Waking Up to Alvin Curran

I never really meant to show my Jewish roots

FRANK J. OTERI: Another cultural characteristic that I want to talk about that seeps through a number of your compositions is your Jewish heritage. It comes up in titles of works like “Why is Tonight Different From Any Other Night,” which is—anybody who hasn’t sat through a seder might not know what that refers to, right? [laughs] Or even the Schtetl Variations or Crystal Psalms.

ALVIN CURRAN: Look, in a nutshell I can give you a little soundbyte on that because ‘I never really meant to show my Jewish roots.’ I say that both ironically and seriously. All of these pieces incidentally come out of the mid-’80s. It’s a whole series culminating with Crystal Psalms in 1988—not that it’s finished. I think these works were a necessary part of a personal reflection and recognition, catalyzed without willing—just by simply living in Berlin, period. As Morty Feldman once said, you can hear them calling out from under the sidewalks. It’s something you have to deal with. If my way is through music…I don’t know what it means, because the music has to stand on its own. It can’t lean on this crutch of exile or tragedy or whatever.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, in terms of standing on its own and then the impact; when I think of pieces that are really, really powerful memorials about the Holocaust, that really talk about this in a musical way, the two pieces that keep popping back in my head are Steve Reich’s Different Trains, and your Crystal Psalms. These are two pieces that are just absolutely vivid and they work as music, but they work as music because of the context as well.

ALVIN CURRAN: Absolutely, and it would be silly to deny that. I mean, once I was attacked for this very thing by a German philosopher who said I was stirring up memories, and that has nothing to do with the music. I argued that a piece of music like this can be created in two ways. One is from the heart, because it has to be done. It’s a purely emotional and artistic response. The second is when I can stand back and look at this musical object, as pure music devoid of any meaning, just like an abstract painting.

FRANK J. OTERI: I’ve been thinking to myself—now we’re going to get political—that there’s all this 9/11 music. As a composer, I won’t go near it. And a lot of composers I know won’t. How do you deal with a subject like this in music, with the Holocaust or with 9/11?

ALVIN CURRAN: Well, for one thing you need distance. The Holocaust is not less tragic because of the more than 50 years of space between us and it. I came to this work at the right point in my life and it was a moment of meditated creation. The 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht was coming up. I went to various radio producers in Europe and I said, ‘I have this idea. I would like to create a unified concert hall throughout all of Europe with hundreds of musicians playing with other musicians who they don’t even see or hear, connected by radio as a memorial event for this occasion.’ The project was ingenious. It was typically me. It was right in every way. It was accepted and it was a remarkable co-production with six radio stations, six European countries, and a lot of wonderful musicians playing at once.

For me, it would just be personally unthinkable to make a 9/11 piece. I just couldn’t even though I heard the first plane fly over Fifth Avenue. I felt very much involved, in that I was here that day, but it would be unthinkable to jump in, because it’s just too immense.

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