David Toop's liner note essay on Alvin Curran

Things are more than what they seem, or, at the same time, they are exactly what they seem. This is particularly true of the works created by a composer such as Alvin Curran, an artist of depth and contextual curiosity who is beguiled by the stuff of sound, its surfaces and substance, yet always conscious of its place in space and society. Pungent memories suffuse this recording, the compatibility of weather and sound as metaphors for shifting emotions and elusive life, yet sound is material, impinging on the skin, sucked into the body. Memory and place entwine, ether and solid, caught up in the music.

“I light my first cigarette of the day and turn away from the window with a shudder,” wrote Raymond Carver. “The foghorn sounds again, filling me with apprehension, and then, then stupendous grief.” And the Chinese poet Li Po, perhaps feeling some similar apprehension many centuries earlier, wrote:

“With my whiskers grown long I have entered Ch’iu-pu,

In one morning gusts of wind have made them decay.

The calls of the gibbons make my hairs turn grey,

Now they flow round my head as so many strands of silk.”

Then Carver again, in his poem Sunday Night: “Make use of the things around you . . . put it all in, make use,” a sentiment that could be described as Curran’s maxim and method.

Alvin Curran was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on December 13, 1938. “My father, Martin Curran, played baseball and spoke Yiddish,” he tells me. “His love was his trombone, and his own lovely tenor voice. My mother, Pearl, played ragtime piano and spoke Yiddish. I followed my father to his theater gigs, accompanying tap dancers and magicians, and swooned to the absurd Anglo-Hebraic harmonies of the temple chorus where my father was lead tenor.”

“At five years they made us all—three kids—study the piano, so we could be more, or as ‘cultured’ as the goyim, the non-Jews, but whatever all that Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schubert was about, I had never been able to understand until I was about fifty years old. I played gigs with my father’s Bar Mitzvah band, when I was about thirteen. Meanwhile, I was freely improvising in the early 1950s with my closest friend and poet, drummer Clark Coolidge. Spitting from high up in his apple tree, we decided the world as we knew it sucked and needed a total overhaul.

We would be ‘artists.’ We did.”

W. G. Sebald writes in Austerlitz of a radio program about Fred Astaire, through which he heard about Astaire’s only childhood memories, the sound of shunting freight trains in the Omaha marshalling yard. These sounds stimulated ideas of going on long railway journeys, and we can only speculate on the relationship between unremitting mechanical clatter heard in formative years and a career in which the clatter of feet becomes poetic, graceful, even erotic. Similar sounds entered the imagination of Curran at an early age, playing a complex role in his development and later obsessions. “The ship horns in Providence Harbor,” he writes, “and the trainyard night booms, were the sonic frame in which Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, later Bird, Monk, Miles, and Trane—all of whom we heard live regularly—was enough original compost to feed our young roots. I went to college, to Brown University, presumably to study medicine, and in the middle of dissecting a sand shark, threw the scalpel down and changed to music.”

He studied composition with Ron Nelson at Brown University, then with Elliott Carter at Yale School of Music. Even then, in 1963, his musical language was developing through sources that were either grounded in pragmatism—his work as a society band pianist—or leaning toward the exotic—the composition of a chamber opera based on Zeami’s fourteenth-century Noh play, The Damask Drum.

At Yale, Tom Johnson and Joel Chadabe were his classmates; Richard Teitelbaum was his roommate. “Twelvetone theory was a daily purge,” Curran says, with nothing but Webern, and Berg’s Altenberg Lieder and Violin Concerto, making any sense. Then Carter invited him and Chadabe to Berlin, where they met Iannis Xenakis, Yuji Takahashi, Luciano Berio, Louis Andriessen, even the ancient Stravinsky. Joel Chadabe remembers setting out on a marathon drive with Curran through East Germany, only a few years after the construction of the Berlin Wall, eventually landing up in Italy.

Rome was the city where Curran decided to settle, and there he remains, shuttling between Italy and his post as Milhaud Professor of Composition at Mills College. By 1964, he was surviving by playing piano in Via Veneto bars, touring in Africa with the harmonica player John Sebastian Sr., then in 1966 co-founding Musica Elettronica Viva with a group of musicians and composers who typified the way in which music at that time crossed boundaries and absorbed seemingly incompatible inspirations. In parallel with a few other groups at the time—such as AMM, The People Band, The Scratch Orchestra, and SME in England—Curran, Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum, Carol Plantamura, Ivan Vandor, Alan Bryant, John Phetteplace, and Steve Lacy began to explore the idea of playing without a safety net.

In MUSICS Magazine, in 1978, Curran wrote about MEV in relation to the mysterious sense of unity that can develop through this process: “In the infant days of MEV it was just this feeling of stepping into and outside of time that became almost the sole ‘raison d’être’ for the music—so powerful was its attraction. So when we would get to those magical moments where the music began playing all by itself, there would follow along with the joy an almost frightful awareness, as one might experience on entering a totally unknown place.”

In conversation with Philip Clark for The Wire in 2002, Frederic Rzewski summed up the fruitful legacy of this period, when extreme pressure was exerted on all limitations, all constraints, all received thought: “All the people involved still look to MEV as a source of ideas and we continue to come together. We were radically—even selfdestructively— into free improvisation.”4 The challenge to authority implicit in this method formed a close fit with the political mood of the times. Speaking in a 1995 panel discussion at a Mills College conference (“Here Comes Everybody: The Music, Poetry, and Art of John Cage,” later published in Writings Through John Cage’s Music, Poetry + Art), Curran reflected on these connections: “Like many Americans of my generation, I had an abysmal ignorance of history and social and political ideas. At the time, I am sure I never heard the word ‘anarchy,’ and I’d just begun to discover the significance of Marxism. Nonetheless I was there in the midst of a tumultuous student revolution, barricades, occupations, riots, tear gas, dogs, and dope—this was 1968. Consonant with all of this— considering our basic pacifist position—was our aim to make a spontaneous music which we began to call ‘collective,’ a timely buzzword that resounded then in almost all activity.”

Despite his disclaimer, Curran’s activities as a musician and composer have reflected their social context from the outset. His immersion in the popular musics of America rewarded him with what he describes as “anarchic lyricism and dedicated hedonism.” Playing in a college dance-band “known for playing a slow four so slowly that people got the impression that the music had stopped, . . . watching people make love on the dance floor or vomit their brains out in despair, are powerful social experiences,” he says. “Somehow, maybe it was Miles, Monk, maybe Mozart, maybe sorrowful summer foghorns, maybe my father’s trombone that I played ‘Cielito Lindo’ on to a junior-high audience, in the wrong key. But this 1950–60s best-of-all-American worlds was clearly not going to be enough for me. I would soon trounce it under my feet, smoking a joint with Cornelius Cardew on the banks of the Tiber River.”

The impact of John Cage resonated strongly during the early days of MEV. Rzewski had heard Cage and David Tudor at work in Buffalo, and so MEV followed their practice of amplifying objects of all kinds with contact microphones fed through cheap mixers. “By amplifying the sounds of glass, wood, metal, water, air, and fire,” Curran said during the Cage’s Influence discussion, “we were convinced that we had tapped into the sources of the natural musics of ‘everything’.” But Cage may also have connected the pivotal philosophy of sound, all sound, as music, with Curran’s natural propensity to process sonic memory and broad musical experience into a personal, overarching aesthetic.

“It’s all a ‘ballroom’,” he says, so linking his college dance-band days with the Cageian universe, “and then when I began to record every sound around me—every fly, fart, wasp, toilet, market, fountain, every Sardinian maid singing her heart out in the courtyard, every love-making, every marble quarry, cave, high tension wire, every foghorn on the east coast of the USA, every footstep in the sacred city of popes and whores, every poor family calling in unison to their Giovanni or Federico into the Regina Coeli Prison in Trastevere—then I became aware that this music was not only there for the taking, it was like thinking that every sounding piece of junk was an exciting and unique challenge, like scaling Kilimanjaro or Everest.”

“It was not just aural cinema, nor sonic documentation; it was simply capturing the magic of what we hear, where we hear it, and how. It was like capturing the magic of what we cannot hear—the silent universal language that lives and breathes between the air particles it travels on. Later, geographical spaces, as in Crystal Psalms, real and conceptual spaces as in Maritime Rites, and just about anything—architecture, garbage dumps, urban streets, open country, piazzas, rivers, lakes, oceans, tunnels, prisons, dives—became sources of inspiration, and still are, at a growing pace.”

As Rzewski makes clear, the often chaotic experiment of MEV, the Spacecraft, as they called it, was a resource, a deep well from which individual members could draw as they moved away from collectivism and developed their own voices as musicians and composers. Curran’s work in the 1970s is marked profoundly by the elements through which he had assembled an identity: improvisation, singing, jazz piano, popular tunes, the local soundscape, amplification, instrumental technique and personal voicing, open composition, recording technology, and the synthesizer. In the early days of MEV, Richard Teitelbaum had arrived in Rome with one of the first Moogs; Curran was sufficiently impressed to begin his own experimentation with VCS3 and Serge synthesizers. Solo pieces such as Songs and Views From the Magnetic Garden (1973), Light Flowers Dark Flowers (1974), and Canti Illuminati (1976–77), all released as LPs in Italy, explored the hinterland between live improvisation, taped soundscapes, voice, analogue synthesis, and electronic transformation. Songs and Views, for example, is an organic mix of synthesizer, amplified cymbal, voice, glass chimes, flugelhorn, harmonica, jew’s-harp, African kalimba, whirling tubes, an Emilian folk song, and recordings of wind and high tension wires, swallows, bees, a Roman water conduit, frogs, and the sound of footsteps on a beach.

Clearly, there are connections back to MEV’s embrace of jazz, chance procedures, ethnomusicology, electronics, and the amplification of surfaces, along with a recognition of Terry Riley, whose all-night solo performances of the late 1960s had gone some way toward integrating composer, audience, performer, place, improvisation, sound, and score. But Curran’s works of this period were also more controlled than collective improvisation, more open than American minimalism. To a degree, they prefigured the live DJ mixes heard in ambient clubs since the late 1980s, and the laptop and soundscape improvisations of the present. Just as it is no surprise to find that members of MEV can still perform together in the twenty-first century, so there is a feeling of natural evolution to hearing Curran in the company of a young laptop improviser such as Domenico Sciajno. Our Ur, their collaborative CD of 2004, was an unsettling mix for our times, eerie zones of concentrated stillness emerging through firestorms of disturbance, a powerful evocation of invisible chatter, the ghost wars, out of which violence and counter-violence erupt.

From within the tradition of radio narrative and atmospheres there is an air of storytelling to these pieces that runs deeper than their integration of spoken tales. Maritime Rites is a complex, ambitious work of numerous levels that has been in development for decades, or, more accurately, for a lifetime. Curran describes it as having a “semidocumentary radio art quality.” Through an accumulation of listening points, the emotional and physical qualities peculiar to horns and echoes, reverberating in landscape, embedded in memory and social history, arrive at a point of revelation. Most of all, we hear him listening, ruminating, structuring, mapping, conjoining his vision with the methods of musicians he loves. Perhaps this is a kind of sonic literature, I speculate, in which the weaving of oral reminiscence, sonic documentation, and musical elaboration fashions short stories for the ears.

“It is ‘literary’ insofar as it evokes many historic places,” he responds, “and in some cases memories of my own childhood on the southern shores of Rhode Island and New England in general. Other than that, I wanted, as in much of my work in the seventies, to create a kind of ‘democratic musical forum’ where the humblest of sounds could be heard on an equal footing with the great instrumental traditions of the West. I wanted ‘space’ to speak for itself, and rather than narrating a story, let these monumental recorded environments speak for themselves. So there is no Night on Bald Mountain or Debussian La Mer. There are only the magical spaces—their histories and sounds— which frame, harmonize, and descant with the live players.”

Alvin Curran has never been afraid of vulgarity, nostalgia, the future, what’s out there and what’s in here, human presence and the limits of the body, the sensual beauty and precision of sound and its passionate need to be free from the cage. Consistently, he has searched for conduits through which the composer can connect with the world beyond so-called contemporary music. His Music For Every Occasion, a collection of monophonic pieces written in 1971 and ’72, published in Michael Byron’s Pieces 3 anthology in 1977, was written “for professional and amateur alike on any suitable occasion—births, deaths, arrivals, departures, new moons, feasts, concerts, etc.”

“We had some very noble and radical ideas,” Curran writes, speaking of MEV. “After all, we were all privileged intellectuals, who could and needed to break out of our well-mannered, composerly destinies. But discovering then the vast lies and deceptions governing most of the music business and the business of music and life, the increasing exploitation of peoples’ musics, the alienation and distortion of tradition old and new, and the basic fear of unfamiliar sonic gesture and unpopular music language led MEV to a fundamental understanding that anyone could make music and anyone could make music with anyone else.”

“This was revolutionary, but did not generally have the consequences we’d imagined. What did have consequences is our precocious and profound understanding that music could be made without any order, rules, score, leaders, producers, authority of any kind, and even without knowing in advance when it would start or end. This too was revolutionary, and today practiced, to lesser or greater degrees, everywhere.”

David Toop, 2004 (footnotes omitted)  

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