I got to know New York’s downtown music and dance in Rome. It was just this essentials-only, radically-compelling, back-to-the-roots America which moved the adventuring gallerist Fabio Sargentini of the “L’Attico” to produce a yearly series of concert events importing the crème of that exalted scene: Glass, Reich, Palestine, Lamonte Young, Riley, Simone Forti, Trisha Brown, Joan Jonas, and Joan LaBarbara were among the featured stars, whose determination, youthful energy, and brilliant invention I felt a part of and completely in tune with. The concept of making yourself the composer/performer, the naked self-soloist – in my case the aleatory maximal-minimalist – while not new was a most captivating and perfectly natural way for me to make my own music. Composing, improvising, and incorporating the sounding environment merged – and for me became a single act.
At the same time the emergence of great solo improvising solo performers like Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, Maryanne Amacher, Muhal Abrams, Evan Parker, Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, Bob Ashley, and Steve Lacy were equally powerful attractions given my own roots in jazz and popular music.
The making of these four solo works – which sound now perhaps like a set of four ecstatic love calls – was a instinctively planned long-term project lasting nearly a decade, located just left of center for the minimal movement, close to its anarchic improvising counterparts – characterized by necessity, poverty, the grace and musical limits of one’s imagination and body, and by anything remembered, forgotten, or found. Feedback and feedforward were the magic keys to multiplying the illusion of the self infinitely. With the intense 5-year Musica Elettronica Viva experience momentarily over, I wanted to transform my whole being into an instrument, a permanent solo concert, often using melodic materials from my 1971 collection of monophonic pieces, Music for Every Occasion (a self-publication which is now turning into a hefty volume called The Alvin Curran Fakebook). The Revox tape recorder was my orchestra, the Putney synthesizer my alter-ego. The inspiring MEV lessons became my guide and from them I extracted humility, patience, chutzpah, spontaneity, ecstasy, electricity, the environment, dirt, accident, and embrace of any sounding object as seed and soil and compost.
From the mid-sixties I had been an avid recordist of everything around me, documenting the death threats of barn-owls, insect jamborees, the “hums” of empty spaces and fountains of Rome, my own love-making as well that of the local cats. Year round I’d seek out and repeatedly record the rich seasonal symphonies from the woods, olive groves and windows of Edith Schloss’s beloved Ligurian house over the Bay of the Poets. Songs and Views of the Magnetic Garden (Il Giardino Magnetico as it became known here in Italy) was one of those determining events in life that come out of nowhere and lead everywhere. As befits a breakthrough I recall nothing of the composing but only the finishing of the final tape mix – the one over which I would perform live. I was ecstatic. These sudden darting passages of swallows, glass and metal chimes tuned to the random scales of would-be lost continents, dogs barking, always dogs barking at night as if in some global choral society, the stodgy refound flugelhorn which Frederic Rzewski entrusted me with, playing a Do Re Mi Fa melody. My voice, which had not seen the light of day since my Bar Mitzvah when Cantor Hohenemser guided me into the ornamented middle-Eastern inflections of the desert peoples (later known as the Ashkenazi)…the voice of my lovely neighbor, the artist Margherita Benetti; a found cracked cymbal with contact mike as a quasi credible deep tam-tam, the MEV thumb piano from Kenya and the cutest compact synthesizer the world has ever seen (the no. 3 production of the VCS3 – the Putney – with its symphonic layering of a written melody, On My Satin Harp, featured in the second part) and finally those whirled magical corrugated tubes which one found at the Christmas market on Piazza Navona. The arrangement of these elements in solo improvisatory performance did not spell the end to my career as a composer of notes on paper, it simply challenged that role and ultimately re-inspired it. The 10-consecutive-day stint I did in December 1973 at the avant-garde theater, Beat 72 – Rome’s “The Kitchen” – put not only my music but me on the Italian map… This 90-minute performance became a celebrated event and launched me into a determined expatriate career.
The follow up, Light Flowers Dark Flowers (Fiori Chiari Fiori Oscuri), was a much harder haul. I had to come up with something absolutely new – an antidote to the dreamy but lush Magnetic Garden. And new meant embracing all the other things I could do, from half-playing an ocarina to re-becoming the pianist I always was. The accompanying tape part was inspired by field recordings I made with Alexis Rzewski first as a 5-year-old birthday boy (in Italian, where he describes building a space-ship out of old junk he found on his terrace together with his friend Johnny – going to the Moon and there finding a humongous spider, falling into a giant hole and finding themselves back home eating birthday cake) and then as a somewhat older kid now in New York City first relating on the creation of Jupiter’s moon – Alpha Centauri – and then sporting some local Afro-American inflections – “hey, king, hey man, how you doin” in his telling of the mythical siege of Troy, underlined by layered loops of my toy piano. This sonic embrace of childhood and all of its mischievous innocence, knowing, and poetry reflects as much the child-like signs in the paintings of Edith Schloss, Cy Twombly, Gastone Novelli, Pascali, Baruchello as it did my love for the Rzewski children whose “uncle” I’d become. So now in the grandiose RCA Italiana 16 track studio and with my new Serge Modular Synthesizer, a long open-ended “alap” unfolds in 10 or so overlaid tracks of 2-3 note looping synthesizer phrases and as many ocarina tracks which emulate and elaborate around one another in a thick polyphonic venture which initially appears to go nowhere. Alexi’s radiophonic story-telling of his trip to the moon with Johnny and his little brother Ico somehow, in the disjunct force fields of my musical logic, lead directly to a brief pianistic improv on 2-5 notes (principally e flat, f sharp, f, e hammered incessantly in interlocking patterns) and straight on, inexplicably, to an elaborate slow stride-dance on the Jazz standard “Georgia on my Mind” blending out over a long memory of children’s calls in a London school yard mixed with the wacky tracks of the Exotic Bird House of the London Zoo and highly transposed aluminum chimes. This kind of free-range soundscape – incorporating extended field-recordings, instrumental interventions and sequential electronic orchestrations – has become a conceptual home to much of my music ever since.
To be remembered: multi track studios were a luxury back then and most of my work was prepared on multiple reels of ¼ inch tape which (without noise reduction) I mixed down with hit or miss synchronies – usually from 3 Revox tape recorders to one 2-track master machine. The hoodwink ease of digital recording and editing was dreamworlds away.
Next was Canti Illuminati, focusing again on the voice and on vocal chorality – in the mid-late seventies this theme was central to my music, being a part of my teaching at the Accademia Nazionale d’Arte Drammatica, where I led a theatrically-oriented vocal improvisation class. Here the subliminal call of Scelsi’s music led me to explore the insistent imperfections of music on one tone, endlessly fed back until, like those magnificent moments in Terry Riley’s solos, a music emerged that took its voice and texture from the atomic debris of incessant overtone smashing. And this music like all unstable feedback could end in soaring flight or sudden demise depending on how you balanced and renewed the single input source. Part two of Canti Illuminati I would call a true collage, initiated by my own melodic quest in the falsetto zone followed by what sounds like a back up of thick chords sung by a short-lived vocal improv group I then led, alternating with recordings of my father – a natural high tenor – singing “A Yiddische Mama” at my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary party; a Florentine neighbor singing “Una Bambola,” a 1950’s Italian pop song, as she washed clothes in the courtyard; and finally, rare for me, a solo voice and piano piece that I continue to call the D-module – a reiterating left hand figure over which I intone a simple scalar melody in D-dorian…
The Works closes this group of solo performances with a rambling but intense piano and voice discourse on a 5 tone melody – C, E, F#, A, B – which I am told is also a famous night Raga in the Indian classical tradition. This little melody and its infinite permutations (pretty much all in running eighth notes) and masses of regenerated Serge Modular Synth sequences become both the foreground and background of a music which initially joins my voice in an impassioned dialogue. A dog, in this case Edith’s dachshund Caspar, opens with a howling love song (he had just fallen in love with a “femmina” in heat) sonically transported into an open field full of locusts and leading right into a duo between the canine song and my own slow melodic exposition with voice and piano (with many common tones between us) all the way to the end with a nod to a classic umpah vamp ritornello refitted from the music I’d written for Memè Perlini’s film, Locus Solus. Out of nowhere – over the disintegrating vamp – come me Frederic Rzewski and other passengers, riding the number 1 train on Berlin’s U-Bahn at Nollendorfplatz on the way to unknown destinations.
I am happy to stand again in front of all these free-wheeling tone paintings and look back – embracing both their concrete and their purely ephemeral, abstract qualities – while reflecting on how much these four seminal works determined the music I made afterward, similarly inspired by the rhythms colors and eternal durations of nature and the immediacy and knowledge of making music with anything at hand. Forms and concepts such as sound-art (Klangkunst), multimedia, radio-art, sound installation, “sonic geographies” (multiple simultaneous events from long distances), and new-music-theater in large open spaces, all in their earliest stages when I composed these pieces in the ‘70s, became the formal containers and structural concepts for much of my work beginning a decade later – work whose focus remained the composition of demanding and complex structures (at times requiring hundreds of musicians) but always rendered with directness and simplicity, as in these 4 original models.
-- Alvin Curran, August 25th, 2010, Rome Italy
Listen to excerpts: Songs and Views from the Magnetic Garden), Fiori Chiari Fiori Oscuri , Canti Illuminati, The Works