"La sua capacità di combinare tensione di ricerca, equilibrio con la natura e memoria della storia è fondata su una profonda empatia con le profonde necessità dell'animo umano."
"His ability to combine intensity of experimentation, equilibrium with nature, and historical memory is based on a profound empathy with the profound needs of the human soul."
- Francesco Martinelli on a.c., 1995
"If it weren’t for the Germans I wouldn’t have the money to be sitting here with you at this festive table tonight. If it weren’t for the Italians I also wouldn’t be sitting here, because I would never have learned how to make music as I do, from old rags, mortar, and sleight-of-hand."
- a.c. at the Pompieri restaurant, Rome, December 2008
* * *
“Das Land wo die Orangen blühen” is not only a dysfunctional paradise, it is a world of magic where everyone and everything has been solar powered for centuries, where wine, oil, and art are interchangeable. It is a country where make-believe, approximation, improvisation, confusion, chutzpah, puppetry, illegality, anarchy, and creativity are friendly companions that allow you to drive your car backwards down a hill, without brakes or a seatbelt – never mind a driving license – and after you knock down a Sudanese nun be perfectly able to convince the authorities that none of this ever took place. Italy is the prestidigitator’s hat from which anything can be pulled. The genius of the Italians is their knowing how to navigate patiently and safely through the harrowing 7th Bolgia (stones, flames and shit) of Dante’s Inferno and then sit down, “grazie a Dio,” to a gracious lunch in a family trattoria in Borgo San Frediano. Trastevere, or the Vucceria.
If in 1964 Franco Evangelisti hadn’t told me in these words – “…ma caro Alvin, non lo sai che non c’e più musica da scrivere?” (“My dear Alvin, haven’t you heard, there is no more music to write?”) – that new music as we knew it was dead, god only knows where I’d be today. Because terrifying as this preposterous claim was, I was an innocent beginner willing to bet that Franco was wrong, and took his impassioned sermon as a personal challenge. Evangelisti’s words echo around my head most days, in a flurry of cosmic dust – depressing and silent, scintillating and propitious. When he founded the Gruppo d’Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza a couple of years later (concurrent with the group Musica Elettronica Viva), Evangelisti reached the light at the end of his own tunnel and decided that spontaneous music trumped composed music, simple as that! In pre-1968 Italy his gestures were dramatic artistic challenges, steeped in the life and death ethos of any last act of Verdi or Puccini.
(At times I have come to the same conclusion as Franco and as far as the Second Viennese School and its atonal conquest of composition in the late 20th Century, we have clear evidence of its continued struggle for survival today. That there is “music” to write in the tradition of the 19th and most of the 20th Centuries is no longer a question; human beings for some inexplicable reason need music for their survival, and in my opinion will continue to make it, conceptualize it, write it, improvise it and stuff it into microchips till the end of time. Not all composers need make music all their lives, look at Rossini, who gave up composing for cooking!)
Meanwhile I was sitting in my first apartment, two rooms on the top floor of Via della Lungara 42, copying the score and parts for Cornelius Cardew’s Bun: For Orchestra, a piece I only remember as strangely, disturbingly simple. Cornelius was very close to Evangelisti, and I’d seen him perform at his Fluxus best at an early Nuova Consonanza festival, painstakingly building an overstacked pile of children’s wooden blocks and then letting it fall helter-skelter on the damped strings of a piano. I don’t remember if it was his piece, Chiari’s, or Bussotti’s – possibly La Monte Young’s. Come to think of it, it must have been George Brecht. Cardew was in Rome on a British fellowship to study with, improbably, Petrassi. He lived the winter in a sad unheated rented room on Piazza della Pace (now one of the hippest of Roman scenes, then a dangerous backstreet). But spring was a glorious heap of fresh peas, fava beans, wild asparagus and baskets of unidentifiable weeds (misticanza – mesculun, its pale imitation, is now popular and cultivated everywhere) that the truck farmers picked in open fields and from country roadsides. Hanging out with Cardew was my first brush with music outside the system – rational, dangerously wacky, legal, subversive, and poetic all at once – which I understood sitting on the overgrown banks of the Tiber watching him meditatively roll some kind of cigarettes. I mostly listened; Cornelius never pronounced the word revolution, he simply embodied it, with modesty and stunning artistry.
Via della Lungara 42 was located opposite Ponte Mazzini, next to Regina Coeli – Rome’s infamous prison. The sonic life in this proletarian neighborhood was as rich as it was tragic. At sundown every day I would hear a mysterious sound repeated continuously in short intervals – like dragging or tapping a metal bar against a metal fence – which turned out to be the sound of the prison guards swiping the window bars of each cell for the telltale buzz of a sawed fissure. Then at night, voices from up by the Argentinian lighthouse on the Gianicolo would rain down in a desperate calling of inmates’ names – all covered in thick Roman accents: “A’nardo (Arnaldo)!” “Aaa Frango!” (Franco) – that went on all night, in some anarchically-ordered live “telegraph” system. Whole families would signal someone at an agreed upon time, and call out a message such as “La mamma è uscita dall’ospedale, sta bene…” (Mom is out of the hospital and she’s fine). I recorded these heart-rending sounds and brought them years later as protagonists into my Westdeutscher Rundfunk sound portrait of Rome, Cartoline Romane. and my soundtrack for the film, Dentro Le Carceri.
In that same settling-in period I met Edith Schloss, an Offenbach-born New York painter just divorced from photographer-painter Rudy Burckhardt. She arrived on a cloud of combustible materials which included the entire New York Abstract Expressionist movement, the Cedar Bar, Art News, MOMA, the Art Students League and Balanchine Stravinsky the Carters Edwin Denby de Kooning Twombly Feldman Cage Brown Rothko Cunningham Pollack her beloved Morandi and of course “Piero” (della Francesca)… We met on Piazza Navona where I now lived – a rented room at the Kraber/North apartment – and she would follow me to the Luau Club, a faux Hawaiian theme-bar near Via Veneto where I played A Foggy Day in London Town and All the Things You Are every night solo piano for a few lire plus drunken tips. We began a life together on my Lambretta; I had never known about such things. Edith became a mentor, my entry into the Old World: she taught me to use my eyes, to see, to go into churches (always a bit weird and ghostly for ignorant Jews like myself), to look at paintings as though they were music, to watch for Sartre and de Beauvoir at a certain bar on Piazza Navona, to admire Bernini’s pre-futurist fountain smack in the middle of the same piazza. She taught me to cook, read, notice birds, and gather wild herbs while I was spontaneously beginning to record every ambient sound in the boisterous and undecipherable Roman streets. Essentially she gave me my baptism in the Art World. Through her the Ligurian coast around the Bay of the Poets became my music school – and I composed some of my first pieces in Gina’s family house perched on the olive grove hill above La Serra. I made a whole symphony of just the sounds in and around the out-house: bumble bees, cuckoos, creaky wood doors, pee, distant bus horns, Edith herself singing and whistling as she painted, and the hypnotic hum of the vast bay below. For drinking cooking and washing I drew buckets of rain water out of the cistern built in the cellar; I listened avidly to the folklore surrounding the simple act of making pesto with a marble mortar and pestle. Jacob, Edith’s son and future New York film-maker, became my microphone man when I went out on film recording gigs in Tunisia and Alto Adige with Ivo Micheli. But Edith brought all kinds of other wonders to my attention including a pair of angels, Patience Gray and Norman Mommens, who were determined to return to nature in the mother Mediterranean. Patience (as many know) was a consummate writer, goldsmith, and back-to-the-earth cook, and Norman, a great burly Belgian, was a sculptor of life, looking for the archaic secrets of direct stone carving in proto-human artifacts. My timid bohemianism paled in the candle-lit studios and waterless outhouses of this inspiring couple of poets and at the tables where Patience would crush garlic like there was no tomorrow, whether at their house above Carrara or in their recast ‘masseria’ near the tip of Italy’s heel in the same channels where the Greek gods had frolicked and swum.
Imagine this: in the 1970s in a small coastal town in Puglia (Molfetta?) after I’d played a concert in the town square, a old man with magnetic vitality (maybe a fisherman, an artisan, a peasant) invites me to sit down on a marble bench next to him “I’ve got to tell you something,” he says (“Ti devo dire una cosa”….) and what he told me is something I will never forget: “I don’t know what you call this, what you just played, I don’t even know what these instruments are, but I want to tell you that for me…it was music, yes, music…” I understood he was saying this not only in his own name but in the name of the small town and its archaic hospitality to a complete stranger which he wished to convey. At the time this kind of pre-industrial curiosity and deep rustic ethos made Italy, to us outsiders, an exotic land of cultured peasants – they knew the operas inside out – and while this tradition and its dialects are succumbing to the brute forces of TV and contemporary life in general, memories and remnants of it still pop up in Italian avant-garde works, alongside references to Homer, Plato, or Ovid
Again in the south in the ‘70s, this time in the town of Potenza. I’m there to play a concert. My hosts, the Cappelli brothers, meet me at the train and take me for a look at the concert hall, a small room of no particular charm. I set down my equipment, look around, and say, but where is the piano? They said “piano?” Yeah, I need a piano, surely I asked for one. In a flash the word was out (this was long before cellphones), and soon enough a lucky aunt with an upright piano had been found, then a small 3-wheeled Ape minitruck, then 6 students who climbed to her 4th floor apartment, hauled the damn thing down the stairs and into the Ape, and got it on stage huffing and puffing. In this instant I grasped Italy at its best, solving the however weightly unforseen with amazing grace and invention, as if this little glitch, which could have compromised my whole concert, was part of the show! Obviously we didn’t bother with tuning the piano, which gave my performance a detuned color I’ve been using ever since.
The magic here is everywhere, especially where you least expect it, and it’s always enchanting, beguiling and impossible for us foreigners to fully decode. I once played a concert in mid-winter outside of Bologna in an unheated tent, where I had to wear gloves to perform on the piano, but the lunch they treated us to at one of Emilia-Romagna’s famed country restaurants more than made up for this absurd experiment in new music hypothermia. Then one midsummer night in Mestre, near Venice, my synthesizers were drowned out by 1000 howling dogs; the rowdy kids who filled that small stadium tried to boo me off the stage – they must have come under the illusion that I (Alvin Curran) was in fact “The Alvin Curran,” some unknown rock group. In this ridiculous state of mistaken identity I kept playing, thinking what the hell was I doing there? who thought this madness up? how do I get out of this in one piece?
In the still bombed-out Palermo after Cage’s Winter Music, in 1967, Teitelbaum and I had to go on a mission to the festival office to get paid. Nobody bothered to warn us that near midnight on December 31st Palermo is a war-zone, with real bullets zinging and ricocheting all around. We hit the ground and crawled behind parked cars to get to the Festival office alive. Back in the Vucceria at the low-end trattoria where we rejoined the musicians, Michiko Hirayama stood on the table, took two coke bottles, clanged them together, and sang the traditional Japanese new years song, Carol Plantamura led us in Auld Lang Syne, and Cage and Tudor and Chiari created some kind of spontaneous Dada moment which led to an improvised choral happening of such howling intensity that the young waiter, terrified, covered his ears fearing the collapse of the ceiling and walls. No other country I knew at the time or since, offered such memorable instability, joy, and peril any day of the year, much less as a setting for my personal rite of passage into the world community of new music. I forgot to mention whole bathtubs, toilets and armoires thrown from balconies into the streets like confetti. A sea of bygones from which Edith pulled a marvelous hand-painted Sicilian marionette, wood, strings and all.
I got to sit under a Ligurian fig tree, in those early summers, ripe with fresh fruit overlooking the Bay of the Poets, and write music and meet one person after another who exuded wisdom, poetry and practical experience from the filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci and his poet father Attilio, to the town poet-policeman Bertolani, to Lucio the chef whose retaurant was down the street from where D. H. Lawrence had his piano carried on mule back, to the Einaudis, to Ovidio’s son a young supertanker captain who got busted for pot, to our saintly landlady Gina, to the battling peasants Iolanda and Giulio on the ground floor. This no-mans land common to foreigners in Italy – a world of opposites, contradictions, rootless fascinations and attachments, and stateless cultural heritage – soon became mine and became me. When I felt comfortable with the language and customs, tied to the Christian Saints, bicyclists, and soccer heroes rather than to Jazz, Hollywood stars, or baseball players, I began to feel vaguely comfortable in the life of this Italy that I was adopting and being adopted into. None of it was easy, and even for foreigners with strong family ties here achieving full acceptance from this, the most hospitable and accepting people anywhere, can be daunting. Most who really try never make it. I never really tried.
The first time I set foot in the headquarters of the RAI radio-television, known locally as Mamma RAI and destined to become over the years one of my principal Italian benefactors, it was with John Sebastian – a suave American harmonica virtuoso, father of John Jr. of the Loving Spoonful. This was in 1966, to rehearse with him for a USIS State Department tour of Africa – a predictably riotous tour of some 10 newly founded African States with several stops postponed due to revolutions. It was Christmas time, the winter solstice, the moment period for achieving profound re-equilibrium through continuous feasting and celebration of life, friendship, family, and everything from God to Godot. Work in this period is considered a mortal sin against society, a total no-no. Peasants dressed in animal skins come down to the city streets from the Abruzzi mountains and play archaic 6-note minimalisms on home-made bag pipes till you can’t take it any more. Santa Claus consumerism (Christmas trees included) was at that time still the exotic stuff of Hollywood movies. So at the studios in Via Asiago – long before metal detectors and plastic entry strips – the RAI personnel were hanging out at the coffee bar and drinking whiskey, grappa, and prosecco, jolly and super-relaxed all day. This to my naïve eyes was astounding: expecting to see a modern efficient State Radio corporation I found a party day after day while John and I rehearsed Hovahness, Debussy, Mozart, Gershwin. It seemed we were the only persons doing any work there.
The next thing I knew I was off in Africa sitting in front of Tuareg singers who sounded like they put sandpaper in their throats; listening amazed to impossible circularly breathed iterative melodies played on short double-reed horns at a 24-hour feast for village members who had just returned from Mecca, another non-stop 24 hours of drumming for New Year’s, driving back from the interior of the Ivory Coast after a concert and stopping at a restaurant in the middle of the jungle where a Genoan cook just happened to served lasagne al pesto that day – all beyond National Geographic belief for this American rube who was glimpsing the tragic and amazing creative marvel of a continent with one foot in the bush and the other foot on its way to the 21st century. When I got back to Rome in early February, riding Scirocco winds of fine red desert sand from North Africa, I was like, oh my god, Western Civilization – even in Rome – is a pile of unbearable stinking decay. I wanted to run back to Africa where I’d experienced time that had stopped and music that never stopped.
A few years later in the same holiday period, Michelangelo Antonioni hired a recording studio 24/7 for a week, along with a crew of grimacing sound-technicians also on call 24/7, so Musica Elettronica Viva could record music for his first American film, Zabriskie Point…I don’t know who put Antonioni on to us (maybe our American hippie identities were akin to those of his actors on screen). In the end he used only about 3 minutes of our wailings, but we were elated and honored and Richard and I got to spend another week at Antonioni’s house seated with a great cutting-assistant at his Moviola, synching our revolutionary eroticism and inyourface noise to the master’s eloquent scenes even though, at MGM’s forceful request we were told, most of our work got tossed in favor of the Pink Floyd.
Out of nowhere another Michelangelo appeared, Pistoletto, and with his street theater Lo Zoo and with New York dancer/poet Simone Forti we drove up to Torino where the grandfather of postwar avant-garde theater, Giuseppe Bartolucci, had arranged for all of us – MEV and the Zoo – to create a kind of “happening” for Turin’s renowned Teatro Stabile. It all happened so fast that I had no time to appreciate my first ever taste of fresh truffles. I remember only a pile of smelly rags, the piercing December cold, huge mirrors – Pistoletto’s brilliant conceptual find, sweat, a random pile of shoes, and clotheslines of bed sheets with slide-projections on them. The music for this event was completely unrehearsed and spontaneous, with Steve Lacy’s soprano sax floating at odd geometric angles to jungles of raw amplified noise that the radical chic Turin audience seemed to feel was in perfect tune with the bewildering but distinctly edgy event which they most likely took for revolutionary, and maybe it was.
One day I’d be playing “On Top Of Old Smokey” on an upright piano with tacks on the hammers for a sea of drunken sing-a-long students at the Red Garter in Florence with the exciting Wilder Brothers banjo band; next day I’m with MEV on the streets in Parma alongside thousands of students in a boisterous happening led by Jean-Jacques Lebel and the Living Theatre, a timely response to MEV’s having its plug pulled and getting thrown off the stage and out of the back door of the famous Teatro Reggio opera house (Verdi’s Theater, in Toscanini’s hometown). Dreamlike, this protest/street theater floated in its hormonal vigor all the way to Venice where it reopened the next day in front of the equally famous Teatro La Fenice. Here MEV with a simple Crackle Box (a Michael Waisvisz invention) and other portable electronic and acoustic devices served notice to the Venice Music Biennale, and particularly to Maestro Pierre Boulez who was inside conducting a “bourgeois” concert.
But enough of revolution, before I knew it I was recording synthesized electronic tuba parts for a Gianni Morandi piece which was meant to win the 1971 (I think) San Remo Song Festival; it lost. Then came MEV2 – a Campo de’ Fiori gang of Italian rag-tag utopians, mostly musical illiterates, who believed they could pick up any instrument and play it, and they did; it was incredible, they improvised brilliantly in the crypt of St Paul’s Within the Walls – the Episcopal church in Rome and generous venue for many American and Italian artists. I followed this with a series of wonderful theater musics on tape for Memè Perlini and Mario Ricci, film music for famous Czech and Polish animators, and an interlude with the town band of Bomarzo – its sculpted monsters may be known world-wide, but its town band musicians, mostly farmers, cannot read music… so tell me how the hell did they ever learn to play Souza’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” yes way out of tune but with most of the notes recognizable? In the end I threw my music away, and said, hey let’s just play some random tone clusters, which they did as though they’d studied with Varese himself. …In the same period I wrote songs for Maria Monti’s LP Il Bestiario, television music for a Gianni Amico drama series, (The RCA producers were pissed that I omitted bass and drums but gave into Amico’s wishes), and soundtracks for the beautiful and poetic feminist film maker Annabella Miscuglio, and made my own solo debut with Songs and Views from the Magnetic Garden (Canti e Vedute dal Giardino Magnetico), a performance which somehow put me on the top of the alternative culture charts and in the columns of the L’Espresso glossy weekly.
A student political occupation of the National Academy of Theater Arts in 1975 landed me a 5-year job there teaching group vocal improvisation and choreographing bodies, space, and sound, setting off a whole new music-theater direction in my work that led to large outdoor projects such as Maritime Rites. Where else on this planet could such an absurd story happen? “Young Marxist actors confer professorship on American Composer,” the headline might read. Say what? They hadn’t even discovered Arugola in America yet, Alice Waters was probably still using the Joy of Cooking.
At the height of the Red Brigade period Giacinto Scelsi arrived at the ashram of Dr. Kaushik – a Krishnamurti style guru – near Frosinone, and stopped to hug a tree while I was recording the sounds of a rowboat on the pond. Late that night I went out with my trusty Sennheiser shotgun mic to record the crickets; in minutes I was stopped by three men in an unmarked car who claimed to be police. They threw me in, drove off through the dark countryside, and thankfully arrived at a real police station in a real town where they interrogated me, radioed in my coordinates to Rome, checked out my weird tape equipment, and finally declared I was not a terrorist – they even politely drove me back to the ashram and offered a quasi apology for the trouble, but not without returning the next day to interrogate everyone else at this hippie asylum. When Scelsi died in 1988 a notable number of Italian composers threw the book at him, calling him everything under the sun from dilettante to impostor. That’s what you get in Italy when you don’t compose with the equal tempered scale system and to boot make a music openly inspired by Asian culture, and even worse become internationally famous for it. Scelsi lay in state like a cat with a few unshaved whiskers (the morticians were not on the case in those hot August days) but serene and beautiful wearing one of his beautiful gold and silver Indian embroidered caps, looking more noble and visionary than ever as his music began its independent journey toward immortality.
One of the most exceptional Italians I’ve met is M.T., an ingenuous electronic music enthusiast and truth-seeker from the Ciociaria. Born into an provincial culture with strong peasant roots, he knew nothing about music but was convinced he was a musician. The quintessential amateur music-maker, a burly farm boy with his heart focused on the buzz of the electric avantgarde and its mystical potential; over the years he followed the sprouting curves of the new electronics and finally inherited my beloved Serge synthesizer; he passed through maximalism to minimalism, and with an electrified pocket trumpet even jazz and latin. He escapes his cultural isolation at home in the sticks to come around once or twice a year with his disarming simplicity, his beautifully suppressed “otherness,” his family’s red wine. We talk about music, Gurdjieff, his stay in Konya at the feet of the dervishes, Islam, and our shared dreams for bettering humanity.
Another inquisitive provincial once showed up on my doorstep to study with me: Stefano Giannotti from Lucca, smart, curious, nervous, a conservatory-made guitarist/composer who started with a strong urge to create soundscapes like Luc Ferrari and me. I do not know what if anything I taught Stefano, but he went off to become a very successful figure in the German Klangkunst (Sound-Art) world, bringing his small town Lucchese culture with all its charm and fantasy into the radio-art channels of the world.
You never know in Italy. Once I was boarding a train in mid August – Rome to La Spezia. Seeing no seats anywhere I adopted a wise-guy (“furbo”) strategy and entered the Wagon-Lits car, which was nearly empty. There I encountered a young man who was in charge of the carriage. He said, “don’t worry, you can sit here until La Spezia, since most passengers will board later on the way to Paris…” Then out of nowhere he strikes up a conversation with me, beginning with “You must be an artist…” “Well yes, actually I’m a composer” (”artist” in Italian covers a variety of artistic areas). He: “What kind of music do you make?” As usual I stammered looking for a simplistic reply: “Musica classica…contemporanea…elettronica…” At this last word he perked up: “Wait, wait, you mean musica elettronica”…pause… “Ma conosci Alvin Curran?” (“Have you heard of Alvin Curran?”) at which point I beamed and said: “ Io sono Alvin Curran” (“I am Alvin Curran”). “Nooooh?” he said nearly falling off his seat. Bless the Italians’ infinite cultural color spectrum, in any other country in the world an avant-garde musician would be unknown among the working class, but here was a conductor for the Ferrovie dello Stato who had placed me and my music among his favorites. Welcome to NovoItaliaGrad, country of peasants workers and artists living in perfect harmony. In fact in this period the Italian Communist Party who’d earlier promoted concerts of Nono and Pollini in factories, were now also embracing improvised experimental music in a big way, especially black American musicians such as Muhal Abrams, Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, Leo Smith, and the Chicago Arts Ensemble, and their European counterparts.
Other chance encounters: during a portrait concert of mine at the Hague Conservatory, I was assigned a student –personal-assistant named Domenico Sciajno. Sicilian origins, born in Torino, running from the Italian conservatory system, Domenico was doing a double degree in contrabass and composition (with emphasis in electronics) in the Hague. His simpatico and super-competent presence made my stay in the bland Dutch capital a special pleasure and after his graduation led straight to his becoming my long-time musical assistant and then artistic collaborator. Now re-rooted in his father’s native Palermo – a career choice of genuine courage – Sciajno has become one of Italy’s most outstanding new electronic protagonists. An unplanned cappuccino near Rome’s Pantheon with Massimo Simonini of the Angelica Festival in Bologna led to projects from TotoAngelica to the brilliantly produced Boletus Edulis, and still another with Klaus Schoening (founder of the Studio Akustische Kunst, WDR, Cologne) kick-started my European career as a “radio-artist” with the Erat Verbum series.
On the down side, getting stiffed is a way of life here. It’s like getting hit by bird-shit in the starling season, unpleasant but normal. Like those guys who took the check from the RAI AudioBox budget that was destined to cover MEV’s 30th anniversary concert expenses, and disappeared forever into some cockamamie story about having to pay for their father’s hernia operation (Steve Lacy got stuck with his plane flight and hotel bill). Or the time this nobody art-chick gets me to play my keyboard inside an ambulance parked up on the stairs of the Palazzo delle Esibizioni… Her theme, “the pharmacy,” made me sick throughout a 3-year odyssey of soliciting my modest fee. I once ran into her as she was going inside a Roche Bobois store to inquire about a $10,000 sofa; caught in the act she said, “Aah, I owe you money, don’t I?” – so sorry, she would get me the money tomorrow… Tomorrow never came.
Then once when people do lay out money – say a door gig in a lively but threadbare off/off/off theater in Trastevere – the mortified organizers inform you after the tumultuous applause that someone has swiped the collected loot right off the table, all 37 Euros of it, and disappeared into the damp night. This is a true story.
Italy-bashing, especially for us hardened lovers of this country, is an easy pastime. Life here, while bursting with unexpected and often extraordinary encounters, is seldom a Roman Holiday – not when it takes 5 years and 25 trips to the nasty Police Immigration office to change one miserable misprinted letter in your name, or takes months, even years, to put right a chronically disturbed telephone line for which at this writing we are once again anxiously awaiting service. This “third-world” dysfunctionality and the seeming impossibility of correcting it often make the headlines and the letter columns of the Italian papers newspapers and provide the daily bread of conversation, like the weather for the English… but for us seasoned expats, we often get to: enough is enough already!
Science fiction in Rome’s Lincoln Center: We recently attended a wonderful but sonically subverted concert by Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell at Renzo Piano’s “Auditorium.” Toward the end the sound personnel – out of god only knows what perverse artistic fantasy, drugs, or personal issues – took it on themselves to apply long overamplified circular delays and huge cathedral reverbs to the perfectly pure acoustic music of these two extraordinary improvisers. At concert’s end some alert and enraged spectators mobbed and physically attacked the 2 bozoes seated at the mixer. I did not stay to see if any blood was drawn or equipment destroyed, but the mad crowd of dedicated cognoscenti had justifiably gone bananas. This became a momentary cause celebre in the daily papers, but its being Italy we can assume nobody got fired and no apologies were extended. Backstage, Braxton, astonished beyond his habitual state of astonishment, asked “What the hell were those boys doing to our music? I thought the martians had landed. Man!”
In a transformative moment in 1987, benefitting from a quirk of fate that involved beating out Walter Zimmermann, I went to live in the countryside not far from Diana’s temple on the ridge of Lake Nemi 45 minutes from Rome. In my company was Melissa Gould a New York conceptual artist, just out of RISD in Rome, whose work and ideas became a catalyst for my own, resulting in several important collaborations between us in those years. Poggidoro and its mythically enchanted surroundings, was home for 15 years and continues as a weekend get-a-way. After a year in the Villetta Pallenberg – built by descendents of the firery romantic painter Boecklin and one-time crash-pad for the Rolling Stones I moved next door into the apartment upstairs from Remo and Teresa, head of a peasant family, who after the war had also built a house there looking west over a swath of the Tirrenean Sea. From them I learned precious bits of wisdom about the world clock, the seasons, living from what you plant, about family about hardship and the blatant cock-and-bull of peasant culture. The warmth and trust generated between us was mutual and lasting, like the common country air. Now I can’t live without it.
There have been moments I’ve thought I’d become Italian. Can you imagine an American Yid with burgeoning avantgarde street creds, an art-inspirational bond with New York’s celebrated Abstract Expressionist School and its new invigorating downtown minimalisms, a card-carrying member of MEV, main-man in Julius Cesar’s theatrical underground in the middle of an incalculable Vietnam tragedy complete with the $300,000 Frost/Nixon confession, headed for the bigtime, new-music-all-time-small-time, dreaming of being Italian? That was me in the Seventies, composing, performing, charming, and meditating my way to the top of some imaginary Italian mountain of golden Gnocchi. Italy, with its bloody Permesso di Soggiorno (green card), its universal commandment to live gracefully outside the law, and its blessed love for the privileged – Western – foreigner, whoever they were and whatever they did or wanted, made me de facto an Italian by adoption – a condition (my awful accent notwithstanding) both they and I have accepted to this day. Even though a foreigner can never, ever, really become an Italian, no matter how close you get you never get into the inner sanctum. So whatever ambiguity surrounds my cultural identity the truth is in my Permesso di Soggiorno folded inside of my Amercan passport: I am both.
Personals: At the age of 64 I got married. Susan Levenstein a physician, writer and musician became my wife, ending my permanent bachelorhood and changing my life period! I was now no longer dedicated only to my music but ecstatically to another person, who stepped right out of the pages of late Beethoven and plunged headlong into the bewildering jungle of contemporary music; her critical ear and eye have become new guides to my musical practice and my www. bridge with the world. Our wedding nearly didn’t happen, [when the Italian officials discovered that my name was spelled wrong on my Permesso and that New York City had given Susan the wrong kind of birth certificate] considering the Italian State’s insistence on cleaning up all their previous misspellings and wrong attributions on our legal documents. But in the end we did have the marriage statutes read out to us, the rice thrown, a celebratory concert at a friend’s art gallery, and a party at the Pallenberg villetta in Poggi d’Oro (where 15 years earlier I had composed Crystal Psalms in a tent) complete with roving gypsy bass and accordion, and the party ended in a near brawl after the discovery of some young guests unwisely making-out in the baby’s bedroom – an unexpected ruckus Cinecittà-style that signaled for us the beginning of a remarkable period of priceless unity.
I purposely have not mentioned Pasta or Musica Elettronica Viva except in passing – these subjects occupy my life daily, the latter I have written and spoken voluminously about, the former is simply second nature.
from Alvin Curran: Live in Roma, Daniela Tortora, ed., Die Schachtel, Milan, 2010, pp. 202-238 (bilingual, in English and Italian)