poster for Unsafe for More Than 25 Men, Art in the Anchorage (Brooklyn Bridge), Photo Jacob Burckhardt

Between the years 1969 and 1970 the group Musica Elettronica Viva, at the height of their activity, toured Europe and the USA presenting a new work entitled "Soundpool." This work was nothing more nor less than an invitation to the public to bring any sound (or instrument) of their own and as it were, cast it into the pool along with ours. These were the years of jet set Gurus and expectations of imminent "liberation," furthermore as with almost everything else then, Music was said to belong to the people. As a result, nowhere did our offer of instant musician-status to the entire public go unheeded. In fact, on many occasions, when MEV offered a more traditional program with pieces, the public - knowing our reputation for the "Soundpool" - often lept into the music uninvited, much to the dismay of the organizers. But because the members of MEV were becoming masters of spontaneous music making, any spontaneous musical offer on the publics' part was usually smoothly incorporated into our own musical discourse. The reason I mention all this is that because on these occasions any one of us could have found themselves making music side by side with many people we had never seen before; professionals from Parma, working class from Bologna, revolutionaries, intellectuals from Paris, university students from Albany, elderly women concert-goers from London, Jazz musicians from Copenhagen, Black Panthers from Antioch College, Bourgoise from Tillburg, Holland, Skinheads from north London and Hippies from Amsterdam and New York, and children from Louvain and Bruxelles. In short there were hundreds, and modestly speaking, a few thousand people had played with MEV at that time. There were singing, chanting, droning, drumming on chairs, tables, walls - there were masses of people simply being themselves in the protective and self-evolving community improvised collective music. No one gave orders to begin or end or what to play and there was always genereated much human warmth and occasionally a bit of ecstasy, some occasional hysteria and unsatisfied participants, but excepting a broken chair or two, no real violence. The music usually ended with physical exhaustion and on several occasions was interrupted by the panic stricken personell of the theaters we were engaged in.

This is not mere sentimental reminiscing about the "good old days" nor bragging to my serious music colleagues about my rubbing shoulders with the anonymous masses, but rather a little document which explains an important part of my own formative musical background and the influence it has had on me and my music in recent years.


This influence is notably evident in a series of works begun in the late seventies which were created exclusively for the voice and for large groups of non-professional musicians. These pieces were born, too, out of a need to use natural urban and country locations for the performances of these works. In "Maritime Rites * The Lake" for example- I deployed a large roup of singers (men and women) in row boats on a small body of water. The music is written in a simple graphic and symbolic notation which is easily accessible to both trained and untrained musicians alike. With the exception of agreed upon melodies to be sung, all the notes any individual sings are freely chosen. One singer among those grouped in one boat directs the others (entrances and closures) in a series of repeated brief improvisational structures and the whole is composed so that each group must interact spontaneously with all the other groups (within audible range) around them. This form of collective vocal improvisation gave rise to a much more elaborate and ambitious piece called "Community Sing". This work proposed to combine many of the fine local choruses in Wales in one big "community sing", which would combine both local traditions and musics with some of the further reaching tonal and vocal experiments that I was then interested in (for example: having thousands of people each singing their own melody together, or even simpler hundreds or thousands of people humming very quietly or canticchiando at random. But alas, the Lab Arts Theatre of Cardiff, who was producing this piece in their Project Voice Festival were unable to do so. From 1981-83 I worked often with young musicians from the local Roman community music schools (Scuola popolare di musica di Testaccio , di Donna Olimpia, di St. Louis Jazz Club, etc.) often combining singers and instrumentalits in two very large structured improvised compositions called "Trasloco" and "Open Aire".

"Beams," Krems, Austria, 2005

A commision from the Alte Oper in Frankfurt allowed me to create an unusual environmental work called "Monumenti", which was performed as the opening of the Frankfurter Festwochen in 1982. In this piece I employed one a mixed chours, 25 trombones, 10 bass drums, the MEV group with Rzewski, Teitelbaum, List and Bergen and tapes. These musical elements were used in a simple "coreographic" plan, both inside and outside the opera house, exploiting all the architectural spaces available: long corridors, balconies, six flights of steps, elevators, resonant spaces under the stage area, foyer and the entire piazza surrounding the building itself.

Extending these ideas even further, in a very recent work "1985 A Piece For Piece" I created a simulcast radio concert for three countries: Holland, Germany, and Italy; which was broadcast at 20 hours on January 1, 1985. From each country were heard a mixed chours, a brass band, an accordeon solo, a speaker and an improvising soloist (Francis Utti, Amsterdam; Michael Riessler, Frankfurt; and Renato Geremia, Venezia). All of the music which combined conventionally written music with highly structured improvisation, was transmitted to the central mixing studio in Frankfurt and then retransmitted in a stereo version to all three countries. Not only was this something of a technical feat, but a musical one as well. From the mixing studio in Frankfurt (Hessicher Rundfunk) I was in radio contact with the technicians and the two directors in each country (VPRO in Holland, and RAI in Venezia). However the musicians and directors could only hear what they themselves were playing (which in fact was the same musical material used in the other countries, except played in different ways and at different times). There were just two moments of coordinated syncronicity between all ensembles at the beginning and end, and these were effected by a recorded "click" (metronomic) track transmitted into the earphones of the directors. But for the most part the musicians in each country really had no idea what the musicians in the other countries were playing or how their own sounds were mixed with the others. So from the optimistic days of the late 60's, where good will and blind faith brought masses of people together to make music spontaneously, naively but not without profundity and some subtlety, I have simply incorporated the essence of these genuine "peripheral" experiences into my own composing vocabulary and vision, where the guiding principles still remain the same: that all human beings are not only potentially but virtually musical beings. That almost anyone given the right circumstances can make music spontaneously with his or her voice or any object around them. That the art of listening can be acquired with the making of ones first few sounds. That, the art of improvising with 3 people or 300 does not depend on knowing what sounds to make when , but what sounds not to make and when. That the art of silence is the hardest but most important of all musical skills to be learned. And that collective improvisation with large groups of persons cannot be written off as mere "hippie-nonsense" but as very real musical situations with a large creative potential. A potential wich is surely greater one finds in most of the overfed solemnity of conventional concerts of new or classical music. The subject of "contamination" of genres does not interest me in itself - for, my own background in Jazz and Popular and improvised musics as well as in the latest electronic and experimental tendencies - leave me naturally and pleasantly contaminated. I do sincerely feel that beyond such accademic considerations lie the real edges, the outer pale, so to speak, where one can begin again to have "uncontaminated" musical experiences.

Alvin Curran
March 29, 1985

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