Waking Up to Alvin Curran

The whole world is literally under my fingers

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, how did a piece like Magnetic Garden happen?

ALVIN CURRAN: Well, by attentive, loving years of gathering ambient sounds. I just recorded everything around me. Going everywhere, looking for stuff. Going to weird places. Staying up at night and waiting for some sound that I knew was out there, that was going to happen at that hour. Looking for particular flocks of birds that take off. It was practice of my own investigation and research into embracing natural sound as a form of living music and then composing with that sound. It would be a difference, let’s say, from using watercolor technique and watercolor material in one form of composition to sculpting in stone. There’s absolutely nothing that connects the two.

The use of natural sound is such a thrilling medium and one that was so inherently natural to me. I realized immediately that I was composing, as it were, how a photographer or a filmmaker thinks and works, with almost completely extant and existing compositions—that is, whole blocks of recorded time, whole documents of a site or a moment in time. To go back to my self-definition as an obsessive contrapuntalist, I am layering, and layering, and layering. In those layers—blending and fading in and out, crossing each other, mixing, contaminating—in all of these things lies the practice of a contrapuntal composer. Not an Ockeghem, but a modern-day one who’s painting with pure color.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, to bound off of something else you just said, I find this such a wonderful irony that the way to create music using nature is with technology, with electronics, which almost seems like the opposite thing.

ALVIN CURRAN: Indeed. But I don’t think anyone has run into a contradiction because of the technology that is necessary in acquiring or embracing the use of natural sounds. Today, for example, I’m able to program an 88-note keyboard with about 1,000 samples. Imagine, conceptually imagine, as I improvise with these. I don’t know where every one is. Sometimes there are three per note depending on how hard I hit the key. I imagine that I can play the whole world, so that the whole world is literally under my fingers. I’ve got mating bison over here, and loons over here, hyenas over here, human beings making love here, Steve Lacy over here, Pauline Oliveros over… You know, all my friends and family. I’ve got Zorn screaming over here, gorillas here…

FRANK J. OTERI: Did you get permission to use that Zorn clip? He’s very touchy about that stuff. [laughs]

ALVIN CURRAN: Well, we just mastered it yesterday, so he had no choice. He loved it! [laughs]