liner notes for Ivan Mikhashoff Plays Alvin Curran, 1995


If Cornelius Cardew were alive today, would have have attained his alchemical goal of transforming the essence of European art music into accessible and exciting new musical icons for the masses?  Could Beethoven be usefully transmuted into an avant-garde stealth bomber, would Schumann be worth the cost of recycling, and could the rest of European art music be composed efficiently (or had music already come to an end with Thelonius Monk, Billie Holiday and Fats Waller)?  Cardew died tragically in an auto accident in 1981 and left us to grapple with these still timely and unanswered questions.  Once he surprised me at Rzewski's house in New York by asking "Alvin, by the way, do you know where I can get a Fake Book?"  (A Fake Book meaning a then illegal edition of thousands of popular songs: melody, chord symbols and words).  I thought, "Wow, is the revolution getting ready for Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Ellington?  Does he really want to bring Broadway tunes into the rowdy but politically correct pubs in London?  Is this the New Music?" Whether two steps behind or three ahead, Cardew never ceased to amaze, as in his political/philosophical passages from Buddha to Marx to Mao to Hoxa.

But then in the early seventies everything was still possible--The Beatles and Bach had become scholarly bedfellows, Ornette Coleman a symphonist, Frank Zappa an avant-garde composer, Anthony Braxton a graphic artist, Christian Wolff a pirate melodist--so maybe it was true: the makers of popular music were in fact doing something right, as some of us already knew.  At this time I was musically speaking fully out of the closet; I could wear anything or nothing and still feel myself, perfectly at ease.  With no need to impress, I proceeded to make music in every direction at once, drawing on any sources that my animal instincts drew me to, whether water, salt-lick or freshly killed beast.  My own roots in popular music were yearning for nutrition and attention and they got it.

For Cornelius (Jan. 1982) composed, as it were in one shot, on hearing of Cardew's death is in retrospect my attempt to codify the essence of the artistic and cultural contradictions that I was living:  Above all, my inability to abandon binary form, i.e. to be done with the A/B thing, duality, the essence of all western thought, once and for all.  For me A/B could have easily been intednede as AnnaBella, Abyssinia, Abraham, Alban, Abstract, Abscess, Absinthe, Abbot, Abound, Abscond, About, Abbey, Abstruse, Abut...and as Cardew's life abounded in humorous and serious contradictions, and as I thought of myself as a maker of musical objects (not unlike the assemblages of Joseph Cornell) whose single components could come from anywhere and coexist in the same structure; so with fairly unmediated and spontaneous composing, a music came about which now seems to be my answer to the whole binary form problem--I embraced it.  I love waltzed (and have composed many for theater and film musics)...It was natural for me, therefore, to express my grief in this antique, exquisitely bourgeois musical form.  Most listeners say they hear some vague reference to Satie, but a recent criticism in The New York Times referred to Faure--whose music I don't even know.  But John Cage loved it (the whole piece); it made him a lifetime "fan."

In any case the "A" section of this quintessential A/B form is some sort of waltz-like thing reminiscent of places and times we can never again know and of sentiments equally ironic and ephemeral.  "A" could then be a dream of an unknowable past of an equally unknowable future--but in truth, it's merely a concrete statement about my deep affection for popular music--the kind immediately accessible to almost any listener anywhere.  And in spite of its oddball melodic leaps, refined modal harmonies, Landini cadences, and dusty modernism, it is nevertheless a kind of peoples music--maybe even the kind Cardew would have appreciated.  Hence "un homage, noble et sentimental a un ami."  But then comes the "B" section--for it not only throws a dubious light on the waltz and its own beginning, but is itself a study in contradiction; for it's both about stasis (apparent endless fast tremolo of hammered minor triads) and a slow but inexorable upward growth.  So the endless opening repetitions of an A minor chord in first inversion are really only a pretext for the beginning of a long but gradual state of transformation--harmonically and dynamically--until this resonant flux becomes a massive uncontainable roaring: a crescendo which literally consumes the pianist's energies through physical exhaustion.  What does this musical assault have to do with the sophisticated interiors of the opening waltz?  The answer is nothing and everything; that is from the fatal moment I oblige them both to share the same living quarters.  There simply is no contradiction, the composer and the listener readily accept these two unlikely musical objects, brought into being and joined forever by no will of their own.  In short, they simply are, because it is.  Music is mindless tho' it has been known to exert great powers on the mindful.  So nowwhat
about this little hymn at the end, presumable a "C" section or postlude?  In short an afterthought ending.  While the "Waltz" and the tremoloed crescendo shunt the musical discourse down various roads, this short chorale-like finale is much more direct in its pure play of enharmonic triads--turning in and around themselves as if nervously, but decidedly without panic, searching for but not finding the exit.  As I remember, I was unsure about adding this somewhat strange hymn to the unmistakably explosive conclusion to this composition, but after a while I felt it was no more contradictory than the already unlikely coupling of the A and B parts.  One could see this as a continuation of a forced cohabitation process, one which no doubt has been influenced by my work in blending recorded natural sounds for many years (and one which has been taken up in many other works of mine, notably in the 90-minute version of Electric Rags II, 1989 for the Rova Sax Quartet).  I rarely employ any systems of specific theories to structurally aid or justify my musical choices; they are, therefore, a rather naked but accurate reflection of my instinctual and passionate creative behavior.

--Alvin Curran


home | upcoming | biography | writings | works | discography | installations | solo performance | scores | listen | search