Alvin CURRAN (b.1938)
Maritime Rites (1985)
World Music (Leo Smith) [10:57]
Rattlesnake Mountain (Pauline Oliverso) [10:46]
Coastline (Clark Coolidge) [11:09]
Improvisation (Joseph Celli) [10:54]
Soft Shoulder (Jon Gibson) [10:58]
From Center of Rainbow, Sounding (Malcolm Goldstein) [11:00]
Improvisation (George Lewis) [11:08]
Ice, Dew, Food, Crew, Ape (John Cage) [11:22]
Maritime Rites (Alvin Curran) [23:35]
Both discs include programme introductions by the composer.
rec. originally produced 1985, various locations.
NEW WORLD RECORDS 80625-2 [76:15 + 65:19]
Maritime Rites is a set of ten pieces or ‘environmental concerts’ made for radio broadcast. Alvin Curran is responsible for the concept and composition of each work, and while each piece is used as a vehicle for improvisations by John Cage, Joseph Celli, Clark Coolidge, Alvin Curran, Jon Gibson, Malcolm Goldstein, Steve Lacy, George Lewis, Pauline Oliveros, and Leo Smith. The soundtracks feature the foghorns and other maritime sounds of the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, and the solo improvisations have been restructured and mixed by the composer.
Alvin Curran’s own comment on this kind of work gives clarity to the origins of his ideas. “In the middle 1970s I began to formulate ideas and projects leading to the making of music outside the concert halls-often in large open and naturally beautiful sites. Ports, rivers, lakes, caves, quarries, fields, and woods, always ready sources of my musical inspiration, now became my new music theaters.” The sounds used in this case are foghorns in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and New Brunswick, Canada, as well as maritime bells, gongs, and whistles. As an almost inevitable by-product of such recordings you also hear plenty of regional bird and animal sounds, but while the basic premise is in that of ‘found‘ sounds, you can be assured that very little is left to chance. The feel here is very much that of control, and you can talk as much in terms of ‘sought’ as ‘found‘ sounds. Curran also includes comments from lighthouse keepers, Coast Guard personnel and other local people, and their words add further perspectives on the counterpoint between often abstract improvisational performance and the ‘natural’ foghorns and other effects.
Leo Smith’s trumpet plays a powerful opposite to multiple foghorns in World Music, the static notes layered and multi-tracked to create quite an intense and ‘busy’ opening to the sequence. Gentler is Pauline Oliveros in Rattlesnake Mountain, whose accordion rumbles harmonium-like under the bells, gongs and foghorns, a combination which seems automatically to trigger a kind of poignant nostalgia. The wind instruments imitate the foghorns in a way which can sometimes make them hard to distinguish, and Steve Lacy’s saxophone notes have a sense of family with the foghorns of Maine. Spoken word is an important element in these pieces, and Clark Coolidge’s reading from Mine: The One That Enters the Stories introduces a different counterpoint - language as ‘composed’ expression, rather than, and as well as an expressive instrument for Curran’s soundtracks. Coolidge’s experimental, fragmented words suit this medium very well indeed, generating an ostinato from which single words sprout like leaves from a branch. A real highlight is the imitation of nature Joseph Celli creates from his double reeds in mukha veena. These sounds relate unsettlingly with the nocturnal song of the plover, later mixing with other ambient sounds such as radio voices, and singing of a mournful sea shanty. The musical content of disc 1 ends with the saxophone of Jon Gibson, his Soft Shoulder combining melodically with enigmatic and sculptural foghorns which look on like the audio equivalent of Easter Island statues. The saxophone music is further developed and given its own canonic treatment by Curran, as water laps against the sides of a moored vessel.
CD 2 has the refreshingly contrasting sound of Malcolm Goldstein’s violin in From Center of Rainbow, Sounding. The character-filled voices of retired lobstermen are introduced in a juxtaposition which Curran clearly relishes: “an unusual dialogue between an old salt and a new-music violinist.” The violin creates a restrained, gently intense ostinato through the piece - a seascape of strings. The trombone of George Lewis is given the wonderfully resonant descending two notes of the Nantucket II lightship, everyone’s idea of what a good foghorn should sound like. His untitled Improvisation jets winds and generates animal-like sounds, another fantastic aural experience. The familiar voice of John Cage jumps around the stereo image, disembodied, reciting five words of his own choice as the ghostly distant sounds of a broken horn, that of the Edgartown Lighthouse in Massachusetts, as well as the famous Nantucket horn, are heard in a sort of ‘call and response’ sequence. This is a magical track, healthily reinforcing the ‘less is more’ premise. The final piece, Maritime Rites, is Alvin Curran’s own recorded ‘symphony’, by far the longest in the programme, and rich in its diversity of recorded sources. Each disc concludes with Curran’s own description of the pieces, and while I’ve kept to my own impressions it is useful to hear his own analysis of this eponymous work, and the remarkable sources of some of the sounds, and the chorale-like ways in which these have been combined with each other, and with Curran’s own voice. This is a seascape of sound, bringing nautically related elements together in a way which scrunches geography and time in a way you’ll never hear anywhere else.
There’s something about foghorns and nautical bells which brings out some kind of spiritual side in me, though I have no doubt that has a good deal to do with a lifetime of coastal living. This is however ‘modern music’, and will be a challenge for some listeners. The combination of familiar or recognisable sounds with improvised creativity can be a good way to ease your way into opening your mind to hearing music as something which need not necessarily be a string quartet or a symphony orchestra, and there are few who can open your ears to the music of life as it teems around us as much as Alvin Curran. His own Maritime Rites is a remarkable traversal of sounds and atmospheres, the effects later on the piece opening out into infinite fields of mystery and potential. His work always retains a ’human scale’, connecting through voices and a sense of recognition - the notes of a simple song are never that far away. Here he works with artists whose performances are in sympathy with a willingness and desire to communicate in direct and ‘vocal’ musical terms. There are so many new worlds to be discovered, but this one is worth a special visit. Alvin Curran’s world of Maritime Rites is a truly remarkable and stimulating one.
Remarkable and stimulating.