Waking Up to Alvin Curran

Making music with all of these things

FRANK J. OTERI: Last night I got out all the recordings I have of your work and did a massive listening session just to rev myself up for this. It was so interesting hearing all of your music back to back because I was trying to walk away from it with one stream of thought, and it defies that.

ALVIN CURRAN: Yeah. Well, this is part of the problem, carrying my own work around with me all of these years, because it isn’t all in one bag. It’s a bunch of bags. Some come from one direction, some come from another. Some are heading over here, some over there. I’ve given up trying to define my work. I’m just redefining it all the time. I actually wrote a considerably sizable article some years ago for the German music magazine MusikTexte, written in English, called “The New Common Practice.”

My thoughts concerning the new common practice came about due to my unexpected teaching activity that began in 1990 at Mills College. There, through engagement with students and courses called Composition Seminars where I actually had to create problems—and the problems that I took up the most were of course my own. It turned out that these were infinite and then they spread across pretty much all of the musical disciplines that we can think of in the late 20th century. Just to name them: composition with a capital “C,” that is, those people who still insist doggedly to write notes on paper, and improvisation as a counterpoint to that. My career took off doing both of those simultaneously every single day.

I started in Rome in 1966 with the foundation of the group Musica Elettronica Viva with Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum, and other people—we were all Harvard/Yale/Princeton composers. Composers! I mean we didn’t think of ourselves as anything different. In the same year Cornelius Cardew‘s Scratch Orchestra project had been launched in London. A project which involved the invitation for musicians and non-musicians to bring in conceptual pieces, instruction pieces, text pieces, any kind of piece that could be played by anybody. Incidentally, in the late ’60s, ‘anybody’ and ‘everybody’ were the same thing. [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: That seems a strange path to take after to take after being a student of Elliott Carter

ALVIN CURRAN: I was a student of Elliott Carter. Richard was a student of Mel Powell. Frederic had studied with Milton Babbitt. So we had all of these Ivy pedigrees, but on the other hand this desire—this need—to grasp the moment in the mid-1960s that required us to make a kind of tabala rasa in our lives and practices. That didn’t cut out composing as such, but it did bring us to the place where we immediately recognized that making spontaneous music was another form of composing. Actually, all of us to this very day have incorporated the old traditional, classical—I use that word in its classic sense—classical sense of being a composer, and at the same time a composer who at any given moment can make music with anything, with any object, or with nothing, just their body. In the new common practice, composer and improviser are only two of the large practices within many, many smaller and less well-defined compartments.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now within each of those larger categories of composition and improvisation, you have within them ‘what are you composing?’, ‘what are you improvising?’ Are you creating music that’s tonally rooted, atonally rooted, that’s based on repetition, that’s indeterminate in its form, that uses electronics, that doesn’t use electronics. What I find so interesting is that you are all of these things, sometimes even in one piece.

ALVIN CURRAN: I find that when you really start to look around, you don’t see any distinctions anymore. It isn’t just all one big blur. It’s all of these techniques, all of these languages, all of these alphabets, all of these worlds of sound, all of these tendencies in direction are available to everybody now, that’s what it is. This is the new common practice.

It isn’t that I don’t think about what I’m doing, but I’m not the composer who gets up with rigorous schedules at 5:30 in the morning and sits at my desk. I don’t have a desk. I hardly ever get up at ungodly hours like that, nor do I compose every day. But I do compose in a larger sense every minute of my life. This practice, for all of its lack of rigor, is my own personal structure in my approach to making music.

I love tunes. I love triadic chords. I love clusters. I love noise. I love silence. And I began making music with all of these things, because all of these things thrill me. There was no intellectual meditation to do this, that and the other. It just all came bit by bit. I must say, the catalyst was from a traditional learning practice, namely the Yale School of Music, a Master of Arts degree, and long association and friendship to this day with Elliott Carter, who is a real mentor. But on the other hand along the way I moved toward Cage, became very close to him. Then moved toward Feldman and became close to him. I’m saying also on a personal level.

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