In March, the American experimental composer Alvin Curran visited New York for a performance at the new Whitney Museum, at the invitation of the Australian improvisational trio the Necks, who headlined a two-night engagement. A founding member of the legendary collective Musica Elettronica Viva, Curran has lived in Rome since the 1970s, and though he is perhaps better known in Europe, Curran is still a fairly frequent visitor to New York. I met with him in the West Village the day after his performance to catch up on his recent activities and to talk more about the development of his unique solo performance practice. Here are some of the highlights of our conversation:
Dan Joseph (Rail): Was this your first-ever performance as part of a Whitney program?
Alvin Curran: Yes; there were some close calls with the Whitney over the years, but they didn’t materialize for one reason or another. But I’m certainly glad that this one did. It was not a concert on my on terms, so being part of someone else’s program, to be invited by another group, was both surprising and very interesting. It immediately put me into another perspective, sitting and playing for an audience that probably doesn’t know anything about me. I like their music very much: terrific music, very deeply rooted post-modernist, Minimalist music. So there was a lot in common between us.
Rail: I thought it was a good pairing.
Curran: I think it was a very good pairing, because I’m sort of unpredictable, crazy—I could go in any direction—and yet, I had a very clear agenda. My work is always getting a little more refined in a certain sense, and the balance between intention and non-intention, in Cage-ian terms, literally, is getting clearer and clearer to me. Last night I had so many different ideas about how to begin the concert, and then at some point an accident happened. I came out with these little toys, these snake eggs, and then they immediately fell on the floor—
Rail:—I wasn’t sure about that, whether that was an accident or intentional! [Laughter.]
Curran: Well, there you go! And I said, “Fuck it, okay, I’m on to something.” And that lead me right to the piano, and the shell [a conch shell played like a wind instrument]. I knew I was going to end that way but I wasn’t sure I was going to start that way. But I said, well, let’s do a classical thing: we start that way, theme A, and end that way. And I did it. But that led me, right then and there on the spot, to know what to do next. Last night I went in and out of fragments. There was a piece of the famous song “Come Rain or Come Shine”—
Rail: —You mean on the piano.
Curran: Yeah. I played “Red River Valley,” I played “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”
Rail: But fragments of them.
Curran: Sometimes—I never started in the beginning—or somewhere in the middle—
Rail: Right, and then you sort of wandered off somewhere else.
Curran: Yes, I hit a chord and I said, “Hey man, that would be nice to go there,” and that’s where I went, almost as if it was a form of musical amnesia, where you not only allow yourself to get lost, but enjoy being lost. Because today in music—and this is a realization I came to when I was teaching at Mills in the early ’90s—first of all, there are no longer any rules. And second of all, you can connect any sound with any other, and go from any A to any B or any Z to any M that you want. And this in fact is what defines the New Common Practice, the fact that there is no new common practice.
Rail: The New Common Practice, that’s something I wanted to ask you about specifically. Is that your own coinage, that term?
Curran: As far as I know.
Rail: Ok, so that’s really kind of a defining observation of that moment, and the moment that we are, to a large extent, still in: this post-modernist, kind of mashup world.
Curran: The mashup world sort of, in one thought and in one sentence and gesture, obviates the entire history of modernism. So, what the Dadaists, then the Futurists, then the Constructivists, then the Abstractionists were all after was that perfect embracing, mostly from the visual or poetic point of view, of anything with anything else, or therefore everything. And this has been the theme, as far as I can tell, of the entire 20th century and even more so into the 21st century where it isn’t even a “thing” anymore. The thing today is how to get out of it. [Laughter.]And this is interesting. So you have a group like the Necks, what do they do? They play one chord for half an hour, or one figure for an hour or more. So there is no going from A to B. You just stay on B or A no matter what the case is.
Rail: Although they certainly inject a form to it. It’s not just on and then switched off, but for the most part you’re right.
Curran: They are contradictorily rooted in romanticism. There was a lot of expressivity, a lot of swelling and diminuendi and subtle changes. The wonderful thing about that music to me was this mysterious sense that the piano was completely detuned. And these almost mean-tone tunings were coming from a bass very rigidly staying slightly detuned against the very highly tuned piano.
Rail: Right, there was a real strong interaction there between the bass and the piano. They became kind of one instrument. And the percussion too was in a similar bandwidth.
Curran: The percussion even got melodically involved in tonal things on the cymbals and other things, it was really quite remarkable.
Rail: I want to ask a related question, and that is this idea of confusion. I mean obviously you used the Cage-ian quote last night.
Curran: It was really an accident! My hand went over there, at that moment it said, “This is the new confusion.”
Rail: That’s been in your repertoire for awhile, but it’s really more you. I guess it certainly comes in part from Cage, but it seems to me that it’s been a quality of your work for as long as I’ve known it, this notion of confusion. It’s something you seem to seek, and it’s almost a requirement in your work that it creates
Curran: The question is: is this work any different from any given life on this planet in 2016, no matter where you are—maybe excepting some very imagined, pure life in a tribal context somewhere on the planet, where people just spend hours and hours whittling away at a stick all day, or grinding a stone or doing some other task, doing their work? We are also doing our work, but we’re constantly multi-tasking, we’re surrounded by an environment that has so much energy, so much sonic energy, and physical energy emanating from these millions of bee hives that we all live in in these urban areas, that it gives the impression that everything is happening all at once all the time.
Rail: It is, but of course, our capitalist world, our modern world, tends to smooth it out and sort of aggregate it into a manageable stream. Whereas in your music, you are injecting these interruptions, the irruptions really, that are breaking through this kind of managed stream in a way that is still pretty radical or revolutionary, to be going along with this nice piano ballad or some other comprehensible musical language, and then suddenly there’s these explosions and whistles and god knows what you’re throwing in there! It’s crazy, right? [Laughter.] It’s confusing, to say the least.
Curran: Yes it is. But you know, things happen, change happens. I don’t want to parallel it to any monumental disaster scenarios that are present in our real life every day. You know, people walking along somewhere, and suddenly the world collapses around them, whether a mountain landslide or natural disasters.
Rail: Or Belgium the other day.
Curran: I was on the airplane and I called my wife when I got here, and she said, “Have you heard the news?” I said no. I had this perfectly tranquil flight from Rome to New York while at the very same time this massacre occurred in Belgium, where we have so many good friends. Anyway, I don’t know what my music represents, if it should represent anything. It does indeed represent, on a superficial level—or reconfirms—my belief that the human animal is, above all, a musical one. And I demonstrate that by being able to take any sound at any time and connect it with any other sound at any other time for any duration, and make coherent musical gestures, and coherent musical structure. This I know inside of myself. I am basically a composer who improvises and an improviser who simultaneously composes.
Rail: The kind of performance you did last night, and which you’ve been doing for a long time, goes all the way back to your early recordings of the 1970s, works like Songs and Views of the Magnetic Garden (1975); Light Flowers Dark Flowers,and others, and it seems to me you have created your own way of performing, where you have different tools at hand—could be any number of things: maybe your voice, a piano. How did this evolve?
Curran: Very good question, and I can answer that quite accurately. At that time, Rome was steeped, through the genius of one gallerist, a guy named Fabio Sargentini who had a gallery called Galleria L’Attico, and he singlehandedly imported the entire Downtown music scene twice a year, with his own money, to Rome. There I met not only Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Charlemagne Palestine, La Monte Young, and all of their crew, namely people like Jon Gibson, all these wonderful people—dancers like Trisha Brown—Joan Jonas, the whole classic 1960s scene was present in Rome. Terry Riley was a leading star. And I figured, as a local—I was a townie already—but an American, and I also had an individual voice, so I became a part of this stable. But what I learned from my colleagues that was so immediate and such an amazing eye opener, was the art of solo performance. They didn’t need a string quartet, they didn’t need some fancy pianist, they didn’t need an orchestra. They didn’t need anybody: they were the music. And that concept of you are the music, you just go out, you know; a Laurie Anderson goes out with a fiddle and a little piece of tape on her thing, and making beautiful, beautiful imaginative work. And this is what was happening, and what inspired me.