Alvin CURRAN (b.1938)
Solo Works: The 1970s
Songs and Views from the Magnetic Garden (1973)
Light Flowers Dark Flowers (1974)
Canti Illuminati I (1977) [26:19]
Canti Illuminati II (1977) [19:00]
The Works (1976)
rec. 1974, Alvin Curran’s Studio Loft, Rome (CD 1); April 1975, RCA Italiana studios, Rome (Light Flowers Dark Flowers); February-March 1982, composer’s studio, Rome (Canti Illuminati I & II); February 24 1980, Sound 80 Studios Minneapolis (The Works).
NEW WORLD RECORDS 80713-2 [3 CDs: 49:56 + 78:02 + 64:25]
I don’t want to split hairs. This 3 CD set is said to bring together four albums recorded by Alvin Curran in the 1970s, but two are from the early 1980s. That said, the sense of artistic adventure and aura of discovery and individuality is very much of its time, and the named compositions all have genuine 1970s vintage. Alvin Curran was one of the creative artists known in the hotbed of creativity in downtown New York in this period. Based in Rome, he would however drop in periodically, and join in the crowd of exploratory artists who in their own way were changing aspects of Western Music forever.
You might not imagine extended tracks of ambient sounds and improvisation would be very appealing, but I have the feeling more people would be pleasantly surprised than intensely annoyed by this music. Starting with Songs and Views from the Magnetic Garden, Joan La Barbara expresses very eloquently in her booklet notes what Curran is communicating here: “Alvin was one of the ones who recorded the sound of life wherever he was, mixing memories - some poignant, some playful - blending, fine-tuning, tweaking, cajoling until he had a dreamscape so personal one almost felt the voyeuristic thrill of entering into the subconscious of another human being.” Bell-like sounds gather together deeply resonant abstract textures like fathomless wind-chimes, and a human voice intones over a single, enigmatic tonal centre. The atmosphere of meditation is disturbed or enhanced by natural sounds: birdsong, slapping water in cavernous spaces. The picture is always richly animated an alive, even where the temporal spaces are extended and the movement slow. About two thirds through the piece notes move chorale-like through static chords which turn out to be what sounds like a vast harmonica. This is the kind of stuff which makes you realise; that’s where Brian Eno, Gavin Bryars and many others had some of their inspiration. Opening with sounds of the sea and closing with Aeolian harmonics, II turns into a cyclical meditation around gently undulating electronic ostinati. Yes, a certain amount of cross-fertilisation from Terry Riley can be detected here, but Curran’s approach remains personal and individual. Textures transform slowly, the sounds were sourced over long periods but dovetail and mix together here to create a gorgeous blanket of sound which you can pull over yourself like a big duvet. Play it again...
Light Flowers Dark Flowers opens with a highly domesticated feel, with the best recording of a cat’s purr I’ve ever heard, introducing what sounds like a very expensive toy piano, and then entering into more esoteric and sculptural electronic sounds via a gently jazzy piano solo. Children’s voices pop in occasionally, an ocarina grows organically out of the rich bed of electronic sonority - a minimum of means, but extended into something deeply exotic; mindfood for a writer’s imagination. Filtered calls and birdsong develop over the musical foundation, eventually turning into a hellish bestiary. II begins with voices, a children’s playground, and a child talking in Italian. The voices multiply, creating a complex counterpoint. Talk of planets and stars is illustrated with expressive chimes, and later we are treated to an intense piano solo around limited notes. This breaks down into a wonderfully ruminative jazz improvisation over which, eventually, night falls: literally.
Spread over two discs, the two parts of Canti Illuminati enter a different kind of vocal world. Foghorns and industrial sounds with overtone singing extended beyond what is humanly possible. Curran’s grand gesture here is “the insistent imperfections on one tone, endlessly fed back until [ ] a music emerged that took its voice and texture from the atomic debris of incessant overtone smashing.” Curran’s own notes on these pieces are very revealing about the origins and techniques of the sounds used, but even these snippets go only a small way towards really describing what you hear. The second of these two distinct sections is a fascinating exploration of the voice - here filtered as a solo line in subtle contrary motion, then gathered into clusters and wall-of-sound chords, momentarily barbershop, or quasi-comparable with Ligeti’s vast choral textures. Interspersed with ‘folk’ style moments, embellished with piano, this is music which has a strange purity of expression to go with the surrealist manipulations of our expectations of where the human voice comes from, or should go. The final piano coda is like a witty gift from heaven.
The Works is described by Curran as “a rambling but intense piano and voice discourse on a 5 tone melody.” Human voice joins howling dog in the opening, and piano notes are unsettlingly distorted, at times giving them an almost gamelan-like or prepared-piano quality. As ever, material and sonorities coincide in musical-semantic challenging ways. The notes of the piano are held onto like the taught ropes of the balloon in which we fly over a variety of landscapes. The repetitions of these notes can become a little trying after a while - this is one element of The Works which can end up functioning aversely - not essentially because of their limited and minimal nature, but because of the rather closed way in which they are served up. Five repeated notes on a piano or anything else can become a little annoying after while, even pen played by Alvin Curran, but in following this narrow seam of music the composer/performer does create a fair amount of atmospheric and textural variety. The ‘synth’ electronic sounds of II in this piece are also something of a museum curiosity rather than something you are likely to be able to sit down and relish, but the intensity of some of the vocal lines over the notes does have power. If you can find a similar ‘zone’ to the 1970s psychedelics this music brings to my mind then you can light incense, don a kaftan and fly to the moon and back. The banal humour of the final piano riff from 15:00 is another one of Curran’s amicable gifts, and such a relief to find out he wasn’t taking himself or this piece too seriously - then again, it’s just another kind of infinity.
As a humble non-educational member of staff at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague I’m afraid I had an invisible profile when Mr Curran visited our esteemed institute, but at least I can comfort myself with an oblique association, having in the late 1980s been fortunate enough to have had numerous fruitful and interesting lessons and after-hours bar conversations with a frequently named collaborator Frederic Rzewski, whose son Alexis’ voice is part of Light Flowers Dark Flowers. Far from being merely a nostalgic review of 1970s strangeness, this 3 disc set has many fine things to offer. Everyone will have their own favourites; and I for one am a sucker for those rich electronic textures in the early Magnetic Garden. The ambient qualities and sonorities of these seminal albums laid the foundation for much of what Curran created later, and were influential on generations then as they can be today.
Valuable and influential - the bonus is these are nice to listen to as well.