Most of my compositions are providential accidents – that is, I don’t sit down at a desk every day and compose (though recently I’ve had occasion to do that with surprising pleasure) but rather work by paying very close attention to the varying cycles in my daily living. And when, as I’ve learned, it’s time to gather in an amount of accumulated experience for a musical rendering, my awareness becomes finely directed toward some sound, a sound that may manifest itself in any number of ways until I become obsessively involved with it. This process may take weeks, even years and sometimes I am not even fully aware of it (I suspect this is true for most people who have to make music). In any case the sound may appear in my head, hands, feet, throat, stomach or outside of my window at a certain hour every day – a chord, a few notes, a passing train, a dream, a premonition, an old harmonica. Often there may be more than one sound and new ones may reanimate ones which had been stored away unused at an earlier time. So usually there are several of these obsessions living all together in the cramped and disorderly quarters of my mind waiting for me to find the right yeast to make them rise into a whole new musical being. This was true for the Magnetic Garden (1973) and Light Flowers, Dark Flowers (1974-75) as well as for the Works (1977) – all of them pieces made at the moment with what’s at hand.
Around 1974 I began to get interested in the piano again, which in the last instance I played professionally in smoky cocktail lounges around Via Veneto and with a ragtime band in Florence in the mid-sixties. And at about the same time I was also rediscovering my voice (last used at my own Bar Mitzvah), mainly through collaboration with the group Prima Materia and later with improvisation groups led by myself. Quite naturally then, I began to combine the two – my singing with my piano playing – which not only felt right but promised a simple lightweight performance format not dependent on electronics. To regain my piano “chops” I’d practice lots of Czerny and Dohnanyi all the while singing long tones on top of them; it was in fact the dogged dullness of these exercises which shortly led me to invent my own. In the course of these invented studies, somewhere in the summer of 1975, I found myself obsessively playing c,e,f#,a,b in many different positions and configurations all while singing those same notes in long tones. It began to feel very good; a bell rang; I jotted everything down: The Works was born.
After a kind of experimental period in which I used this motive with tentative forms and titles, I consolidated it in January 1979 into a full-blown solo piece. This coincided with and was inspired by my acquisition of a new synthesizer custom made by Serge Tcherepnin. And though mine was a relatively simple SERGE system, it could produce musics of great complexity and was especially suitable for my 5 note sequential tune. I worked on a single setting for about a month and derived from it the slow opening music and the entire music on side 2. Now the task remained to compose a piece in which I would integrate a rather pure (rigorous) but open improvisation on five notes for voice and piano with a discreet and minimal use of taped sounds – the latter occurring as unpredictably as they might in nature – and at the same time have all these elements deal with the “alien” electronic forces. I thought that by getting them (perhaps by some dialectical or diabolical process) to meet, mingle and contaminate each other, they would produce still another sound world – a new offspring and primordial ancestor both – of these three already complex original elements. Here there is not gradual transformation as in the first part of Light Flowers, Dark Flowers where the ocarinas slowly become synthesizers. On the contrary, the electronics simply take over; that is until the dogs start barking at the moon and the whole world becomes a foxtrot.
I had been reserving for some time a recording I had made of our 14 year old dachshund Caspar just before he died. It was in fact a love song which he persisted in singing all day after meeting a lovely bitch in heat in Piazza Navona. This I knew would be the beginning of the piece. And by quite extraordinary coincidence, the central tones of Caspar’s song happened to be the very same five notes of my motive, which by the way my musicological friends tell me is also the Indian raga “marwah.” So in the tape part, over which I play, this occurs over the sounds of cows munching grass and it is followed by: the Rome-Florence express train, a horse-fly caught against a window pane, my footsteps approaching a Roman fountain and later going up the steps of my old studio, cicadas, an Amsterdam calliope, a tin can being kicked, and a series of sounds from La Serra di Lerici which I have used on many occasions: children’s voices (looped), dogs barking, and crickets. The coda, recalling a kind of slow surreal foxtrot (a piece originally created for “Otello” by Memé Perlini for the Venice Biennale 1974) is finally carried off on the wheels of the Berlin U-Bahn (subway). Since its first performance at the Freie Musik Production concert (Berlin, Feb. 1979) I have performed this piece many times in Europe and North America including an elaborate version for big band commissioned by the RAI (for Italian Radio’s third program); and though the structure has remained unaltered, the content has seen some radical changes. But that is the very nature of the piece, where each performance is meant to be the first one and one filled with strange doors, blind alleys, sunsets, forked roads and paths leading to who knows where. In a word, I never know what I’m going to play until I play it. And not unlike a simple song in epic style, the tune (strophe) is always the same, but each performance adds new verses telling of other times and other places.
The recording here of The Works Part One was made at Sound 80 Studios in Minneapolis in a set of happy circumstances while I was working there with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in February 1980. It was recorded directly in one take (54 minutes which I have edited slightly at the end of side one) onto a 2 track MCI with Dolby A. Two PZM mics were placed on the walls and stereo Schoeps hung about 4 ft. over a Steinway grand without its cover; a U 87 was used on the voice with no compression or limiting. Tape and synthesizer were mixed live by myself during the performance. A Harmonizer and flanger are occasionally employed on the voice and piano respectively. Many thanks to Paul Martinson (engineer) and Richard Paske (composer) for their sensitive and patient collaboration.
Alvin Curran, March 1980