In the Beginning Was the Word: Other Minds 23


 

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Charles Amirkhanian performing one of his spoken word compositions at Other Minds 20 in 2015

Other Minds has been the the darling of composer/producer Charles Amirkhanian since its founding in 1993.  Along with television producer and arts patron Jim Newman he has presided over the 25 years of this renowned festival which has consistently brought the finest new music composers and performers to San Francisco.

There is little doubt that this year’s festival has to be very close to Amirkhanian’s heart.  Words have been central to his career at least since 1969 when he began his work as a producer at KPFA.  In the 23 years he spent there he presented countless hours of musical programming and interviews.  He crossed paths with most of the major stars in contemporary classical music and many stars whose genre may not be captured by the classical label.  A look at his programming choices and interviews from his time there defined new music for the Bay Area and beyond.  After his tenure at KPFA ended in 1992 he continued exploring cutting edge music and musicians bringing them to San Francisco for live performances.

His work as producer and curator has tended to overshadow his work as a composer, sound poet, and spoken word artist.  This year’s OM festival is dedicated to speech, sound poetry, and the spoken word.  It is about both the history and the present state of the art.  In many ways Amirkhanian’s 1975 release “10 + 2: 12 American Text Sound Pieces” on 1750 Arch Records (now on an OM CD 1006-2) can be seen as sort of the starting point for this festival.  This masterful anthology includes works by Charles Amirkhanian (1945- ), Clark Coolidge (1939- ), John Cage (1912-1992), John Giorno (1936- ), Anthony Gnazzo (1936- ), Charles Dodge (1942- ), Robert Ashley (1930-2014), Beth Anderson (1950- ), Brion Gysin (1916-1986), Liam O’Gallagher (1917-2007), and Aram Saroyan (1943- ).

 

“Word! Thou word that I cannot speak!

At the end of the second (and last completed) act of Arnold Schoenberg’s powerful opera “Moses und Aron” (1932) Moses sings, or actually half speaks and half sings this text lamenting his expressive deficits.  Speech song or, in German, sprechgesang is an invention by Schoenberg in which the singers are asked to find a point between speech and music.  Perhaps this is a good example of some of the artistic thinking going on at about the time when speech music/sound poetry began to take shape.

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Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)

Some of the history of sound poetry is featured in this unprecedented 6 day festival (April 9-14).  Some of the earliest practitioners of this unusual genre include the German artist Kurt Schwitters whose composition Ursonate (1922-32) will be performed in its entirety, a rare event by itself.

Another early gem will be the Spoken Music (1930) by German-American composer Ernst Toch.  This three movement suite has been known for its last movement, the Geographical Fugue.  The other two movements, once thought lost, were discovered in sketches in 2006 and reconstructed by Christopher Caines.  The now complete version will be presented I believe on day 3.

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Ernst Toch (1887-1964)

 

It is beyond the scope of this blog post to tell the history of text sound so I will refer readers to the Other Minds website for further details.  Or you could come to the festival too I suppose.

With due respect given to the past the festival will move on to the present.  San Francisco Beat Poet Michael McClure (1932- ) will make an appearance as will post beat colleagues Anne Waldman (1945- ), Clark Coolidge (yeah the guy from that cool anthology), Aram Saroyan (another guy from the classic text sound disc).

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Alvin Curran in conversation last year in Berkeley.

Other Minds alumnus Alvin Curran (1938- ) will be premiering his collaboration with Clark Coolidge entitled, Came Through in the Call Hold.  Curran’s eclectic sensibilities will doubtless result in an interesting composition.  This event alone, at least for this writer, is worth the price of admission.  And this is just the first day!

Other events include workshops, discussions of the history of the art, and even some curious variations on a theme.  Apparently the writer Lawrence Weschler is the grandson of Ernst Toch and has written a variation on the Geographical Fugue called, The Medical Fugue which will be premiered at this festival.

The increasingly ubiquitous pianist Sarah Cahill will be present to perform Virgil Thomson’s unusual but entertaining setting of a Gertrude Stein (a one time Oakland resident) text called Capital, Capitals.  She will accompany the men of the Other Minds Ensemble.  Jaap Blonk will be tasked with performing Schwitters’ Ursonate and, along with Enzo Miranelli will also perform other historical works including some by a couple of Italian Futurists.

Other Minds Administrative Director Randall Wong will end the evening by undertaking a performance of the late great Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody.  That promises to be a wild evening I think.

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Jaap Blonk (1953- )

Northern Europe, including the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries will literally have their day.  As it turns out they are doing a great deal of creative work in this increasingly diverse genre of speech music.  Other Minds is at its best in introducing the new and the innovative from wherever Charles’ radar has tracked it down.  Indeed Mr. Amirkhanian and his wife, artist/photographer Carol Law traveled throughout these regions in the early 70s talking with and learning from these diverse artists.  (Amirkhanian’s work, Just was recorded in a Scandinavian studio during one of those trips).

As usual homage will be paid to the past with some recorded classics by Sten Hanson, Åke Hodell, and Lily Greenham.  Some new voices will be introduced including Tone Åse and Sten Sandell.  The Norwegian/Russian-American duo OTTARAS (consisting of visual poet Ottar Ormstad and composer Taras Mashtalir will also perform.   One can fully expect a mind expanding experience which will redefine the possibilities of the art form.

Auspiciously or perhaps dangerously Friday the 13th has been reserved for Bay Area talents.  First up will be the man of the hour, Charles Amirkhanian.  Hearing him do his work live is an uncommon but entirely enjoyable experience.  If that alone weren’t enough we will get to hear the even rarer public collaboration between him and his life partner Carol Law whose photography and collage work deserves wider recognition and will happily get that here.

Amy X Neuberg

Amy X Neuberg.

Trained in both linguistics and music, Amy X Neuberg will be on hand to perform her indescribable electronic cabaret including the world premiere of “Say it like you mean” and other genre bending work.  She is another valued Other Minds alumnus having given numerous performances at the festivals.

Stanford professor Mark Applebaum, another alumnus will present “Three Unlikely Corporate Sponsors” which premiered at Stanford in 2016.  Enzo Miranelli will conclude the evening with his theatrical combination of movement and text in “Fame: What I Want to Say”.

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Pamela Z

The festival concludes on Saturday April 14th with Jaap Blonk followed by the wonderful San Francisco based Pamela Z who, like Neuberg uses electronics, but creates her own unique sound world.  She too is an alumnus of Other Minds.

Another composer from that great anthology, Beth Anderson, will make an appearance to perform “If I Were a Poet”, “I Can’t Stand It”, and “Ocean Mildew Minds”.

The finale will feature Susan Stone and Sheila Davies Sumner performing excerpts from two works, “House with a View” and “Loose Tongues” both dealing with the lives of working class southern women.

This will be both a feast and a marathon but it promises to be one of the finest Other Minds productions maybe ever.  Come to be entertained, come to be challenged, come to expand your mind.  You’ll never be the same.  See you there.

The @realAlvin Curran at the Armory


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Alvin Curran performing from his “Fake Book” at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley in 2014

Alvin Curran (1938- ) is  one of the finest of that maverick band of composers who came of age in the 1960s as expatriates in Italy.  Along with musicians like Frederic Rzewski, Carol Plantamura, Richard Teitelbaum, and Allan Bryant among others they formed the world’s first live electronic improvisation ensemble, “Music Elletronica Viva” in 1966.  In this time electronic synthesizers were not generally available and most of their equipment was hand made.  All the musicians have since all gone their own very creative ways but in many ways this ensemble has been their touchstone which continues to underlie their work.

Curran told this writer that it was around this time that he began working on a huge series of compositions of (at least initially) an improvisational nature which he collected under the general title of “Fake Book”.  Musicians will be familiar with the term which is roughly analogous to a cheat sheet enabling musicians easy access to many chord progressions, songs, and other pieces at their fingertips to please a wide range of tastes in their audiences.

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Curran’s Fake Book is a huge collection of scores, digital samples (no doubt he began with analog samples) and sketches.  He recently published a hefty selection of this material available on Amazon and is well worth both your time and your money for the insight it provides to this unusual composer.  The composer’s web site is an extremely useful reference but nothing can match hearing and seeing this spirited, kinetic shaman of a performer.  His creativity and sheer joy of music making is infectious and the music he makes is akin to reading diary excerpts, a musical analogy of sorts to the likes of Anais Nin, the famed mega-diarist of a previous generation.

Curran is, at 80, an energetic and endlessly creative musician, a humanist with deep convictions and quite simply an experience not to be missed.  Here is the announcement of this concert which, though this writer is unable to attend, is not to be missed.

Alvin Curran
performs
“The Alvin Curran Fakebook”
on shofar, piano, keyboard, and electronics
at the Veterans Room
Thompson Arts Center at Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Avenue (66th-67th St.)
Wednesday March 14, 2018, at 7.00 pm & 9.00 pm
or call the box office (212) 933-5812 Mon-Fri, 10.00 am-6.00 pm

Alvin Curran’s Fake Book at the Berkeley Arts Museum


Staging set up for the Alvin Curran solo performance at the Berkeley Arts Museum

Staging set up for the Alvin Curran solo performance at the Berkeley Arts Museum

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.

Curran playing a harmonica at the opening of the concert.

Curran playing a harmonica at the opening of the concert.

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.

Curran completing his circumnavigation which opened the performance.

Curran completing his circumnavigation which opened the performance.

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.

Alvin Curran at the keyboards performing his Fake Book.

Alvin Curran at the keyboards performing his Fake Book.

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.

Curran blowing the ancient shofar (ram's horn) over the undamped piano strings.

Curran blowing the ancient shofar (ram’s horn) over the undamped piano strings.

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.

Overhead view of the keyboard set  up for the April 11th performance.

Overhead view of the keyboard set up for the April 11th performance.

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Alvin Curran at 75, Experimentalism with an Ethnic and Social Conscience


English: The American composer Alvin Curran pl...

English: The American composer Alvin Curran playing the shofar in his composition “Shofar 3,” for shofar and live electronics (2007). Photo taken at a concert of Curran’s music in Warner Concert Hall, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia

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.

Buchla 100 series modular synthesizer at NYU

Buchla 100 series modular synthesizer at NYU (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Interior of a Berlin Synagogue after Kristallnacht

Interior of a Berlin Synagogue after Kristallnacht

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.

English: "Hebrew alphabet" in Hebrew...

English: “Hebrew alphabet” in Hebrew, modern serif typeface. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

So the Dead May Speak, a Function of Classical Political Music


English: Photograph of a Female Demonstrator O...

Photograph of a Female Demonstrator Offering a Flower to a Military Police Officer, 10/21/1967 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Giving a voice to the murdered, the martyrs, those who cannot speak for themselves is one of the ways in which sociopolitical music can function.  Witness the case of Sam Melville (born Samuel Joseph Grossman in 1934).  He worked as a draftsman for a company which assigned him to work on designing new offices for the Chase Manhattan Bank in the then apartheid Union of South Africa.  He became outraged at the inequality and quit his job there as a result.  He became involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement the Weather Underground and the Black Panther Party.  He was arrested in 1969 for his involvement in 8 bombings.  He was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison.

sam-melville

He was transferred to Attica prison in upstate New York where he continued to work as an activist attempting to improve prison conditions for him and his fellow inmates.  He is suspected of being involved in organizing the prison riots which erupted there in 1971 which the state’s response resulted in the deaths of 39 people of which Melville was one.  Subsequent lawsuits for violations of civil rights resulted in the payment of $12 million dollars by the state of New York to the families of the victims.

The first recording of both "Coming Together" and "Attica", an iconic record for this writer.

The first recording of both “Coming Together” and “Attica”, an iconic record for this writer.

Later that year Frederic Rzewski wrote his piece for speaker and ensemble (the score is open as to instrumentation) “Coming Together”.  The title and the words the speaker repeats are taken from one of Melville’s letters:

“I think the combination of age and the greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time. it’s six months now and i can tell you truthfully few periods in my life have passed so quickly. i am in excellent physical and emotional health. there are doubtless subtle surprises ahead but i feel secure and ready. As lovers will contrast their emotions in times of crisis, so am i dealing with my environment. in the indifferent brutality, incessant noise, the experimental chemistry of food, the ravings of lost hysterical men, i can act with clarity and meaning. i am deliberate–sometimes even calculating–seldom employing histrionics except as a test of the reactions of others. i read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.”

The text is repeated usually with dramatic license over a driving minimalist substrate which suggests the chaos that must have imbued that time.  The piece lasting about 20 minutes is a powerful experience, even more so when the listener comes to know the context.  It has been recorded at least four times.

A sort of companion piece, “Attica”, also written in 1971, uses the words of one of the survivors of that riot, Richard X. Clark, as he was being taken away from the prison:  “Attica is in front of me now.”  Mr. Clark, who was released from prison in 1972, wrote a book about his experiences and went on to work in social services as a case manager helping drug addicts recover.

This second piece (lasting about ten minutes) uses the minimalist style to create a calmer atmosphere, that of a man who is saddened but relieved to have this event over and to have survived.  This piece has also had several recordings and is frequently performed as a companion to “Coming Together”.

In future blogs I will include more music that speaks for the dead in this ongoing series of political classical music.