish the concert for a remaining handful of apologetic dignitaries. So much for American foreign policy trying to compete with the Russians for the Africans’ souls, bananas, and diamonds.
In Niger I got to witness a parade of Tuareg tribesmen in celebration of the country’s second year of independence, mounted on gold- and silver-bedecked camels like live medieval paintings – playing 8-foot-long-brass horns and timpani mounted on the camels’ necks. A black African juggler and a live bear did their tumbling thing on foot. This was absolute music-theater, possibly what I have been searching out ever since in my own extravagant works outside the concert halls.
That tour was the end of unplugged innocence. Back in Rome I founded Musica Elettronica Viva with Rzewski and Richard Teitelbaum, went tabula rasa, joined the revolution, and got wired.