As a child, Alvin Curran would lie in bed at his parents’ Providence, Rhode Island home and listen to the counterpoint between the booms of trains shunting together at a nearby rail yard and foghorns down at the harbor a few miles away. “Was that a piece of music?” I ask him. “Absolutely,” he replies. “And it’s been one ever since!”
We’re at Spike Island in Bristol for the opening of “When There Is No More Music to Write,” an exhibition of films by Eric Baudelaire and archive material collected by Maxime Guitton, which together place Curran’s work from the formation of Musica Elettronica Viva onwards within the context of Italian politics in the build up to the economic stagnation of the notorious Years of Lead. Born in December 1938, Curran was 25 years old when his tutor Elliott Carter invited him to Berlin on a DAAD scholarship supported by the Ford Foundation. The following year Curran wound up in Rome where, after a fortuitous encounter with composer Franco Evangelisti, he formed MEV with Frederic Rzewski and Richard Teitelbaum.
With a combination of traditional instruments, early electronic synthesizers and a motley collection of contact-miked objects, that group (which would initially feature Carol Plantamura, Allan Bryant and Ivan Vandor, alongside Curran, Rzewski, and Teitelbaum) became pioneers of free improvisation and live electronics, later collaborating with the likes of George E. Lewis, Garret List, and Steve Lacey, as well as opening up the stage to anyone in the audience who cared to join in with a series of often spirited events dubbed The Sound Pool. Recently, Curran’s solo records from the 1970s, lyrical and often playful collages of found sound and live instruments like “Canti E Vedute Del Giardino Magnetico” and “Fiori Chiari, Fiori Oscuri,” have been reissued on labels like Black Truffle and Superior Viaduct to critical acclaim.
While the technicians downstairs put the finishing touches on the show before the private viewing, Curran and I spoke in the Spike Island offices about protesting against Pierre Boulez and getting shut down at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
VAN: In the film “Downstairs” by Eric Baudelaire, you describe meeting Franco Evangelisti in the mid-’60s. Hearing you were a composer, he said, “Don’t you know there’s no more music to write?” What do you think he meant by that? Why was there no more music to write?
Alvin Curran: He was really referring to a situation in the history of mid-20th century music where the 12 tones had come to an end. The Schoenbergian idea was brilliant and led to the democratization of the so-called 12 tones but that had played itself out. In the post-World War II period those ideas were taken to their limits and I think there was a sense of frustration about where to go in classical contemporary music. So it’s that sense of crisis, which Evangelisti felt profoundly, which was behind him saying there’s no more music to write. But he didn’t say there’s no more music to make.
So why was this perceived specifically as a crisis around writing?
Because composing had become a highly developed art since, in Europe, about the year 1000, more or less, and somehow he felt this cycle was being closed. But there was another issue that he didn’t include because in fact there was more music to make. And composers could then take the art of making music in some way in their own hands by abandoning music composition and turning to improvisation. And that’s continuing right at this very moment as we speak, where forms of music-making have abandoned the idea of music based on 12 equal tempered tones and turned to making music with 12 million tones, that is, to finding all of the vibrations of the world equally interesting and equally available for music-making.
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So Evangelisti’s solution to this crisis was to turn to improvisation with the Gruppe Nuova Consonanza and yours, likewise, with MEV. Do you remember the very first time you got together to play as a group?
I don’t know about the very first. But certainly I have powerful memories of those meetings of the first MEV group and the absolute amazement and joy that came out of our being able to sit with one another in the same room and just begin to play whatever was in front of us. There were some conventional instruments and there was actually a voice. Carol Plantamura sang in the first group and Frederic Rzewski had already put a contact microphone on a piece of glass and was scratching this glass. He said he didn’t want to play the piano anymore, he just wanted to scratch on glass and he took a piece of plastic and made these wretched screeching, squealing sounds. Teitelbaum had the beginnings of a Moog synthesizer. He had three modules. Allan Bryant was already building his own electronic synthesizer. Ivan Vandor was a saxophonist who was beginning to use overtones and multiphonics. I was playing on an amplified five gallon oil can with an African thumb piano taped to the top of it.
So this weird mix of junk and instruments-to-come. People were putting contact mics on pieces of wooden boxes and chairs and all kinds of things. Just going back in some sort of collective way to a non-existent start time in the history of human music. That was the mood of this stuff. It didn’t really matter what happened, but what would come out would be drones and strange dialogues between individuals and then these collective outbursts and long crescendi. Very, very simple structures which all felt good, they felt right. They felt like, actually, there was some music inside of all of this. And it was those initial recognitions on the part of everybody that we’re really on to something, we’re pulling music out of a hat like a magician. We don’t even know what we’re going to pull out.
And did that feeling take time to develop?
No, no, no. It was instantaneous. Right from the first session. We knew we were onto something.
From a lot of the material in the exhibition downstairs, I get a sense of this group being situated in the context of the Italian political movements of the time before the Years of Lead. How important do you think that context was to what you were doing and the way you were thinking about music at that time?
Personally, I became politicized in some way in those years. After having lived feeling that my development as a composer and as an artist did not need an alliance with any political philosophy or party, that changed—simply by being in the midst of a youth movement in which our contribution, as unpopular as it might have been, was clearly positioned in that part of cultural life which one calls progressive. Without participating directly in student battles with the police—as were happening almost daily in Rome in that period—our associations with other artists and other intellectuals were definitely in the context of the so-called “left” and the progressive movements wherever we were. On occasion, MEV did actually participate in our own demonstrations.
What form did that take?
Well, once in Venice, for example, we made some sort of attempt to make a ruckus outside the theater where Pierre Boulez was conducting. Things like that. Silly little gestures. But meaningful only in the context of the student protests at the time that we sort of latched onto on a couple of occasions.
And when you started doing the Sound Pool concerts with MEV…
Yeah, that’s a good point! Inviting the public onstage—that’s inviting your own disaster! It’s suicidal. We did this at the Queen Elizabeth Hall [in London] and they shut us down. I mean, that wasn’t the only time they shut us down. These things were dangerous! It was unthinkable that people in their seats could just walk on stage and be part of it. We allowed that to happen. We encouraged that. And the consequences were what they were.
Were you surprised by the way people responded to that invitation?
No, I wasn’t. Because the mood in the air was that sense of liberation that everyone was living with. That’s what it was all about. It was about freeing yourself from this heavy cultural baggage that said, “No, you sit there and we’re there and these are the relationships”—no! We broke those down. And so did a lot of theater and so did a lot of visual art. This was all part of one moment of liberation which led to some actual concrete decisions in law that brought people closer together and [made them] a little bit more equal.
When you think about that period, was there any one gig that sticks out as particularly memorable for some reason?
Yes! One of them was an early concert. I think it was in ‘67 at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin when there was an outcry in the audience. It was one of our first public performances with the classic original MEV group. And at a certain point, I think about 30 or 40 minutes into the piece, there was a near tussle in the audience. People were booing and trying to stop it. Then people came on stage—not to participate but to try to shut us down and to pull the plugs out of the wall. It was a period where you felt that you were prodding something in musical society and getting a response, both incredibly positive and incredibly negative. People were witnessing the birth of a new ritual. ¶
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