The David Brower Center in Berkeley, California provided a perfect setting for Other Minds‘ presentation of a conversation with American composer Alvin Curran. The Brower Center is the new home of the Other Minds organization run by broadcaster, composer and new music impresario Charles Amirkhanian. It is also home to a range of ecologically conscious organizations and is housed in a building renowned for its ecological efficiency. Curran, whose energy and charm belie his age (he turns 79 in December) is a composer with strong ties to the environment both as a concern and as a compositional element.
After a brief intro Curran provided a capsule overview of his evolution as an artist from his beginnings at Yale studying with Elliott Carter to his epiphanies in Berlin and later Rome (where he has made his home since the early 1960s). He described his decision to drive with fellow composer Joel Chadabe to Rome saying that they were “dreaming about making revolution”. There he collaborated with Frederic Rzewski and Richard Teitelbaum (among others) in founding the first live electronic improvisation ensemble, Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV). This was before the general availability of prepackaged synthesizers.
While he does not eschew more traditional classical music much of his work ventures far outside those models and it was a sampling of some of these ventures that were discussed and displayed in this fascinating interactive discussion.
He began by playing a portions of a video of a piece called Geologic Conversation (2000) which involved a large gaggle of musicians peripatetically led by the unbelievably energetic Curran as they all moved (danced?) on the active volcano, Mount Etna in Sicily. The performance drew a crowd of some 500 people of varying ages who moved with the musicians as they traversed a path across the sometimes volcanically singed locations. It was by all appearances an ecstatic performance and not without some danger.
I had the opportunity to ask him about his relationship to the work of the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer whose works seem to echo Curran’s. “He is more ‘composerly’ than I am” was Curran’s reply but he did acknowledge some kinship with Schafer’s work. Indeed Schafer has probably produced more traditional classical concert works than Curran but the parallels of his operas utilizing the sheer vastness of the Canadian landscape are hard to miss.
He next described and played video excerpts of what he calls Living Room Music. In it he invited various musicians to his apartment in Rome to do “anything they wanted” in exchange for a modest fee and a meal cooked by Curran. The recorded excerpts of these various performances were later used in a radio sound work for Deutschland Radio. What is impossible to grasp is how this seemingly banal idea is transformed into a sort of musical tabula rasa which inspired some amazing ideas from the guests he hosted. His successful facilitation of such seemingly strange, even goofy ideas is a mark of his genius.
Next up was a sort of installation art piece called Gardening with John which involved Curran building a little prefab garden shed (yes, filled with gardening tools) in which he covered the internal walls with quotes from John Cage and played tapes of Cage laughing. The video consisted of an unmoderated conversation between Curran and some of his guests. This installation sat on the grounds of a German museum. Humor and irony are a part of Curran’s work as much as they are of Cage’s.
Next up was Curran’s own version of Water Music which he calls Maritime Rites. It has been performed in various settings, all on or near water. This piece involves recordings which Curran made of various maritime sounds across the east coast of the United States as well as notated music to be played by the musicians.
The video he showed was of a performance on the Thames River in London (also the site of the performance of Handel’s Water Music) with the audience gathered on the Millennium Bridge. Curran and two other musicians played from a barge and members of the London Symphony played on the shore. The crowd was so large as to suggest that the bridge may be challenged in its ability to accommodate them safely but, thankfully, it did.
Finally, though the audience was clearly prepared to stay much longer, Curran and Amirkhanian discussed, “Oh for the Brass on the Grass”, a work for some 500 band musicians recruited from surrounding German towns. These amateur musicians ranging in age from 8 to 80 responded enthusiastically to Curran’s manic conducting (apparently banging a couple of pipes) as they traversed a large grassy field. At one point Curran turned off the sound and laughed at the specter of his own passionate conducting.
Unfortunately there was not time to delve into the many other aspects of this composer’s work which include some traditional concert works and a generous helping of politically charged work. But Curran warmly greeted his admirers providing autographs and avid conversation. All in all a lovely evening with a true master musician of our age. Can’t wait to see what he will do next.