Reviews of Recent Recordings
If there’s one historical trend that Alvin Curran has seriously bucked, it is the post-war objectification of composition, its removal of taste and memory from the process, and its imposition of parameters arrived at through chance operations or other doctrinal means. Most of Curran’s compositions, as he noted in his original liner notes for The Works (1980; Raretone/Fore) are “providential accidents.” The Works and the three other LP-length works reissued on the 3-CD Solo Works: The ‘70s exemplify Curran’s method of “paying very close attention to the varying cycles (of) daily living,” gathering “an amount of accumulated experience for a musical rendering,” and identifying “a sound that may manifest itself in any number of ways,” becoming catalyst and vertebrae for a composition. It is an innately personal way of working, one that made his life the stuff of his music. This is typified by the long clips Curran uses of the voice of MEV colleague Frederic Rzewski’s young son and Curran’s howling old dachshund (on, respectively, Light Flowers, Dark Flowers from ’74-5 and The Works). He does not snip out social context to yield pure rhythmic kernels like Steve Reich, who surreptitiously taped cab conversations for his mid-‘60s tape pieces; instead, Curran simply drapes these field recordings over the skeleton of a piece to give it form and texture.
More importantly, this method supports the notion that Curran’s music is far more rooted in the utopian – and a rather domestic one at that – than the revolutionary (represented by Cornelius Cardew and Rzewski to a lesser degree) or the yogic (iconized by La Monte Young and Terry Riley). Additionally, Curran found his Garden in his immediate surroundings: he didn’t have to sojourn to India; he could just take a stroll in the neighborhood to find his inspiration (one is heard on The Works). Certainly, there are unsettlingly fantastical sounds such as the towering voices of Canti Illuminati (1977) and the distorted piano sound at the outset of The Works; but there is a prevailing ruminative atmosphere to the music, whether its central element is the cat’s purr at the beginning of Light Flowers, Dark Flowers or the “magical corrugated tubes” of Magnetic Garden. The stark and rarely harrowing aspects of the music remain at the margins, like the knight-devouring hounds of Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”
Yet, even in the more strident passages of these recordings, there’s an obvious elegance of construction. Although his piano playing is occasionally dazzling, Curran’s real virtuosity arguably lies in layering and sequencing the constituent parts of a given piece. He makes a painstaking process sound easy. Curran’s pleasure in realizing these works is abundantly clear; it transforms the neat idea of using a foghorn or a cow’s munching as source materials into music. Additionally, Curran values a well-delivered pay-off, typified by the quasi-chorale deep in Magnetic Garden that blossoms with a wonderful harmonica-like sound.
Although the use of sea sounds now seems kitschy in the very least, they play credibly in Magnetic Garden. There are similar moments in the other pieces where Curran’s choices of sound sources seem to be naively if not unwittingly testing Andy Warhol’s axiom that art is what you can get away with. The cat and the dog would top most skeptics’ lists on this count. But, then this was the ‘70s (and the early ‘80s, when these versions of Canti Illuminati and The Works were actually recorded). Joan LaBarbara points out with something of a knowing shrug at the outset of her booklet essay: “You had to be there.” It was an ad hoc era in experimental music, particularly in pre-gentrified SoHo, where Curran’s solo music was first heard in the US. Pushing the limits was the order of the day. Subsequently, Curran’s works should be heard in relationship to this community, as well as that of his Roman utopia. He straddles these two disparate contexts quite nimbly; that which Curran considered familiar, even warmly so, in terms of Rome was perceived Downtown as sufficiently radical.
Curran’s piano playing is something of a wild card, its idiomatic tinges making it the most mainstream element of his music. Curran seemed to be as well acquainted with contemporary jazz stylists like Dollar Brand as he was with the Minimalists. But, such comparisons go only so far: It’s a stretch to suggest that his exposition of a five-note motive resembling the Marwah raga in The Works is overtly Riley-like; the attack and rhythmic feel are markedly different. There’s also a distinctive earthiness to his playing, which contrasts well against the more abstract components of a given work. He is persuasive whether he is ramping up the intensity on Light Flowers, Dark Flowers or creating a hovering glow with his coda to Canti Illuminati.
Curran’s most impressive achievement with the recordings consolidated on Solo Works: The ‘70s is his cohering of their disparate parts in a startlingly unforced manner. These are not examples of a composer bending materials to his will; instead, Curran lets them be. This is perhaps the aspect of these works that best conveys the spirit of the ‘70s. And Curran’s.