Waking Up to Alvin Curran

The essence

FRANK J. OTERI: There was a whole period in the ’70s where you did these solo works involving all different kinds of sound, and then a bunch of chamber music and solo piano pieces. There’s your trio for violin, piano, and percussion, Schtyx, and the string quartet, and the piece for Rova.

ALVIN CURRAN: Well, Schtyx is, I can openly say, one of my favorite, favorite pieces of all time. It’s only been played once by the Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio, produced by the now defunct CRI. It’s going to be coming out again on New World Records.

This was a piece for violin, percussion, and piano—straight ahead, you know, anybody’s anytime universal chamber music. And, I bring my own language and my own antics into this music—and it is a piece full of antics. It actually starts with Willy Winant, at least in the original performance, pushing a sofa across the floor, creating these squeaks and squeals and rumbles. There are a lot of gestures and ideas that really come from the old MEV improvisations where we’d walk into a room and start moving furniture around. It wasn’t Satie’s furniture music, but it was this concept, this neo-primitive little 1968 utopia of being able and ready at any moment to make a piece of music with anything, and that’s where all of this stuff comes from.

FRANK J. OTERI: I’d like to talk about the remarkable solo piano pieces, the Inner Cities series, and what I like to call dysfunctional tonality. [laughs]

ALVIN CURRAN: Yes, very, very dysfunctional.

FRANK J. OTERI: I really identify with it as a composer and as a listener. I think it really is music that’s not afraid to be beautiful, but that at the same time isn’t encumbered by the obsessive directionality of European rationality in the past.

ALVIN CURRAN: This leads back to, again, what I call the new common practice. In the new common practice, you can do anything, you can speak any language, and you can speak multiple languages. I have this need to at once, and in the same space, and sometimes in the same moment be sweet and sour, be incredibly, openly tonal and harmonic and openly, plainly in the Schubertian sense, beautiful. There’s the other beautiful. There’s the Morty Feldman beautiful. Morty, for me, is the source: The one composer that could do those things at every moment in his pieces. On the surface you’re going to hear more European music that’s coming from the great Webern tradition, but there’s some other thing going on there. You don’t even know what it is! [sings] It’s three, four semi-tones over and over until you want to shut the thing off. And yet, there’s something. I mean this obsessive melody is some sort of molecular torture, getting into the molecules of the essence of melody.

FRANK J. OTERI: I hear Clarinet and String Quartet or Piano and String Quartet or even For Samuel Beckett and I go, ‘Wow! He really understood what the emancipation of the dissonance meant.’ Here, you have this system that liberates music from directionality, and all these guys were so busy trying to keep it going with directionality, this European idea. Just let it be!

ALVIN CURRAN: Let it be, exactly. Morty really liberated the 12 notes. Not Arnold.

FRANK J. OTERI: And you hear this, and all the 12 notes are equal, but it’s beautiful! And it doesn’t go anywhere, but why does it have to?! It’s great where it is, [laughs] for six hours!

ALVIN CURRAN: Talking about six hour pieces, my first experience with a six hour piece—actually, no, it was five and a half hours—was Einstein On The Beach. That was a terrific experience. Philip [Glass]‘s piece, in the original Bob Wilson production, was absolutely a knockout. Time didn’t matter.

But when I heard Morty’s second String Quartet in Darmstadt, the very first performance—with Morty snoring in the front row by the way. Let’s tell the truth. Everyone was afraid to wake him up! But listen, this piece… you could have snored for ten hours and come back for more. I mean, this was an abundant gift! This is music as a gift. He is giving you something. All music has to give you something, but this was so generous. Of course you could go out and come back, and of course they would be playing the same [sings]. The same little melodic cell would still be there, maybe slightly different. But this piece blew me away. Not because of the dimension, not the six hours—what do you care? You know, it was an event! It was someone who’d gone to the ultimate stage in their musicmaking, which took them to this radical place where there are no beginnings and no endings. Where time stops. Where it doesn’t matter how much you hear. And if you come in and you missed the middle two hours and only heard the first hour and the last two, so what? It’s still a terrific piece of music. It’s a monument.

FRANK J. OTERI: Which is why I think Feldman’s music works so remarkably well on recordings. Maybe even more than it does in the concert hall. As with a lot of your pieces, I know most of them through recordings and certainly many of the pieces would have difficult ongoing lives in the concert hall both in terms of resources and duration. But then, with some of the earlier stuff, like the Musica Elettronica Viva recordings, I feel, ‘Gee, I wish I was there for it,’ because I’m not sure it translates onto the record.

ALVIN CURRAN: Yeah. You’re right. It’s in a way a period piece where you really have to have some olfactory input as well as sonic. You’ve gotta smell this stuff. You’ve gotta be in these dank, funky underground cellars somewhere in Rome or Brussels, you know, where people are screaming their brains out and making this crazy feedback and stuff.

FRANK J. OTERI: But of course for us in this day and age, the way new music is disseminated is through recordings. That’s it. There are concerts, certainly, but Cage and Feldman are prime examples of this. They’re living on through their recordings. The orchestras and the big chamber music groups aren’t presenting their music.

ALVIN CURRAN: No, that would be death to their season. Though, you know, Michael Tilson Thomas gave a very nice presentation of one of The Viola in My Life pieces on the regular season. Those things sneak in every once in a while, but they’re very rare on the normal concert series. There was an interesting article last Sunday in the Times about the difference between the new Los Angeles Philharmonic and their tendency now to encourage more contemporary, living composers compared to the New York Philharmonic program which has remained very, very staid and classical.

FRANK J. OTERI: When I talked to Fred Rzewski, he said abolish the symphony orchestra.

ALVIN CURRAN: Yeah, well, Fred was always a little more radical than I am, but we’re thinking along the same lines. I’m not saying abolish them. No. On the contrary, I would love to know that every night I could go and listen to a Beethoven symphony somewhere. But on the other hand, it is depressing to know that every night, it’s only Beethoven symphonies and that as a living composer, you don’t have a chance in hell to get your music in there. Or so little chance that it really doesn’t count. Something is wrong with the equation and that has to change. If the orchestra world has to support itself and continue as a pure museum piece, then that’s fine. You know, museums are great. We stand there in awe of these great paintings as we do of the great European masters in music. But it is a real disservice to living music to have created such a gap, such an abyss in time by not paying attention to the people making music today, and with very few exceptions to discourage many young composers who possibly could enter that world.

FRANK J. OTERI: So last question for you, would you want to write for symphony orchestra?

ALVIN CURRAN: Absolutely.

FRANK J. OTERI: I would love to hear that.

ALVIN CURRAN: I would love to hear it, too. [laughs]

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