Waking Up to Alvin Curran

I know what the score is

ALVIN CURRAN: My very first meeting with Cage took place when I was student at Yale. People had been urging the music department to invite John Cage because he was only a few miles away at Wesleyan University at the time. It was as good as asking them to invite an open can of the Botulism virus into the University, so that never happened, but magically though the dean of the philosophy department was a good friend of Cage’s and invited him to do a concert. So they produced one of the pieces of Cage’s with eleven record players, Imaginary Landscapes.

FRANK J. OTERI: You hear so many of these stories now. I studied composition at Columbia at the tail end of all of this. I was at a symposium at the centenary of Varèse and somebody mentioned Alvin Lucier and there were loud boos in the audience.

ALVIN CURRAN: [laughs] I love it!

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s absolutely amazing now to think about. There’s this legendary story of the first Bang on a Can festival where they programmed both Steve Reich and Milton Babbitt. They both showed up, but they each walked out before for each other’s pieces, so as not to ‘be there.’ New music has historically been a divided kingdom, but you bring it all together…

ALVIN CURRAN: I do have these threads through all of this stuff. I am not a product of the uptown music world, but in a way I am as comfortable in the uptown music world as I am in any music world. I know what the score is. I know how that stuff is done. I know where it’s coming from and maybe even why, but it’s not my way of proceeding on my musical journey. On the other hand, I wouldn’t for a minute refuse an invitation into that world because why should I? I’m part of that, just as you say.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, in terms of teaching—you taught for years at Mills—could you imagine wanting to keep somebody from talking to your class?

ALVIN CURRAN: Absolutely not. On the contrary, I would go out of my way to find people who are contrary to my views, or contrary to the Mills directions, or the experimental music history or whatever you want to define it as. Nobody has taken me up on it yet, but I’ve always insisted that John Adams, who lives just down the street, should come and talk to the students at Mills. Tell these students how you can make a success writing symphonic music today, or orchestral music or opera. I mean, it’s stuff that none of these students would ever think of, but why shouldn’t they?

FRANK J. OTERI: If a student came to you, writing at this point totally rigorous, total serial music with serial rhythms and serial pitches and serial everything. How would you respond to that?

ALVIN CURRAN: With loving care, because I know that music inside out. I was spoon-fed that music, or force-fed it, actually. I drank out of a flask of retrograde inversion. I would make the student aware, however, that there’s a lot of good use you can put that musical style to. You just have to widen your context, widen your picture frame. I would attempt that. If there was no response to that, then I don’t see why a piece of rigorous 12-tone music couldn’t be a great piece of music today, just like any other.