Alvin Curran (1938- ) is an American composer currently living and teaching in Rome whose career began as an expatriate artist working with the cutting edge improv electronics group Musica Elletronica Viva (MEV) in 1966. He turns 75 on December 13, 2013.
Curran was born in Providence, Rhode Island. His father was a musician in a dance band and he learned to play piano and trombone early on. He was exposed to big band music, jazz, traditional Jewish music and western classical music during his formative years. Following his father’s example he also played in dance bands during boat crossings of the Atlantic. He earned a B.A. in music from Brown University in 1960 where he studied composition with Ron Nelson. He went on to complete his M.M. at Yale in 1963 were he studied with Elliott Carter and Mel Powell.
A 1964 Ford Foundation grant allowed him to go study in Darmstadt where he met the likes of Stravinsky, Xenakis, Berio, Yuji Takahashi, Andriessen, Remo Remotti, and above all Frederic Rzewski. He joined with Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum and Allan Bryant, all fellow expatriate American musician/composers, with whom he formed the legendary ‘Musica Elettronica Viva‘ or MEV. This was in early 1966 where their use of largely home made electronics in their improvisational ensemble live performances preceded the days of easily obtainable and operated electronic musical instruments. That wouldn’t begin to happen until about 1964 when Don Buchla, in collaboration with Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnick and the San Franciso Tape Music Center created the first modular instrument, the “music easel” later known as the ‘Buchla Box’ and Robert Moog on the east coast developed the “Moog” synthesizer. Curran crossed paths with many of these people during his tenure teaching (1999-2006) at Mills College in Oakland where the San Francisco Tape Music Center had been integrated into the Mills Center for Contemporary Music.
Curran says that during all his years in Rome he met and interacted with many in the Italian avantgarde and new music circles like Franco Donatoni and Guiseppe Chiari. He was mentored by the reclusive (think Thomas Pynchon) Giacinto Scelsi who held regular salons at his villa. It was in these days that Curran developed his individual style further. He lived and taught in Rome from 1966 to 1999 and was very active on the European scene. After his teaching stint at Mills College Curran returned again to Rome.
In addition to electronics he uses acoustic instruments ranging from conventional instruments such as piano, strings, woodwinds, voices, etc. to the ancient shofar and environmental sounds including site-specific sound installations, multi-media works and film scores. His works include the massive set of piano pieces ‘Inner Cities’ (1993-2010) which lasts about 6 hours in a complete performance, the early multi-media Songs and Views from the Magnetic Garden (1973), Maritime Rites (1984) written to be played by musicians in boats in various harbors incorporating, of course, the ambience of the given harbor’s acoustic properties. Maritime Rites has been performed in its various incarnations in Central Park in New York as well as Philadelphia, Berlin and Sydney.
In a wonderful interview from 2003 with the ever vigilant composer/journalist Frank Oteri (published online at New Music Box) he was asked about the political and ethnic/religious content of his music. Curran replied that he did not set out to express these things as aspects of himself, that the pieces just happened due to an inspiration at the time. He says that he is composing all the time and his influences are as wide ranging as his teachers and his milieu. His style varies widely in part due to his many influences but also because a given style seems to work for the piece. It sounds as though music is channeled through him.
Unfortunately, as with most expatriate composers, his music is generally less well known in his native country but there are quite a few recordings including some recent releases of some out of print recordings. In addition there are quite a few videos on YouTube including pianist Kurt Jordan’s live performance of Inner Cities 1-13 from 2009 at Azusa Pacific University which is more than the previously complete recording by Daan Vandewalle who recorded 1-11 (as of 2010 there are 14 parts according to Curran’s official web site). As is frequently the case with much contemporary music YouTube provides a great resource, especially for the casual and/or cash-strapped listener. It is a really good way to get familiar with this man’s diverse and fascinating music.
Not infrequently his music takes on sociopolitical issues as well as inspiration from the composer’s Jewish heritage. His Schtetl Variations (1987), dedicated to Morton Feldman is an improvisatory meditation on these poor villages of eastern Europe and Russia (think of Fiddler on the Roof) which became the settings for the notorious anti-semitic pogroms. A later piano piece called 11 Schtetl Settings (1988) continues his exploration of this part of his ancestry. Animal Behavior (1992) for sampler keyboard and optional percussion is a pretty transparent indictment of 1990s American politics. And the list goes on.
His “Nineteen Eighty Five: Piece for Peace” (1985) involved three ensembles performing at 3 different radio stations in Venice, Amsterdam and Frankfurt (which was simulcast by all three countries) is a a sort of precursor to what is perhaps his most integrated and powerful political composition, his ‘Crystal Psalms’ of 1988. Here the historical, sociopolitical, ethnic and even geographical are joined to the avant garde in a stunning sonic commemoration and condemnation of the fascism and genocide that characterized the horrors of the second world war.
Seventy Five years ago this November (9th and 10th) Jewish shops and synagogues were vandalized and looted over those two nights throughout much of Nazi Germany and Austria in a most extreme incarnation of the “pogroms” that became known as “Kristallnacht” or the “Night of Broken Glass“. It was one of the first major and overt expressions of Hitler’s genocidal plans then still being formulated. Unfortunately this event continues to be imitated by like-minded hateful individuals and groups worldwide. So the sociopolitical context of this musical work written for the 50th anniversary of that event sadly has an ongoing relevance for our contemporary world even 25 years after its creation.
At its most basic level this piece is a sort of concerto for six instrumental ensembles playing in radio stations in six different countries live mixed by the composer and broadcast throughout Northern Europe on October 20th of 1988. There is no text as such but the sounds of people praying and the apparently random Hebrew letters and German numbers are scattered throughout the piece along with environmental and found sounds on the tape Curran prepared which plays throughout the performance as a sort of political pedal point.
The liner notes of the recording describe the piece as “radio concert for six choruses; six sextets each including a quartet (violas, cellos, bass clarinets, bass flutes, trombones, tenor sax/tuba) plus accordion and percussion; tape.” All were individually conducted with the conductors coordinated by a click track and mixed live by the composer. The recording on New World records is the document of that broadcast.
The effect is that of a collage connected by the electronic nervous system, the radio stations, which link the various performances. The program is largely implicit here and listening to this piece evokes images that can vary from one listener to the next as any great piece of art provokes different experiences. The sound images here are not pretty and the work is very emotionally intense. Those images are guided by the tone of the music and fueled by the cryptic words and sounds mixed in with the live performances. It is, in effect, his Mitzvah to the memories of the fallen. You will not come away unmoved.
Kristallnacht occurred in November of 1938, a month before Curran was born but the impact of that action continues to resound from that generation to this. As a politically aware artist he was compelled to respond and he did so in a most emphatic, creative and powerful manner. Perhaps it is the inherited duty of one generation to exorcise the demons and the atrocities of the previous ones. Curran has certainly contributed most memorably to such an effort with this work.
Thank you, Mr. Curran, for your prolific and varied contributions to music and your efforts through your art to exorcise the demons of our collective past. I wish you a happy 75th birthday and wishes for many more creative years to come.
- For Cornelius (1981/90). Alvin Curran /”that boo man thing was kind of scary”/ (rgable.typepad.com)
- Performance and Recordings (thejourneymenacousticians.wordpress.com)
- Dance Umbrella: Trisha Brown Dance Company – review (theguardian.com)
- Don Buchla: Sound Pioneers (deandrebarnes.wordpress.com)
- 07.03.13 Steve Reich, Alvin Curran and Other Stories (samjamescomposer.wordpress.com)