We met Alvin Curran, american musician and composer, in his home in Rome. Together with Frederic Rzewski, Allan Bryant and Richard Teitelbaum, Alvin Curran is co-founder of the Roman group of free improvisation Musica Elettronica Viva and a former student of Elliott Carter. His music often makes use of electronic and sounds recovered from reality.
You’ve never seen a real fakebook? Are books that illegally collect reissues of musical themes belonging to old songs. They had a very important function at the time of dancebands and small ensembles who performed at parties: it could happen that someone from the audience asked a song, such as “Hey Mister Banjo” or “How deep is the ocean” or “How high the moon“. All we knew those songs, but if someone did not, he could use the fakebook that collected all so that he could easily play or even improvise. Some fakebook collected them for types such as swing, slow, tango, waltz, whilst others simply in alphabetical order. I own several fakebook of the 50’s. Today in Italy we publish books that contain all tracks by Lucio Dalla or De Gregori, but when I came here in the ’60s and I had to work at the piano bar, I learned some Italian songs but without knowing where finding a fakebook that contained all. So I went to the Messaggerie Musicali and bought a lot of individual sheet music, asking which were the most popular songs. These fakebook contained pieces of both the American and English folklore, but not only: “Mack the Knife” was originally written in German. So all these songs became immediately findable in these collections.
From these pages emerges all my past, you see, this is a piece of Benny Goodman (indicating the book and singing the melody line of “Sing sing sing”). I have these melodies in my ears because both jumped out of the radio all the time, and because my parents often played this music at home.
Let me be clear, I was a boy born in a normal American family that had a popular music culture. My father worked in the dancebands primarily as a trombonist and singer, but if necessary also played the violin and double bass; at age 13 I used to work with him because I was already pretty good at the piano with chords, and having these tunes in my ears I could effectively help him. These books in particular were sold in the offices of the musical union, to which I belonged since 12 years old in order to work with my father; I was obliged to always ask the price set by them for my work, which at the time was three or four dollars an hour.
The fakebook brings me back a long way: when my father gave me the first of these books, I thought that it did not need any other book in life, it was all I needed. I believed that somehow magically any song that could be useful to me, I could find her there.
This late childhood experience, when I was still a teenager but not even a child, left me a strong connection to the idea of a book where you can find any music, so much that in advertising on The Wire, we wrote: “The Alvin Curran Fakebook, the only one you will ever need” (laughs). It is something that comes from a deep practical need: in the case of my fakebook I present fragments of music and works covering nearly 50 years of thought, practice and work in the vanguard music, even if this word is not fully justified today. The idea of presenting and assembling fragments of my work is intended to suggest, as I wrote in the introduction, to the user who is interested, to take any part of my work and make it his own; how to improvise freely on the song of someone or make an arrangement for 50 whistles. This is a book that on the one hand encourages the appropriation principle and the inspiration from the original material to create something new just like any fakebook, and on the other is a historical anthology of a part of my creative life that presents me both as a multifaceted composer and as a character which aims to encourage a continuous experimentation.
Influences and training
As you introduced the fakebook, I would like to ask regarding your first experiences as a musician; you have already spoken of some of them, telling when your dad took you to play in his dancebands. I would like to know more about the others. I am curious about the way in which the teachings, and academic and non-academic experiences you’ve had in America have been useful in your career, to start since you came in Italy.
The first two years of study were with Elliott Carter and the third with Mel Powell, a jazz pianist who had also played with Benny Goodman, to then follow the teaching of the twelve-tone music, style to which is remained stucked even though gently and wirh a certain charm and sweetness.
For me it was very good: the beauty of the studies with Carter was that ideology, and theology, hinged on the twelve-tone technique did not exhaust his teachings. Had created his systems based on different interval relations that created his music: it was something out of this world for me at the time and it took me a long time to get closer gradually to the beauty and diversity of his compositions, because it was really very different compared to the twelve-tone school where he was, which took the name Princeton-Columbia school. These two universities preached a strict, mathematical, rational approach to music writing, and clearly I did not like this, it could never be the music for me, nor could be Eliott Carter: his was a very tough music which in regard of his expressive potential radically insisted on dissonances.
At that time the music of John Cage was known, and was considered ridiculous, not to be considered either under the title music, and most of all David Tudor who was a very strong and great experimenter, leaving a safe career as a great pianist to venture electronics playing with boxes which he built by assembling circuits at random; he has had a very strong influence on me, perhaps even more than Cage, but this happened after years of study, ie 60-63.
During my study period, in any case, the strong influences were more European than American, in particular the figure of Anton Webern, who, despite having written a thesis on him (“The time structure of Anton Webern”), I could not fully understand; between Europeans had a prominent place all the orbit of Darmstadt composers, especially Luciano Berio, Bruno Maderna and Luigi Nono. The first signs came from Stockhausen with Zeitmaße (1955-1956), still a wonderful piece that all of us were trying to imitate: it seemed a kind of Martian counterpoint performed by a simple wind ensemble from another planet that none of us could imagine for speed and jump for 2 or 3 octaves.
What always made me a great impression of the Italian post-war music was his lyricism. A song like “Circles” by Berio I loved it right away also because of its very creative notation, the same can be said for “Il canto sospeso” by Luigi Nono: two key pieces for me. While the others were playing a lot of notes, I was more attracted by long and expressive sounds, and at Yale could easily find and study these pieces in the library.
The arrival in Rome in 1965
My first thought when I arrived in Rome was to find a job, and started working at the piano bar in a place that no longer exists, which was in the second or third street on the right of Via Veneto, when Via Veneto was one of the busiest centers of the city, and I was just like many a pianist.
In 1966 had formed spontaneously a group of electronic experimentation, starting from respective friendships between me, Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum and other Americans in Rome as Carol Plantamura and Allen Bryant; was Vittorio Gelmetti who created the name “Musica Elettronica Viva”. Gelmetti was a remarkable man who lived for the day and was already famous because at the time he had already written the music of Antonioni’s Red Desert.
The M.E.V. (Musica Elettronica Viva) had a key part not only here in Rome but also in Italy and abroad as an example of self-managed anarchy and as a peaceful anti-war platform.
All this is to say that the effect of my previous instruction was completely suspended in that period, if not thrown away, to naturally convert to a collective music, spontaneous and with means which ranged from street found objects to simple self-circuits assembled by ourselves. We wanted to make music from a hypothetical tabula rasa.
Who I am today, and who I was after this experience is certainly the result of a merger between a boy who wanted to be a composer, and one that is found in the middle of student revolution of the 68; that was a strong push to make me open my eyes to who I was and am and who I wanted and I really want to be. The choice was between becoming a professor who writes twelve-tone music with a jacket with elbow patches and a pipe with English tobacco or to go to play with Angelo Mai with Iato Orchestra, of which may be one of the worst orchestras in the world but was a wonderful experience, unforgettable and unimaginable. I will play with them again in May in Rome.
This awakening in my personal experience, was and still is an adventure in discovering new conditions and situations, as to play a concert on the lake in Villa Borghese or to create beautiful spaces as it was already at that time of theatrical and musical experimentation. Here in Rome there really was a life rich in history and practical knowledge; I was rich of not knowing virtually nothing about how to manage my future, I did not know what I would do the next day.
My life is part of both the academic preparation with Eliott Carter, but also Milton Babbitt or George Gershwin, both the 68 and the experience with the MEV: together makes all part of my life, even my passion for Berio, Nono and Maderna.
Later, already in the first 70s but also during the experience of M.E.V. I started collecting sounds with my recorder, and had become not an obsession but a necessity, because I understood that music was around me, whether the swallows returning here in April, both listen to the water standing there on the Tiber banks. It was all an endless music. That was my true musical revival that later culminated in the creation of the Giardino Magnet. My first works were works of craft composition of these soundscapes captured on tape on which then I created a lyrical structure.
I rarely use the word “research”, but here is the right one: that of M.E.V. was a constant research in a group dynamic on how to communicate with one another through the sound without any given rule about when to start and finish, with no signs, direction, nothing. It was this sense of throwing to make spontaneous music from nothing, only by our inner and outer space we shared. This has been a valuable lesson, more than any lesson in composition that I could take because the risk of failure is always present in these cases: is not like writing at the table a piece of music, doing spontaneous music presents many risks, every second, and this is very important.
In addition this was very poor music, made with powered windows, metal pipes, wires, springs stretched in different ways, objects suspended in the air; it was a reinvention of the human instrument of all time, ever since the first human had understood that he could communicate something with the pure sound without a language beating on two sticks or two stones. To touch the inner original if not primitive of man through sound experimentation with myself and with others was a very serious matter; of course it was also fun arising from the constant finding agreements on acoustic phenomena that were issued at the same time, or before or after, and this actually try to compose in real time has been one of the great discoveries of my life.
The recording of improvisations came only to study them and listen them again: the ear can fail and often you can not understand what is really going on. In a mass of sound is not easy to achieve if what you’re listening you’re hearing only you, or if also the other are actually listening, even if the most successful things were often perceived by all. Improvising the only thing to learn is to listen and be silent. Be silent is very difficult, silence is scary, is a strong tool.