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Alvin CURRAN (b. 1938)
Shofar Rags
Shofar Puro Alap [6:28]
Shofar x 17 [13:17]
Shofar T Tam* [11:14]
Alef Bet Gimel Shofar [4:40]
Shin Far Shofar 1 [11:22]
Shofar der Zeit** [4:03]
Shin Far Shofar 2 [10:19]
Alvin Curran (shofar, sampler, electronics)
Arnold Dreyblatt (accordion)**
William Winant (large tam-tam)*
Michael Riessler (soprano clarinet)**
rec. April, June, July 2012, June 2008 (Shin Far Shofar 1, Shofar der Zeit), Studio Luca Spagnoletti, Rome, Italy.
TZADIK TZ 8176 [60:53]

I’ve reviewed a couple of Alvin Curran’s CD releases before, with Maritime Rites coming high up the list of favourites, and with some gems to be found in a set of The Early Works, the 1970s. This release has the shofar as a central element, basically a blown musical instrument made out of an animal’s horn. Curran’s booklet notes take us from historical context, the shofar “a form of petrified time, like dinosaur breath caught in a mass of frozen swamp muck… from back when things were all-natural… when noise, breath, speech and music were all the same”, to the pragmatic realities of producing “angelic tones or bestial schmutz with very little margin in between, [while being] forced to face the limits of human breathing.”
Curran has taken his shofar and blown it all over the world, a life in music summed up in his brilliant little biography: “Since 1965 Alvin Curran has been making music with any sound, any instrument, any person, in any place, anytime.” This kind of anti-diva life in music and approach to performing is something to which all us musicians should aspire, perhaps to a greater or lesser extent, bust aspire nonetheless.
The unearthly, or uhr-earthly sound comes straight at us, pure and unadorned in the opening Shofar Puro Alap, the overtones of the instrument calling out, and finally becoming overdubbed and layered to create a shifting, unsettling carpet of tones. There is of course a great deal which can be done with such material, and Curran retains the integrity of his instrument while at the same time generating strangeness and unusual associations. He mixes the human nature of the making of music with animal sounds in Shofar X 17, a remarkable combination which ends up returning to the foghorns of Maritime Rites, mechanical sounds and fragments of other recordings which subsume the shofar and make it seem the gentler victim rather than the proud proclaimer.
Shofar T Tam returns to the more natural effects of a trio of shofars, starting with the sounds of wind through the tubes, and expanded in texture through electronic filtering and further sounds from a large gong or tam-tam. More overtly Jewish is Alef Bet Gimel Shofar, which combines the spoken letters of the Hebrew alphabet with sampled sounds. This is another incredible mix of sounds, some quite hard-hitting, others communicating humour and stressful anguish, at least in the intensity of the way they are piled on top of each other in an uneven rhythmic soundscape. The Shin Far Shofar tracks come from a sound installation, gathering together magical old recordings of Ashkenazi cantors and shofar sounds over a sound bed of oscillator tones to create a vast perspective of marvellous depth. The second of these is another combination of such sound sources, this time adding didgeridoo and ship’s horns. Choral sounds floating in the distance create a halo of something heavenly in the early section, while wailing mortals wander the earth, look upwards and call to the unattainable.
Sandwiched in between the Shin Far Shofar and turning the three tracks into a kind of unified concerto is Shofar der Zeit, is described as a “free mix of materials recorded during my 1990 performances at the WDR … high energy improvisation.” This gains in energy what it loses somewhat in transparent clarity, but there is no denying the forceful impression it leaves. Alvin Curran’s Shofar Rags is filled with the kinds of things you might have encountered in dreams or nightmares, but having experienced it once you will want to go back and make sure you were really hearing such things. A few crackles of distortion at peak volumes aside this is a well-produced recording, the booklet is very well documented by the composer, including illustrations of score sheets and some photos so you can imagine the physical straining of the soloist. Like a museum filled with two-headed sheep in glass jars, Shofar Rags is too full of marvels to be ignored.
Dominy Clements