Alvin Curran is an American composer/keyboardists who is originally from Providence, Rhode Island. He now resides in Italy. In his youth, Alvin was always attracted to music as his father played the trombone in dance bands, and his mother played the piano for silent films. After receiving private piano lessons and teaching himself the trombone, Alvin was an active artist from the age of 13. As he was honing his musical skills in his teens, he and his musical buddies would explore the music of classic jazz artists such as Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Art Tatum, as well as the classical music of The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Rhode Island Philharmonic, Christian Wolff, and others. Alvin participated in high school music activities and studied composition with Ron Nelson at Brown University eventually earning a B.A. Degree. He received his Masters in Music at the Yale School of Music where he studied with Elliott Carter and Mel Powell. After receiving his Masters, he traveled to Berlin on a Ford Foundation Grant to continue studying with Elliott Carter. At this time, he would meet composers Stravinsky, Berio, Xenakis, and others. When his Berlin stay was over, he went to Italy to join the thriving new music scene. It was there where he formed Musica Electtronica Viva, which was an innovative group specializing in unique electronic based compositions. The very successful group continues to perform today. Throughout Alvin's creative career, he has constantly introduced unique ideas into his music, such as bringing natural sounds and even unnatural sounds into his music. He uses these sounds as part of his compositions and is always experimenting with the latest music technology. I recently had an in depth conversation with Alvin following a performance at the Whitney Museum in New York City.
R.V.B. - So you make your home in Italy.
A.C. - I've been living in Italy since 1965. It wasn't a conscious choice... it just happened by accident. My life and my work simultaneously took root there and as a consequence, rooted themselves in Europe. I was very much connected to avant garde musical scenes, and experimental musical scenes, in Germany, Holland, France... even the Scandinavian countries. It was a rich terrain to work in. My life took root there primarily because of work possibilities. There were economic situations that I probably could not have enjoyed in the States... without having become a college professor, which I probably would have become. That's where I was headed.
R.V.B. - In Rhode Island, you came from a musical family. Your father was involved in music, as well as your mother.
A.C. - My mother played the piano and she actually played for silent films when she was a kid.
R.V.B. - Did they have a course for you in music and did you take to it right away?
A.C. - Absolutely. It was one of the prime motivations in my life. Sound was something I responded to with great interest. Not knowing I had this attraction that would determine my life, it was definitely obvious from a very young age.
A.C. - He played in dance bands. He was a trombonist and a singer. He sang in community choirs... in Synagogue choirs... and formed his own dance band to play mostly for the Jewish community. He played Bar mitzvah's and weddings. I was trained in that band from a very young age.
R.V.B. - What instrument did you start off with?
A.C. - I started with the piano. My father didn't want me to play the trombone so I taught myself. I loved the instrument. I had an older brother who was a pianist. He was thinking about going into a career of classical piano. We were all studying piano from about the age of 5. Then I became interested in playing popular music and jazz. By the time I was 11, I was already playing in a young jazz band with friends.
R.V.B. - What kind of songs did you tackle?
R.V.B. - Did you play music with the high school curriculum?
A.C. - I played trombone in band and orchestra. I had a normal kids life. I was into sports but from the age of 11 or 12, I was a young budding jazz pianist. The trombone didn't figure into the picture except through college bands. You mentioned Providence... I have a very fond memory of that place. From my early years and then when I went to Brown University. I lived partially at home and then became independent. I was fixed in this New England city of very old history. It also had connections to inspirations that I only discovered many years later, when I was combing the entire eastern seaboard. I was recording the foghorn, and any maritime sound along the eastern seaboard. So Providence, Narragansett Bay, and Block Island, and that whole area really figured prominently in this.
R.V.B. - Providence has a good location being between two major cities. It had to be convenient.
A.C. - Yeah, Boston was a city that I began to gravitate towards to hear jazz. I was going there with my best friend Clark Cooledge, who was a drummer. We were partners in crime in throwing ourselves into the world of post Bee Bop... mainly Miles Davis, Coltrane... the whole development of modern jazz in the 1950's - early 60's.
R.V.B. - Did you catch those guys live?
A.C. - All the time. Before that, in the early 1950's, I was going to the first Newport Jazz festivals. At that time I was still plugged into Dixieland but gradually moving toward "West Coast jazz"... Jerry Mulligan... and then switching coasts... because I had a real fascination with Miles Davis. Later with Thelonious Monk... in my case, particularly on piano.
R.V.B. - The herky Jerky style.
A.C. - Well if you're a fan of Art Tatum... coming from great stride piano, and then you listen to Monk, you hear the roots of stride piano. Your brought up to kind of a post modern level. It was really amazing. He became a guide into my own entrance into high modernism as a way of life.
R.V.B. - At this same time period, the folk scene was hot and heavy, and Newport was a happening scene with that also. Did you sample any of that?
A.C. - Folk music rolled off me like rain on a fisherman's hat. It did nothing for me until many years later... when I ended up in Italy. I had a summer gig, and I was playing in an American run beer house in Florence, with a banjo band. It had three banjos. I was playing piano with tacks. There was a tuba. This was the real thing and these banjo players were virtuoso's. They were fantastic. I discovered folk music in graduate school. I was in Yale studying with Elliott Carter and one summer I went to the Catskills... not the Jewish Catskills but the Greek Catskills. I was in a Greek band and everyone spoke Greek. It was there where I learned Greek popular music. That became a strong memory and a root in my music. Not the Greek music itself but the unusual rhythms... played in 7/5, and 11. 3's + 2, 4's + 3... things like that. I thought that was the cat's pajamas. That stuff comes back at me and becomes integrated in my own music now.
R.V.B. - You mentioned Elliot Carter. You studied with him and he had very close ties with Ives. That in itself is a good basis of a foundation.
A.C. - It's a continuity in the history of American classical music... yes.
R.V.B. - Mel Powell also.
A.C. - Mel Powell was a 12 tone composer. Like everyone at that time in the 60's, he dedicated his time and work to Milton Babbitt... who was a leading prophet to dodecaphonic music in the United States. He was at Princeton for years and a brilliant man, brilliant composer, and an inspiring person. He had a lot of influence in the academic world. Mel Powell was one of them. It's strange... a guy who was playing with Benny Goodman and also stride piano himself... a great jazz pianist. He became a modernist 12 tone composer. America's fascination with Schoenberg and Webern... Webern especially, was the master to whom everyone looked to. Webern had these minimalist tendencies in making truly new music. Schoenberg was still very profoundly involved with romanticism and expressionism in his work... as was Alban Berg. The work of Webern was really pointing to a new music. Music devoid of conventional expression... conventional drama... conventional narratives. Therefore, this became the new avenue... the new path, that the American modernists were venturing to.
R.V.B. - You had this nice backround now, and with everything happening in the late 50's and early 60's where people embraced new music, change, and creativity...
A.C. - Not on mass. There weren't a lot of people who embraced that. There was a lot of resistance to that.
R.V.B. - It was a breeding ground.
A.C. - In the academic world. American music is tied - with a few exceptions - to academicism... to universities... and to institutions that further research the developments in culture, and in thought. Those institutions are largely containers in the breeding grounds. Individuals such as John Cage for example... and a few others that were independents... really remained outside of that world and were creators all by themselves, on their own terms. They did not try to be college professors and composers at the same time. It's a double edged sword for a lot of people. There's a lot of dissatisfaction in that world because even though they do compose music, their main job is to educate.
R.V.B. - There are an awful lot of people who go that route.
A.C. - A lot of people do that because it's the only job around. In Europe, things are different. People can be a composer and live off commissions and other projects, which are very handsomely funded by public funds. They're in another social and economic situation. Taxpayers invest - whether they want to or not - in contemporary culture. Part of the tax money goes to the furthering of the living arts.
R.V.B. - It's a shame it doesn't happen more in the United States.
A.C. - Absolutely. This is something that Bernie Sanders would bring about if he had a chance, but that's not going to happen.
A.C. - It was. When I finished graduate school at Yale, I was a prize winning composer, and among them, I received a Fulbright scholarship to study in Europe with Luciano Berio. I thought that would be great for me... go to Italy and study with this great composer who I admired. Then suddenly, Elliott Carter was invited to Berlin by the Ford Foundation. He was asked to bring 2 or 3 young composers with him... who would also be given stipend's, to live there for a year. We were students but we were under Carter's area. I opted for that and I declined the Fulbright grant. That took me to Berlin. That was a very exciting year because I was beginning to feel like I was a young composer... out in the world... in Europe... in this post war disaster area that was surrounded by East Germany and Russia. Things and concepts that I had no idea about and couldn't understand at the time. I had very strong impressions. I met wonderful people like Berio himself... Iannis Xenakis was also there, with his group of students. I met Stravinski in the process.
A.C. - As I look back on it, at the time it was like meeting the Pope. You meet the greatest composer on earth... with music that has inspired your own... no doubt. To shake his hand was an amazing experience... and to watch him actually conduct a rehearsal with the Berlin Philharmonic! I became a young protégé in a way. I was cast into this world of aristocratic, high modernist music. It all revolves around culture of wealth, and that's the history of western music. Western music was either supported by the church and/or by private aristocrats. Kings, queens, dukes, princes, you name it. The pieces from Bach through Mahler are dedicated to individuals and sometimes inspired by commissions coming from this world of aristocracy.
R.V.B. - It was good that music eventually went to the middle class.
A.C. - The middle class forced it's way in the back door. That's the product of the post French revolution. Suddenly people mattered... everybody mattered. " Egalité" - all people are equal. This new concept opened doors to economic and cultural situations that were never available before. In the late 1800's, all of these ideas and philosophies... even leading to ideas like anarchism... right up through our own time... led up to the biological and genetic changes in society. It enabled the participation of nearly everybody.
R.V.B. - How did you start establishing yourself and getting your own voice?
A.C. - That's a very good question. You ask very good questions.
R.V.B. - I like to be prepared.
A.C. - This is a question that has a long history. After Berlin in 1964, I was this young kid full of energy and full of crazy ideas. I had to decide what I was going to do when my grant finished. I decided to go to Rome with a colleague Joel Chadabe - who is an electronic composer from the New York area. He was together with me and Frederic Rzewski in Berlin... with Elliott Carter. We went there to get warm, get some good food, and get a good feeling. Berlin in the 60's was a disaster area. The presence of the war was everywhere... destroyed buildings, empty lots, vast bulldozed areas from the destruction of the allied bombings. In East Berlin you saw this tragic darkness and even more visible signs of the war. They weren't so quick to rebuild. This all builds up into a very oppressive and depressing picture, when you live in an environment like that. It's like today when you see these images of these Syrian towns that were once thriving and full of life and are now completely destroyed. That was the backround, and I basically ran to Rome. I didn't have a very clear idea of my connections with Italy. I immediately got together with a lot of other people like myself. At that time, Rome was thriving with Americans and other foreigners... young people... all looking for work at Cinecitta, in the movie industry... in theater, and in music. There was sea of lively young people mixing into the Italian scene. Steve Lacy, for example, was there. The early to middle 60's in Rome was bursting with creative energy. The group Musica Elettronica Viva... MEV... consisting primarily of its founders: Richard Tietelbaum, Frederic Rzewski, and myself were all friends and colleagues at Yale and Princeton. We formed this radical group... using synthesizers. The first Moog synthesizer in Europe, was in our possession. We were like dinosaurs at the time, if you look at the historical development of electronic music. Now everyone walks around with an I-Phone, as a whole electronic instrument studio in their pocket. We were like soldering cables and burning our fingers every day, trying to build stuff. So we were the pioneers and these were exciting times. We were young... we were radical... we wanted to change the world. We had utopian ideas about flattening the whole cultural structure and starting all over again... arriving at new forms of collective creation. Throwing the idea of the ego and the individual, which had grown up in history as a kind of cult. People had statues - not only of Jesus Christ and Buddha, but they had Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Mozart, or Bach. These were idols. We lived in this culture of musical idolatry. We wanted to end that and create a music just made by people - spontaneously. It was a radical idea to improvise without featuring your own self as the creator. You may be the creator but you're the co-creator. You were a collective creator. It was a whole new process of invention and it caught on rapidly. It became part of the youth revolution of the late 60's. It was associated with both the musical and political ideas of not only disruption, but of change and transcendence. There was a spiritual component. It comes out in the music of The Beatles and even to a certain extent in the political poetics of Bob Dylan... and in the in your face music of The Rolling Stones. Not to mention Pink Floyd. It's all part of one culture of radical change... making people equal... making gender equal. Men and women or any other kind of gender. Things were just boiling with change in this cultural moment. MEV was riding on the wave of that... on the radical, experimental side. We weren't in pop music. We were sometimes associated with rock and pop but we were never in that world. We didn't have drums and guitars. We did have other ideas, which had great influence on that world. The developments may have led to the developments of someone like Sonic Youth... where they could make a wall of sound with their guitars. They could hang for hours with in your face noise. These were some of the kinds of things that we were doing with our own spontaneous improvisation, but with much more simple means. The period of the middle to late 60's, and into the 70's, was a very revolutionary and turbulent period in the world of music. Music became an obsession. It was everywhere. Our music was still associated with the high art of western classical music. We could never get rid of our association with that - as much as we tried. We were commissioned and promoted by organizations who sponsored, what is now commonly called "New Music". The Europeans were the prime movers in that regard. For example: the entire downtown music of America minimalism... Steve Reich, Philip Glass, La Monte Young, Charlemagne Palestine, and others, didn't come to full flower in downtown Soho - in this city - their work did and their ideas did. Their creative lives - their career lives - and their economic lives, came alive in Europe.
A.C. - Well... about 72/73. I was playing as a substitute keyboardist with Steve Reich. I played "Drumming" with his band. This was an amazing time. Due to the recognition on the parts of European new music producers... they knew that something was going on here.
R.V.B. - They took their show's to Europe.
A.C. - They were taken to Europe... they were invited... they were commissioned. "Einstein on the Beach" was made here, but it was presented at the Venice Biennale Festival. That's what paid for it.
R.V.B. - As far as your trio and your solo career, was it a natural development to start adding visual aspects and sound effects?
A.C. - That happened right from the start with Musica Elettronica Viva improvisations. I was going around with a tape recorder, recording anything I could hear on the street... children... laughter... people singing. Rome was full of sounds. It still is. It's a very noisy environment. People talk a lot and yell... and it's wonderful. There are natural phenomena. Every year on the 20th of March, the swallows arrive from Africa. the mornings were full of screaming swallows in the air. Things like that were new to me. I was listening for natural things and gradually became a collector of natural sounds. I began to understand very quickly that the world around me was a continuous symphony. Any part of it was free for me to take and incorporate into my own music.
R.V.B. - In other words, dropping a rock on the table here is a sound that has meaning to it
A.C. - Absolutely. Anything potentially. But of course I make choices. Sometimes I go out of my way in the woods somewhere, and I'm walking on piles of fallen leaves or broken branches - kicking a stone - kicking a tin can - anything in front of me - any gesture my body can make in any place... is potential music. I've used this method continuously since the middle 1960's, when I had very primitive simple means. Tape recorders at that time were very, very huge. Today everyone goes around with a cell phone to record anything. Cell phone recordings are not so good but video is amazing today. Having become a natural collector of sounds, I realized that I was building - over the years - a library of fragments, or compositions, which could be utilized in my own work. A lot of my work from the early 70's - "Magnetic Garden", "Light Flowers, Dark Flowers" - I featured myself as a soloist with: synthesizers, voice, flugelhorns, glass chimes, metal chimes, hanging instruments, all kinds of things. I would immerse myself in a self created garden of instruments and just play.
R.V.B. - I saw an installation with hanging things on wire and chimes on it.
A.C. - That was from the 60's.
R.V.B. - I saw that you also did a project in Central Park with musicians on rowboats.
A.C. - That's right... in 2013. It was the United States Army Band and a band from Montclair University in New Jersey. My work gradually began to not only embrace all of the sounds of nature but also begin to use natural space as a new theater for my music. So lakes, seaside's, ports, caves, trees, parks, became these places for a new kind of musical theater. This is the work that I really get engaged in. I was inspired by working with sounds in nature for years and years. Then I went back into nature to use it as a new venue and concert hall. A concert hall without a roof.
R.V.B. - I looked into some of the ideas that you had on paper. It looked like an undertaking but "The Well" for example. Would you have several pipes going in on different levels so that you could have different sounds?
A.C. - "The Well" is not a sonic object in itself. It could be. That's a very good idea... that's something for you to do. The concept with my piece was to create a well and install loudspeakers. These would be connected to a library in some way... fixed or via internet... which could select or reproduce sounds from anywhere around the globe... anywhere on our planet. The well itself would be conceptually, a place where you could hear the sound of the whole world, at any given moment from anywhere. I was very close to realizing this well in recent times, in finding a private person who wanted to build it on their property, but unfortunately it recently fell through. It's a live project and there are still people interested in it. This ties in to working with natural sound but it's concrete sound, environmental sound - and now they have ambient sound. I'm using these sounds because they are so musical. They are music period! They are the music that we live in. All of the noise and everything that we hear. All of the silence and empty spaces, are forms of music... to me anyway. They're rich in potential, for imagining and creating new sonic works. They could be works that don't even have a conceptual name yet. There's a big move on now in the sound/art world. There's a big fusion now between the two. In Berlin, for example, there are two active gallery's that do only sound art. That is art - objects - that move or do something that make sound, and have sound components. This is a big thing now - around the world. The Schumacher gallery that was in New York City, featured this for years. These developments are opening a whole new future. A lot of these sound artists don't even consider themselves musicians. They're just sculpting with sound. The ideas that I've been developing over the last 50 years... by just lying in bed as a kid and listening to fog horns of ship horns... or trains being connected in a nearby train yard. Whatever these fascinating memories are, they are complete narratives to me, of a very musical nature. This is what's really important. What the future holds - nobody knows - but there is definitely an opening now where the spatial components and the visual components of the real world, are fusing with sound. I don't mean on MTV or in music videos in the commercial world. I mean in a creative world where we really don't know what the outcome will be.
R.V.B. - Modern technology... It's has to help you with respect that you came from Italy to here. Did you bring a keyboard?
A.C. - I just brought a computer and a little midi-mixer.
R.V.B. - You were able travel to New York to put on a concert with just a computer and a sound box.
R.V.B. - How many people does the room hold where you played last night?
A.C. - It's small... around 150. It's a sizeable audience for an venue like this? Their idea is to create a series of unusual avant garde concert events. New York is full of wonderful events every night. There are places in Brooklyn like Roulette and National Sawdust, that are growing and thriving now.
R.V.B. - Brooklyn is becoming the hot spot.
A.C. - That's right... not to mention "The Stone". "The Kitchen" is still thriving.
R.V.B. - You played at the Kitchen back in the day.
A.C. - I did, but I also played there more recently in 2011 with the Musica Elettronica Viva group. I feel a real continuity and connection to the city and it's incredible culture. The new Whitney Museum offers a space and a venue that's spectacular because it has a back wall that is a panorama of the Hudson river and a nice light show. It's a magical place. It's run at a very high professional level. It has an incredible sound system and engineers. There is people who work with you all day long.
R.V.B. - They did it right when they built the new facility.
A.C. - They absolutely did it right. I would say they probably could have enlarged the room to 250 capacity but it's intimate. It's like The Kitchen.
R.V.B. - Do you find as a solo artist, you can kinda get lost in a bigger place?
A.C. - You can. I'm not a person who draws huge crowds. For me, I feel comfortable playing to 35 people as much as I do playing to 300 or more.
R.V.B. - What is the largest crown you've ever played for?
A.C. - Oh, big crowds of thousands.
A.C. - Digital technology has created a state of tremendous conflict. Not only between authorship and distribution, but between authorship, distribution, and ownership. For example, like last night, I played this really hot performance at the Whitney Museum. I went up to the sound man afterwards and said "Can I get a copy of the performance?". He said "No. It belongs to the Whitney Museum. You have to get authorization". So I have a piece of music out there, which I have no control over. If the Whitney's decide someday when I'm not here, that this is the greatest piece of music in 2016, and they want to sell it for a million dollars, I don't even see a piece of dust. Nor does anyone after me. Digital technology is a complicated issue. I'm not a real big name but I do have music out there and I have a devoted following... and devoted interest in my work. I basically no longer have control over my work. My music is everywhere. It's on Spodify... Youtube... "How did it get there?. I didn't put it there." I'm delighted that they are listening but I'm not seeing much money from it. People are trying to right it now. They have these conferences and industry meetings. My music didn't generate a lot of money but enough for me to live well over these years. If I were just starting out today, I'm not sure I could say that. So digital technology is a real contradiction. On the one hand it can distribute your music instantaneously at the click of a mouse but on the other hand it could leave you living under a bridge for the rest of your life... being a great artist.
R.V.B. - I thank you for taking this time and I'm glad you had a great gig last night.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
This interview may not be reproduced in any part or form without permission from this site.
For more information on Alvin Curran visit his website www.alvincurran.com
Photo credits: Marion Gray - Ian Douglas
Mor more information or to advertise on this site contact musicguy247 (at) aol (dot) com