Waking Up to Alvin Curran

It's an overmyth

FRANK J. OTERI: Your comment about Babbitt, Martino, and all of these composers as having this American-ness in their blood, so to speak, as opposed to Schoenberg having Viennese waltzes in his blood…This is an interesting concept coming from a composer for who, for most of the year at least, is an expatriate himself.

ALVIN CURRAN: Well, first of all I never liked the word though I have come to understand that it is not so negative anymore, that is, to use it and apply it to oneself. To me the word expatriate had meanings of the Gertrude Steins and the Hemingways and so on in the ’20s and ’30s. The Ezra Pounds that went to Europe and got acculturated, or got more Americanized, even. I’ve lived nearly 40 years in Italy, and it’s been 40 years of joyous living. The great part of my creative life took place during these years. My creative life is continuing there now, together with my bicoastal American life, which is part in California with stops in New York all the time. My sense of myself is ‘I’m an American composer.’ And I’m not waving the stars and stripes here. It’s a recognition which is the most truthful and the most profound for me. My European years have made that all the more true and made me all the more aware of it.

There is a vast difference in sensibility, style, approach, and in concept that exists among American artists and our European colleagues. There are places we just don’t connect. We don’t communicate. They don’t get it. Minimalism, for example, was a blatant example of that. The success and the obvious power of American minimalism in the late ’60s and ’70s and ’80s did not sow one damned seed in any composer in Europe. Maybe a couple here and there, but it did not take off. Nor did the whole mystery and magic of Cage’s chance concept. Cage was an amazingly powerful figure in Europe—but the music did not leave many traces. It didn’t have this natural, fertile ground from which to grow like it does here—or it might not now for a few years. I think people may be overdosed. My students get nervous when the name Cage comes up now. They don’t want to hear about it anymore. It’s an overmyth. I’m just making that up, I don’t know what an overmyth is! But there’s too much.

However it may be, those distinctions are noticeable to me. These are two of the most American inventions, not to mention the Harry Partchs and the Nancarrows—the real outsider music, total outsider music which has no counterpart whatsoever in Europe with a few exceptions. One is Giuseppe Chiari who lives in Florence. He’s a real outsider/Fluxus nut and someone who’s been an inspiration to me, as well as a great friend. But there are very few exceptions. You can count them on a few fingers.

FRANK J. OTERI: In a sense, Stockhausen was a total outsider.

ALVIN CURRAN: Well, he’s become an outsider in his own country. He’s so active and so much his own person. He’s loved and reviled. I mean, I’m talking about reviled by people who studied or worked with him, people he might have taken advantage of, ripped off, or had bad relations with. Now, John Cage was loved or avoided, but to my knowledge he wasn’t reviled, except by the academic community. The Stockhausen story is very, very complex, but it’s one that I come back to from time to time because Stockhausen was a figure who’s had a very, very powerful force in my early compositional formation.

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