Waking Up to Alvin Curran
FRANK J. OTERI: What did Carter give you as a composer and how has he been a mentor to you?
ALVIN CURRAN: Let me answer the first question: what he gave me in terms of tools for composition? I could say nothing. But what was exciting about working with Carter was that it was in the period in his life when he had just finished his second string quartet. I was still trying to digest the first one, but the second one came along and that was, ‘Oh my god, that’s like over the edge; I can’t get it.’ We had the pleasure of working with a living composer who was in the prime of his life and gaining amazing recognition. There was something—not about working with a great person, a successful person—but he was, at least for us, a model for being a composer. Maybe not the model to follow in every detail or in every precept and idea, but he was definitely a model. This was not just some college professor. This was a composer.
FRANK J. OTERI: Looking back on all of Carter’s music now without the baggage that it once had in academia, really looking at from a 21st-century common practice vocabulary, it’s fascinating to me how his ideas about music are a real harbinger of polystylism: all the instruments playing, as he puts it, different kinds of music together, even though it doesn’t necessarily come off sounding that way. I would dare say that it’s a harbinger of your own musical ideas although they sound completely different.
ALVIN CURRAN: Well, there is one thing we do have in common: we’re obsessively polyphonic. That is, we think in layering. We think in terms of the coloristic bands and panels and strokes and gestures of many, many, many different materials going on simultaneously to create magical complexities or magical simplicities, as it were.
The influence of Carter is something I have not talked about at great length publicly. My fondness and gratitude for Elliott is infinite for his having reaffirmed and reinforced my desire to make a career in music. Now, that may sound a little bit like a personal reflection, but I really feel that without Carter going overboard too much to praise me or to give too many useless pats on the back, I felt that he was really there for me and felt that he was saying, in his very introspective way, that I should really go on in music. He’s said to people that he really thought a lot of me as a student. I can say that openly. I think the direction I took, ultimately, did not please him originally. I think, now, possibly yes. He went to every concert I ever did at Roulette, The Kitchen, all but the Knitting Factory, I think. He and Helen were always there. They always sat in the front row and embarrassed me. [laughs] I’m touched by this. This is not their cup of tea—the performance style and the directions I took, especially the more tonal ones. But I think Elliott realized that I was just taking my world of music on its own course, and he respected that.
FRANK J. OTERI: And have you kept up with his compositions?
ALVIN CURRAN: Yes, yes. In fact, I’m actually writing a memorial piece for Helen, who I loved dearly. To do that I’m actually going to quote a little from Carter’s Night Fantasies. It might be backwards or upside down, but he’ll recognize it. [laughs] He can decodify anything.
FRANK J. OTERI: I want to talk about some of your other compositional heroes early on. You mentioned Cage, and I’m also thinking of people like Cardew, who was one of your contemporaries. And Giacinto Scelsi, who was an important person for you a little later, once you established yourself in Europe. What was their impact on your music and what was your connection to them on a personal level, as a colleague?
ALVIN CURRAN: Actually, Carter invited me and Frederic Rzewski to come to Berlin for a year with him. After that year in Berlin in ’65, I hopped in Joel Chadabe‘s Volkswagen and we drove to Rome, just two American kids looking for adventure. Joel knew Rome very well. He knew Franco Donatoni. He knew Scelsi. He knew a lot of people there. So, that’s how my Rome life started, by pure chance. I just got into a car and drove to Rome from Berlin.
I met Cardew for the first time in Rome. I had just gotten there, and he was on a fellowship to study with
Petrassi and ultimately to write an orchestral piece that was played by the Radio Orchestra of Rome. And I ended up being Cornelius’s copyist. In fact, the piece had a weird title – it was called Bun. [laughs] In this period, I was very close to Cornelius, and then of course Cornelius already was a very close friend of Frederic Rzewski, who came to Rome the following year.
So, Cornelius had a very, very strong mentoring effect on me. Again, I wasn’t a kid lost at sea in Rome, but I was looking around, looking in all these directions and especially the directions and magnetism of the classical avant-garde and the post-classical, namely the Fluxus movement, chance music, the whole Cage story—all of these things I didn’t know about, quite honestly. I was a sheltered kid coming out of Yale. Believe me, really sheltered. Blinded, you might say. We were blinded by the road signs that pointed from Milton Babbitt’s office in Princeton to Elliott’s office in Yale [laughs]. I mean, that was it. These were conscripted times and conscripted behaviors.
On the one hand Cardew became a very strong force because of his conceptual rigor and profoundly revolutionary spirit—I didn’t understand that it had to do with the social and spiritual, I didn’t get that yet, but there was something really powerful about Cornelius. Furthermore, he was an amazingly expressive musician, in his composing, his written works, and his conceptual pieces, graphic pieces, and all kinds of things. He was really someone who opened up amazing chapters to me—again, someone slightly older who I could feel very close to, not someone who I had to admire at a distance.
Now, Scelsi was a kind of a mentor for the whole foreign community of musicians who came to Rome. Since he, himself, was an outsider in his own society, in his own musical environment, he only conspired with other outsiders, namely the foreigners: the young kooks like Frederic or myself that happened to be living there, or much more prominent ones like Cage and Feldman who were coming to Rome all the time in that period. Earle Brown as well.
Scelsi had a regular salon in the real, old 19th-century sense of the word. People went to his place in the late afternoon and had a tea, sat and talked. Then he also had regular parties and dinners. But his salon, as it were, was a real meeting place in Rome and a very important part of my life. Of course Scelsi was off on this spiritual quest which started very early in his life and was consolidated by many travels to India, to the far east, to central Asia, to all kinds of places looking for the great meaning of everything. And above all, focusing on music making practices, which later, of course, were very influential in his own composition, namely, microtonal music and music in and around one note, which he’s quite famous for. So, this was an added feature in my early musical education, an exposure to a whole world of eastern philosophy and practice. That had a great influence on me. Scelsi was a very, very open and enthusiastic supporter and came to all my concerts in Rome even right up to the very last one I gave just a few days before he died.
FRANK J. OTERI: Wow.
ALVIN CURRAN: This was in the summer time, and he was such a nut about being outdoors. He was there in a fur coat and a fur hat. It was an outdoor concert. He waved from a distance, beautiful sparking eyes and smile that he always had, and that’s the last time I saw him.
FRANK J. OTERI: And Cage?
ALVIN CURRAN: Yeah, the Cage story, another marvelous stream in my life. Again, all of these encounters were incredibly important moments of validation, because you’re always saying, ‘What the hell am I doing this for? Who needs this? Who needs this music? Who needs to go out and play for fifteen people? Who needs this crazy way of making music and all of these sounds, researching and looking and digging for it in all of the minds of geology?’ It was the older generation who had already paid their dues to some extent and were still paying them heavily, who could see younger ones coming up behind and doing what was right: not pushing them, but inviting them into that world and making that world a real home, a real comfort space, a real space of communication.
FRANK J. OTERI: There’s that fabulous anecdote after Cage and Feldman met. Early on, Cage asking Feldman how he wrote a certain piece for string quartet, Feldman saying he didn’t know, and Cage’s response, “Well, that’s beautiful!” I thought about that comment in connection to some of your work that I was listening to, the question of compositional structures and rigor—composition with a capital “C,” as you said—versus intuition.
ALVIN CURRAN: Well, intuition is my middle name, and because I don’t use systems, because I am definitively a non-rigorous, non-theoretical person, I’m more like a kind of Rousseau animal in nature. I just smell and go to that. I’m always out there listening. New York has a special sound, which comes into a lot of pieces of mine.