Alvin Curran has been at the forefront of challenging musical convention for over half a century. His work has pushed back against the institutional stranglehold on culture, encouraging anybody to make music, anywhere and with anybody. A dominant tendency in his oeuvre has been finding new ways to activate spaces and cultivate active listening and music making. His recent sound installation Omnia Flumina Romam Ducunt serves as an entry point into a wide-ranging discussion encompassing many aspects of his long career.
Curran studied with Elliot Carter, met an ancient Stravinsky, paid his way playing piano bars on Via Veneto, transcribed compositions by Giacinto Scelsi, was mentored by Franco Evangelisti, performed alongside Giuseppe Chiari, co-founded the path-breaking Musica Elettronica Viva, joined in with Michelangelo Pistoletto‘s Zoo, collaborated with The Living Theatre, John Cage, Pauline Oliveros… I could go on. But Alvin prefers to keep the focus on his recent work. And certainly for a man now in his 80s, he shows no signs of slowing down.
I attended the finissage of Alvin Curran’s sound installation Omnia Flumina Romam Ducunt (All Rivers Lead to Rome) at the Terme di Caracalla in Rome on 3 March 2019. The next day I met him at his home nearby Rome’s parco del Colle Oppio. We had a long chat (of which this episode represents just a small portion) in his studio in their 3rd floor flat. We took a lunch break, and spent the rest of the afternoon discussing his earlier works in great detail, as well as many other things. I was blown away by how welcome and generous Alvin was, and by the casual pearls of wisdom that punctuated our entire discussion.
Later that evening I met him and some friends in a small art gallery near Rome’s opera house, where a Malaysian artist living in Rome was exhibiting a sculpture. There Alvin explained to me that although he’s lived in Italy for 50 years, he learned Italian in the school of “Stanlio & Ollio” (Laurel & Hardy) and still speaks with a recognizably American accent. This struck me as a good enough metaphor. Despite having lived in Rome since December 1964, he’s still not quite considered Italian, and his own work straddles this gap between American and Italian. It was American foundation funding which brought him and the other members of MEV to Europe in the first place, and the American Academy of Rome was an important supporter of these young composers and so many others. A fitting irony, then, to see these Ivy League trained musicians reject the “Twelve Tone Church” in favor of anarchic jams and contact-miked feedback. Curran strikes a fascinating figure in the Roman landscape, alongside fellow ex-pats like Mike Cooper, moving amongst famous gallerists, producers, architects, and a great many students and listeners.
We met again in June, just before I returned to North America, when he invited me to see a performance at the Roman gallery of Gianfranco Baruchello, where Francesco Fonassi performed an experimental turntable set. This was fitting, as Fonassi collaborated with Fabio Perletta for a work in Loreto Aprutino in 2017, the same event in which Curran’s Pian di Pian Piano debuted at nearby No Man’s Land. Things have a way of circling back around with Alvin Curran.
This episode is the twelfth and final episode of the first season of the Sound Propositions podcast, and as such is a bit of an outlier, and a bit of a celebration. It is longer than any of our other episodes, but it also takes a somewhat different approach. After an introduction, which establishes Curran’s unconventional approach to making music and the political stakes which inspired him, as well as the unique opportunities afforded him living in Italy during the 1970s, that turbulent decade full of imagination, creativity and violence, a large proportion of the episode is dedicated to Omnia Flumina Romam Ducunt. This discussion is set against binaural field-recordings I made during that closing event on 3 March. The final third of the episode delves into Alvin Curran’s long catalogue of solo works, many of which have been re-issued in recent years by various labels, including Die Schachtel, Black Truffle, and Superior Viaduct.
Curran is probably best known as a founding member of MEV. That ensemble has come a long way from their anarchic group improvisations in Rome during the 1960s. Members have included Steve Lacy, Garrett List, George Lewis, Carol Plantamura, and many, many others, ranging from famous jazz musicians to those who’ve never touched an instrument in their lives. Alongside Frederic Rzewski and Richard Teitelbaum, Curran still performs as part of MEV, averaging one improvised performance each year.
His solo work, often built around the use of the voice and tape, is notable for its humanity, it’s studied humor, and staying power. Certain themes and sounds recur throughout his oeuvre: animals, nature, water, voice, spirituality. While his catalogue represents some stunning breadth, from longform piano compositions to pure field-recordings, his work is remarkably fresh, inviting repeat engagement. Now if someone would just reissue Fiori Chiari, Fiori Oscuri already…
Like John Cage, Alvin encourages us all to find the symphony in the world around us, to view any space as a potential concert hall. This is not just listening to but listening for an with. At its root, music is inherently social, and there’s is nothing stopping you, us, any of us, from making our own music.
Very special thanks to Alvin Curran, for everything.
J: When you were talking about the first Maritime Rites on the lake in Villa Borghese, it kind of struck a chord with me. I think maybe we can depart more generally from that. There’s a way in which—were you out on a boat too?
J: —so there’s a way I which you and all the participants…
A: … probably playing one of those shells. [gestures to a conch shell]
J: Reminds me of the Jersey Shore.
A: Hehe, yeah. [laughs]
J: Yeah, so there’s a way I which you, and every individual taking part as a performer is also a spectator. Because you’re hearing the work too.
A: That’s right.
J: And so you’re … I mean maybe there’s an audience like …
A: Well, there was.
J: …as like an incidental audience…
A: Well no, there was a real audience, yeah.
J: But still, you’re hearing the work unfold as much as anyone else.
A: Correct. That’s right.
J: And that kind of de-centers the [concert] hall in a way, too [as did the performances with the theatre students in public spaces]. You know, because the same way that Brian Eno says, I’ll set up a bunch of loops, but he’s still the audience, he sets it up but he experiences it like the audience as much as…
J: He’s not quite the “author”. And in a similar sense you set up these loops of boats and the …
A: Right, and they’re all independent.
J: …and the process unfolds and you’re witnessing it as much as…
J: As much as and … I guess with, that’s true of The Sound Pool, and the Zuppa, right, like there’s a way I which there’s always a kind of sense ….
A: Well, let me say this: In informal music—I’m saying informal not in the sense that they use that [term] here in Italy, which means abstract, but it also is abstract, that is, certainly music without a narrative—as one approaches the release of authority, and the release of the weight of dependence on structure and law and codes and whatever, and we balance the values and weights on a form of individual and productively putting those responsibilities on individuals, and on groups of individuals. When you do that, you become somehow simultaneously the composer, the performer, and the listener. You cannot distinguish between any of those categories, as you are making, or not making (’cause you can make sound without making sound, actually you can just not do anything and just listen to what’s going on before you intervene again or re-intervene with sounding) soundings of your own. So, part of the natural struggle in structure, and I’m speaking now not of a given external structure but an inherent internal DNA that creates itself when a group of people decide to make music spontaneously. That, in those conditions, one of the most important roles that an individual takes upon themselves, is to listen. And sometimes, listening without making sound. And that is what we could call “laying out.” Some of these ideas I’ve written about a little and also in some of my formal teachings, you know have come up, suggestions, like: In improvisation, when you’re unsure of what you’re doing, don’t do anything. [Does Nothing.] Doing nothing in improvisation is always the best possible choice. There’s no other. And so this role, this simultaneous role of creator and listener-creator, cause you’re still in the music, even if you’re not playing, at any given moment, is a very, very special, very special thing that is not that common to most musicians, let’s say orchestral musicians. Of course they’re forced when they don’t have notes to play, when they have a rest, but they don’t have to think of what to do next cause it’s written on the page. The improviser, when they are in a silence, are not really in a silence, they’re in full performance mode inside the music. It’s just that they’re not making any sound at that moment. So they’re waiting for that next sign, wherever it comes from, however it comes, to join back in. And, the best improve and the best improve situations, this is for me what makes the music really come alive, is people knowing when to play, and when not to play. And this, as I said, this … you got me off on a space where… I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a long time. But, these are very, very special conditions. And then musical conditions that rely entirely on the inter-collective trust that you put as an individual into everyone else in that space, including the public. So, this musical form is by definition very vulnerable to disaster, because there’s nothing guiding it, there’s only this imaginary thing, I mean, what we call human trust, and you can’t even define that, between…I mean it would go into some sort of philosophical discourse which is beyond the scope of my ability to speak. I’m sure some people could define those microcosms, that could express some of this. Because there is no written contract, there is no dealing, even if you’re being paid for the gig, beyond this essential human bonding of people that is where you are willing to disappear, literally, disappear inside of someone else’s sound. Where you could be playing suddenly finding its not you, it’s them or its us or its somebody else. And that’s as far as I can go to describe it. This can potentially be a transcendent experience that can happen by allowing yourself to fully trust, musically trust, yourself and those you are performing with. It’s about making yourself disappear. And that is a big deal. It’s a very big deal. You can let go of your ego and your physical self, I’m not talking about all of the beautiful things that can happen in your Buddhistic studies and practice of yoga or whatever. This is simple like blowing a note and just disappearing into some sound that you have no control over. Absolutely none. Nobody does. It’s out of control, by definition. And yet it forms things which can create some sort of human bonding and human connections which, as I say, are beyond my ability to explain them. So, I mean we could get into some sort of discussion of metaphysical mystical whatever, dimensions, which is essential what underlies all music making no matter what it is. But. On March 4th, 2019, today, I can’t take you there. [laughs] I mean, musically, you know, I don’t have any problem with, you know, I could just sit here and blow a note into that bottle and then you know see what happens.
J: There’s a story in one of the Buddha’s sutras, where he raised a flower [“The Flower Sermon”], he didn’t say anything, it’s a silent action. Or you listen to a bell, you peel a bell and it fades… There’s something about the sonic metaphor, where obviously it’s a metaphor. So much of what you’ve said, maybe it’s because music is so universal and collective and ritualistic and social, but if you take away all that, you could say the same thing about almost any human activity that’s based on trust and collective activity.
J: And I think that your advice, so to speak, you know, how to disappear, to do nothing, I wish more politicians would think that way.
A: If they would less heads would roll. I mean … [laughs]
J: Right? That seems where one of the political applications comes from. But for me, there’s something so… you mention Buddhist but also something so Daoist about this. “Control the world by doing nothing.” There’s something really powerful in that idea.
A: Well, I mean, you don’t want to get yourself beneath that too much but any professional musician whether they’re playing a Beethoven violin concerto or they’re playing Symphony Orchestra or playing some kid’s playing on jugs somewhere in the middle of I don’t know where. Know that the act of making sound together in its ritualistic in its essential primitive need to create what we can call let’s say “organized sound” some sort of musical expression that can’t, that can or cannot, tell a given story but that simple act of sounding is so powerful in its essential being and its invitation, either to join in or simply to listen to it. Put yourself on a street in any city, and suddenly from around the corner three blocks away you hear a brass band going “BOOM” and suddenly this thing starts up. The magic of this terrific noise, horrific noise, clashing cymbals and beating bass drums and trumpets blaring, whether it’s in time or out of time, and everybody on the street comes to a stop. It’s just like magic. Just like magic. It’s this urban craziness and suddenly its coagulated in this one moment around the sound of a brass band, or a marching band, or whatever, come common cultural thing we’ve invented over time. And that could happen in any way but I think of it as one where a sound that people today or anywhere in the world will suddenly stop what they’re doing and listen. Listen to, and for. To and for. And it’s very strange. What is this band? This is military music. This is the sound of going to war. This is the sound of challenge. This is the sound of going out and killing people! It’s marching. And yet, it suddenly brings everyone together.
J: It can transcend its historical origin.
A: Absolutely, because it’s just this cultural, you know, switch, that switches you into, “hey, listen to that!” Something, some kind of life force, even if the origins of that force are about going out and murdering people. [Laughs] I mean… I love playing in bands anyway. An old fogey trombonist.