On a cool Friday evening in Berkeley April 11th I proceeded to the Berkeley Arts Museum which sits across the street from the University. It is a beautiful modern architectural creation with a large and resonant space where there was a large and colorful rug, a series of pillows and behind that a set of conventional chairs for the audience. Many chose to sit on the rug close to the performer.
The set up consisted of a piano on loan from the Piedmont Piano Company, an electronic keyboard on loan from Paul Dresher along with Mr. Curran’s computer and and amplifier driving two speakers on either side of the keyboards. The open space is just off the entry way of the museum and tends to have a fair amount of traffic and ambient noise of the people on the various levels.
Curran, now 75, has been a prominent figure on the contemporary music scene internationally since about 1964 when he was partnered with fellow expatriates Frederic Rzewski, Allan Bryant, Richard Teitlebaum and Carol Plantamura among others in the ground breaking Musica Elletronica Viva. They created events and happenings using live electronics in the days before such things were easily accessible. He has continued to explore the leading edge of musical creativity throughout his long and ongoing career.
The concert began with Curran circumnavigating the audience in clockwise fashion beginning stage right and going around the audience making a full circle and returning to the front of the audience stage center. he began by playing two simple chords on the instrument repeating them several times. He then switched to another woodwind type instrument playing some unusual sounds. When he took his place in front of the keyboards he set those instruments down.
He alternated between playing the piano and the electronic keyboard sometimes playing both. He began with some simple sounding piano music and then turned to the electronic keyboard and began playing some of the samples on it. They ranged from speech to electronic sounds.
At first the ambient noise of the crowd echoed gently in the museum along with the music. Gradually as the music became more complex and louder the audience seemed entranced, taken on the ritualistic journey that comprises Curran’s work, Fake Book, a reference to books of musical lead sheets that musicians have used over the years to quickly and easily access a variety of materials for live performances.
The louder music then suddenly changed back to a softer dynamic and the reduction in the ambient noise of the audience and casual museum goers had noticeably decreased and one sense an increased attention and focus on the music. All seemed to be drawn in to the variety of sounds and styles which Curran refers to as his “common practice”, a practice in which the composer uses any and all sounds, instruments and styles strategically to evoke the things the composer wishes to express.
Curran played for just over an hour without pause an encyclopedic diversity of styles and ideas evoking the musical past in classical sounds, jazz sounds, modernist sounds. The electronic keyboard samples played voices, radio snippets, electronic sounds and electronic manipulations of these sounds.
Curran effectively involved us all in a ritual performance respectfully evoking the past and blending it all into our experience of the moment. From the beginning as he walked clockwise around the audience and through the complex collage of musical and sonic ideas he created a genuine ritual, a sacred performance if you will. His music this night was an homage to the past and a celebration of the present.
He signaled the end of the performance as he blew the ancient shofar, an instrument fashioned from a ram’s horn, over the undamped piano strings creating a beautiful sympathetic resonance.
The audience responded with warm applause and appreciation. Curran, who told me that he began work on this music while he was in residence at nearby Mills College, is clearly embraced and appreciated by the local audience. He continues his tour and will return to his adopted home in Rome, Italy but this evening he was clearly one of our own.