Alvin Curran at 75, Experimentalism with an Ethnic and Social Conscience


English: The American composer Alvin Curran pl...

English: The American composer Alvin Curran playing the shofar in his composition “Shofar 3,” for shofar and live electronics (2007). Photo taken at a concert of Curran’s music in Warner Concert Hall, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia

Alvin Curran (1938- ) is an American composer currently living and teaching in Rome whose career began as an expatriate artist working with the cutting edge improv electronics group Musica Elletronica Viva (MEV) in 1966. He turns 75 on December 13, 2013.

Curran was born in Providence, Rhode Island.  His father was a musician in a dance band and he learned to play piano and trombone early on.  He was exposed to big band music, jazz, traditional Jewish music and western classical music during his formative years.  Following his father’s example he also played in dance bands during boat crossings of the Atlantic.  He earned a B.A. in music from Brown University in 1960 where he studied composition with Ron Nelson.  He went on to complete his M.M. at Yale in 1963 were he studied with Elliott Carter and Mel Powell.

A 1964 Ford Foundation grant allowed him to go study in Darmstadt where he met the likes of Stravinsky, Xenakis, Berio, Yuji Takahashi, Andriessen, Remo Remotti, and above all Frederic Rzewski.  He joined with Rzewski,  Richard Teitelbaum and Allan Bryant, all fellow expatriate American musician/composers, with whom he formed the legendary ‘Musica Elettronica Viva‘ or MEV.  This was in early 1966 where their use of largely home made electronics in their improvisational ensemble live performances preceded the days of easily obtainable and operated electronic musical instruments. That wouldn’t begin to happen until about 1964 when Don Buchla, in collaboration with Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnick and the San Franciso Tape Music Center created the first modular instrument, the “music easel” later known as the ‘Buchla Box’ and Robert Moog on the east coast developed the “Moog” synthesizer.  Curran crossed paths with many of these people during his tenure teaching (1999-2006) at Mills College in Oakland where the San Francisco Tape Music Center had been integrated into the Mills Center for Contemporary Music.

Curran says that during all his years in Rome he met and interacted with many in the Italian avantgarde and new music circles like Franco Donatoni and Guiseppe Chiari.  He was mentored by the reclusive (think Thomas Pynchon) Giacinto Scelsi who held regular salons at his villa.  It was in these days that Curran developed his individual style further.  He lived and taught in Rome from 1966 to 1999 and was very active on the European scene.  After his teaching stint at Mills College Curran returned again to Rome.

Buchla 100 series modular synthesizer at NYU

Buchla 100 series modular synthesizer at NYU (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In addition to electronics he uses acoustic instruments ranging from conventional instruments such as piano, strings, woodwinds, voices, etc. to the ancient shofar and environmental sounds including site-specific sound installations, multi-media works and film scores.  His works include the massive set of piano pieces ‘Inner Cities’ (1993-2010) which lasts about 6 hours in a complete performance, the early multi-media Songs and Views from the Magnetic Garden (1973), Maritime Rites (1984) written to be played by musicians in boats in various harbors incorporating, of course, the ambience of the given harbor’s acoustic properties.  Maritime Rites has been performed in its various incarnations in Central Park in New York as well as Philadelphia, Berlin and Sydney.

In a wonderful interview from 2003 with the ever vigilant composer/journalist Frank Oteri (published online at New Music Box) he was asked about the political and ethnic/religious content of his music.  Curran replied that he did not set out to express these things as aspects of himself, that the pieces  just happened due to an inspiration at the time.  He says that he is composing all the time and his influences are as wide ranging as his teachers and his milieu.  His style varies widely in part due to his many influences but also because a given style seems to work for the piece.  It sounds as though music is channeled through him.

Unfortunately, as with most expatriate composers, his music is generally less well known in his native country but there are quite a few recordings including some recent releases of some out of print recordings.  In addition there are quite a few videos on YouTube including pianist Kurt Jordan’s live performance of Inner Cities 1-13 from 2009 at Azusa Pacific University which is more than the previously complete recording by Daan Vandewalle who recorded 1-11 (as of 2010 there are 14 parts according  to Curran’s official web site).   As is frequently the case with much contemporary music YouTube provides a great resource, especially for the casual and/or cash-strapped listener.  It is a really good way to get familiar with this man’s diverse and fascinating music.

Not infrequently his music takes on sociopolitical issues as well as inspiration from the composer’s Jewish heritage.  His Schtetl Variations (1987), dedicated to Morton Feldman is an improvisatory meditation on these poor villages of eastern Europe and Russia (think of Fiddler on the Roof) which became the settings for the notorious anti-semitic pogroms. A later piano piece called 11 Schtetl Settings (1988) continues his exploration of this part of his ancestry.  Animal Behavior (1992) for sampler keyboard and optional percussion is a pretty transparent indictment of 1990s American politics.  And the list goes on.

His “Nineteen Eighty Five: Piece for Peace” (1985) involved three ensembles performing at 3 different radio stations in Venice, Amsterdam and Frankfurt (which was simulcast by all three countries) is a a sort of precursor to what is perhaps his most integrated and powerful political composition, his ‘Crystal Psalms’ of 1988.  Here the historical, sociopolitical, ethnic and even geographical are joined to the avant garde in a stunning sonic commemoration and condemnation of the fascism and genocide that characterized the horrors of the second world war.

Interior of a Berlin Synagogue after Kristallnacht

Interior of a Berlin Synagogue after Kristallnacht

Seventy Five years ago this November (9th and 10th) Jewish shops and synagogues were vandalized and looted over those two nights throughout much of Nazi Germany and Austria in a most extreme incarnation of the “pogroms” that became known as “Kristallnacht” or the “Night of Broken Glass“.  It was one of the first major and overt expressions of Hitler’s genocidal plans then still being formulated. Unfortunately this event continues to be imitated by like-minded hateful individuals and groups worldwide. So the sociopolitical context of this musical work written for the 50th anniversary of that event sadly has an ongoing relevance for our contemporary world even 25 years after its creation.

At its most basic level this piece is a sort of concerto for six instrumental ensembles playing in radio stations in six different countries live mixed by the composer and broadcast throughout Northern Europe on October 20th of 1988. There is no text as such but the sounds of people praying and the apparently random Hebrew letters and German numbers are scattered throughout the piece along with environmental and found sounds on the tape Curran prepared which plays throughout the performance as a sort of political pedal point.

English: "Hebrew alphabet" in Hebrew...

English: “Hebrew alphabet” in Hebrew, modern serif typeface. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The liner notes of the recording describe the piece as “radio concert for six choruses; six sextets each including a quartet (violas, cellos, bass clarinets, bass flutes, trombones, tenor sax/tuba) plus accordion and percussion; tape.”  All were individually conducted with the conductors coordinated by a click track and mixed live by the composer. The recording on New World records is the document of that broadcast.

The effect is that of a collage connected by the electronic nervous system, the radio stations, which link the various performances.  The program is largely implicit here and listening to this piece evokes images that can vary from one listener to the next as any great piece of art provokes different experiences. The sound images here are not pretty and the work is very emotionally intense. Those images are guided by the tone of the music and fueled by the cryptic words and sounds mixed in with the live performances.  It is, in effect, his Mitzvah to the memories of the fallen.  You will not come away unmoved.

Kristallnacht occurred in November of 1938, a month before Curran was born but  the impact of that action continues to resound from that generation to this.  As a politically aware artist he was compelled to respond and he did so in a most emphatic, creative and powerful manner.  Perhaps it is the inherited duty of one generation to exorcise the demons and the atrocities of the previous ones.  Curran has certainly contributed most memorably to such an effort with this work.

Thank you, Mr. Curran, for your prolific and varied contributions to music and your efforts through your art to exorcise the demons of our collective past.  I wish you a happy 75th birthday and wishes for many more creative years to come.

In the Mood for Food, a unique underground dinner/concert series returns to the east bay


The door is open to the underground restaurant.

The door is open to the underground restaurant.

This past Monday October 7th there was a gathering of twelve people at a small loft space in West Oakland.  This is not a neighborhood known for about anything but light industry and cheaper rents.  But there are gems to be found in nasty old Oakland, CA and this is one of them.  It was the return of an irregular (approximately monthly) series of dinners and dinner concerts hosted by local vegan caterer and chef extraordinaire (and shakuhachi teacher as well) Philip Gelb.  These concerts, according to Mr. Gelb, were inspired by the Creative Music Studio which flourished in Woodstock, New York from 1971 to 1984 which featured many of the brightest and most innovative musicians in jazz, free improvisation and experimental music.  But the inclusion of such high quality creative cooking is unique here.

View through a glass, lightly.

View through a glass, lightly.

It has been many months since he last hosted one of these at his loft space.  Phil has chosen to combine his substantial cooking talents with his interest and connections with the music community to create this unique blend of freshly shopped and created vegan dishes with local and visiting musical talent.  This series, dubbed “In The Mood for Food”, is named after one of his favorite films, “In the Mood for Love” by Wong Kar-Wai.  The series has occurred more or less monthly for the last 8 years. To date I have enjoyed the creative and varied multi-course meals (which are frequently themed to the season or to the performer’s preferences) and have enjoyed both dinner conversation and performances by Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, Stuart Dempster, Gyan Riley, Tim Rayborn, Michael Manring, Barre Phillips, Mark Dresser, Amy X Neuberg and Pamela Z to name just a few.

The meals are always multi-course, locally created, sourced and shopped meticulously by Phil himself.  He serves only farm fresh ingredients, never canned or packaged and the recipes are his personal creations.  Food is served by the chef and one or two assistants depending on the size of the audience (maximum capacity is about 20 people).  Cost ranges from $40 to $60 per person, about what you would pay at a good area restaurant.  The musicians are either people with whom Phil has collaborated or found by word of mouth from other musicians and friends.  He has had many musicians call him to ask if they can play at his venue.  Why would that be?  There is no significant publicity or profit to be had here.  The answer, I believe, is the intimacy which is a combination of the loving creation of both food and music, both raised to an art form by their execution as well as their content.

There is reportedly a cook book in the works which, in addition to many carefully tested vegan recipes, will tell some of the history of this series.  Phil is occasionally soliciting recipe testers via Facebook.  He is also known for his hands on cooking classes.

As it happened, Monday’s event did not include music but it did include some familiar faces who I frequently encounter at these dinners as well as an overall interesting collection of guests who make for great conversation and frequently share their BYOB offerings.  In fact the bartender from the great San Francisco vegan restaurant, ‘Millenium’, asked to attend and to prepare some delicious cocktails specially designed by him and incorporating some of the food ingredients to enhance the experience.  Two of the guests were the operators of a local new tempeh making business called Rhizocali and their superior product was featured in the night’s food offerings.

Unfortunately I forgot to get a picture of the wonderful dessert course which consisted of pumpkin waffles, spiced pumpkin sorbet and maple tea poached pears.  Characteristically the attentive chef went around offering more scoops of the refreshing pumpkin sorbet which no one appeared to refuse as they engaged each other in pleasant conversations.  It is good to have this series back again and, well, let’s just say no one walked away unsatisfied.

Appetizer- Fresh rice noodles wrapped with apple smoked tofu and miso glazed, grilled pumpkin hijiki salad

Appetizer- Fresh rice noodles wrapped with apple smoked tofu and miso glazed, grilled pumpkin hijiki salad

First course- Kim chi soup with rice cakes, homemade kim chi in a seaweed/pumpkin broth and a little side dish of Pumpkin tempura brushed with gochujang

First course- Kim chi soup with rice cakes, homemade kim chi in a seaweed/pumpkin broth and a little side dish of Pumpkin tempura brushed with gochujang

Entree- Dumpling pumpkin stuffed with Thai red curry with Rhizocali Tempeh, gai fan, snap peas and Thai eggplant; jade pearl rice, green mango salad and lotus root pickles
Entree- Dumpling pumpkin stuffed with Thai red curry with Rhizocali Tempeh, gai fan, snap peas and Thai eggplant; jade pearl rice, green mango salad and lotus root pickles

Happy diners chatting after a fantastic dinner.

Happy diners chatting after a fantastic dinner.

Annie Lewandowski, Luciano Chessa, Theresa Wong in Berkeley


Lewandowski piano

A view of the inside of the piano showing Lewandowski’s alterations.

It is easy to miss the nondescript storefront on University Avenue where this performance took place. And the promotion of this concert appeared to be mostly through Facebook and the Bay Area improvisers web site which resulted in a small but appreciative audience interested in hearing the work of Annie Lewandowski, now a music lecturer at Cornell. She is a graduate of Mills College. She has a varied resume ranging from classical piano to progressive rock bands and she presented tonight her work with extended piano techniques much like those of John Cage but with some distinctly personal twists extending Cage’s methods further. Ms. Lewandowski was hosted by Theresa Wong (also a Mills graduate), bay area composer, cellist and singer who organized the event and Luciano Chessa, San Francisco Conservatory professor, composer, musicologist, historian and performer and producer who played a couple of different roles in this evening.

performance of La Barbara's 'Hear What I Feel'

Luciano Chessa performing Joan La Barbara’s ‘Hear What I Feel’

The first performance was introduced by Ms. Wong who informed us that Luciano Chessa had been kept in isolation for the last hour while the preparations were done for his performance. The piece being performed was Joan LaBarbara’s ‘Hear What I Feel’ from 1974. It consists of a table upon which there are several plates each containing some object or substance. The performer, who is blindfolded, is seated at the table and the performance consists of the performers reactions to the substances and/or objects he examines with his hands alone. It is performance art that would be perfectly at home with other Dada and Fluxus-like scores.

Wong led Chessa carefully from the back of the performance space to the table containing six plates. After seating him she positioned the microphone carefully in front of him. Chessa spent several minutes with each object examining three predominantly with his left hand and three with his right. All the while during his tactile adventure he vocalized a variety of sounds evoking (presumably) his emotional response to each object or creating an audio analog for them.

As with all such scores the result leaves a wide range of possibilities to the performer. And this performance was suitably humorous and engaging. Following his examination of the last of the objects Chessa removed the blindfold and reacted to each of the objects (without vocalizing) as he examined them visually. There was an effective combination of (mockingly?) serious concentration and idiosyncratic responses that left the audience genially amused and entertained.

Lewandowski piano

Annie Lewandowski playing in the piano, on the keyboard and singing.

Wong cello

Theresa Wong playing her carefully altered and electronically enhanced cello and singing.

This was followed by a duet between Lewandowski and Wong. Both performers utilized various ways of altering the sounds of their instruments by adding objects to the strings or by exciting the strings with objects. Wong also made use of a foot pedal controlling some electronics. Lewandowski’s piano was miked and amplified somewhat.

The improvisation was started by Lewandowski with some percussive like sounds elicited at the keyboard. Wong responded sparely at first and the two seemed to trade ideas which became richer as the performance went on. Again the serious concentration was present as the performers carefully heard and responded to each others’ music making. While satisfying it was a sort of introduction or first taste of what was to come in the second half.

A brief intermission saw the performers mingling with audience members, many of whom were acquaintances and other musicians.

Annie Lewandoski, Luciano Chessa and Theresa Wong in a trio improvisation

Annie Lewandoski, Luciano Chessa and Theresa Wong in a trio improvisation

What concluded this unusual program was a trio for all three performers. Lewandowski with her prepared piano, Wong with her altered cello, Chessa with his signature Vietnamese Dan Bau and guitar. All three also sang. The performance started sparely as each introduced suggestions or themes for the improvisation and reacted to them.

Lewandowski gave a much fuller exposition of the possibilities of her instrument playing the keyboard, inside and all around the piano as well as singing. Wong also seemed to use a wider amount of sound possibilities in her playing. Chessa played the traditional Vietnamese folk instrument in all but traditional ways using devices to excite the strings and focusing on tuning and even some percussive possibilities. At one point he left the table where he was performing to pick up an acoustic guitar. After picking a few notes he walked to the back of the stage area and ascended a stair case leading to a sort of balcony that surrounded the performance space. It was at this point that he began softly singing what sounded like an Italian folk tune as he played the guitar in a most traditional manner. This gave a collage effect to the performance juxtaposing the most traditional kind of music making with the extended and experimental sounds.

Chessa remained on the balcony for a bit, then descended the staircase again and returned to the more unusual playing methods at first on the guitar and then back at the table on the Dan Bau. Following this Lewandowski began vocalizing a melody with sparse accompaniment that would have been perfectly at home in a scene from ‘Eraserhead’ at times. She was echoed by Wong’s extended vocal techniques at first and then Lewandowski and Wong began singing a more traditional sounding melody with beautiful harmonizations interpolating this singing at different points while still traversing their freely improvised instrumental playing supported by Chessa on the Dan Bau.

This made for a rather tranquil mood as they ended the second half of the concert. The audience was appreciative. And this writer was pleased to have found a gem of a concert experience by young, serious (but good-humored) and accomplished musicians in the eclectic world of the east bay.

Experimentalism Otherwise, a significant new book on the New York progressive music scene in thec1960’s


I posted my blog review of the Carl Ruggles CD release on Amazon so I decided it would be reasonable to take an earlier review from Amazon and post it to my blog. So having made this guilty disclaimer, here is my review of a great book I came across in the fall of 2011:

For those interested in contemporary music and the New York avant garde of the early to mid 1960’s this is a book that is hard to put down. Each of the first four chapters is devoted respectively to: The New York Philharmonic’s 1961 performance of John Cage’s ‘Atlas Eclipticalis’; Henry Flynt and his rejection of mainstream avant garde trends (Stockhausen, Boulez, etc.); The (short lived) Jazz Composer’s Guild; and the performances of cellist Charlotte Moorman. A final chapter is devoted to a summary analysis which further connects these performers and events to the work of the ONCE Festival, Sonic Arts Union and (surprisingly but most appropriately) to the influence of these avant gardists on the subsequent work of Iggy Pop.

Nearly every significant figure of the avant garde is mentioned or quoted and the views of the general public as well as more specialized critics (which, of course, includes various members of the avant garde) are included in the course of the discussion and analysis. In addition to John Cage we hear from the likes of Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, David Tudor. The Henry Flynt chapter necessarily involves various figures associated with the Fluxus movement and related projects. The Jazz Composer’s Guild chapter includes Bill Dixon, Roswell Rudd, Michael Mantler, Carla Bley, Paul Bley, Amiri Baraka, George Lewis, the AACM. And the chapter on Moorman includes Nam Jun Paik as well as John Cage and various Fluxus artists. The final chapter connects to others not so closely associated with New York such as Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma, the ONCE Festival, Sonic Arts Union and finally to MC5, John Sinclair and Iggy Pop.

While there is some musical analysis here the author seems primarily concerned with analyzing these events and people and placing them more clearly within the political, social and cultural contexts in which they existed and to which they reacted. And indeed he finds highly relevant connections to civil rights issues and political conflicts and social movements as well as musical and performance movements and practices.

The analysis in terms of the likes of Pierre Bordieu, Franzt Fanon and Michel Foucault may be a bit difficult for those who have no familiarity with their works but his analysis is fascinating and his writing style is very lucid. This is an intelligent book not aimed at a narrow specialist audience. I believe that he succeeds in producing a fresh, important and valuable perspective on the people, the music, the events and the responses to them which will continue to prove useful in present and future analyses of the state of contemporary music and performance.

Finally the book is full of references comprising at least a third of the volume which serve both to support and illustrate Mr. Piekut’s theses and also to provide easy access to further reading and research.

In the time since I published this review Mr. Piekut has come to the United States and is now an Assistant Professor at Cornell University. I will certainly continue to follow the work of this young scholar. And I eagerly anticipate his next project. Perhaps he will see fit to turn his analytical insights to more of America’s too little known avant garde music movements and provide some much needed documentation. And hopefully his students will be motivated to explore these as well.

It is worth noting that the ‘Other Minds’ people in San Francisco have recently chosen to make this book available at a discount on their website. They stock a small but carefully selected cache of books related to new music and their inclusion of this one suggests that they find it a significant volume. In addition they are also stocking local artist/composer/professor Luciano Chessa’s new book on Luigi Russolo, the early twentieth century Italian artist best known for his advocacy of the use of noise as a musical element. In fact I have it cued up in my reading list and plan a future review.