program notes

My TWENTIETH CENTURY is simply what you see and hear. Not a pro memoria for the future, nor an "apologia" for the present, nor a critique of the past; there are no coded secrets here, no welcoming messages for the extraterrestrials. It is a simple work born out of our current use of multiple technologies and commonly-shared concerns of the present. But allow yourself a leap into the future. Imagine for a moment some distant time when archeologists begin to "unearth" our century. Among the myriad artifacts (of our time) they will bring to light nearly everywhere on our planet will be: our sea ships, aircraft, automobiles, TV's, radios, espresso machines, toothbrushes, gas masks, knapsacks, contact lenses, pacemakers, lethal weapons, marconi cables, satellite dishes, footballs, computers, suntan oils, running shoes, LP's. CD's, T-Shirts, vibrators, credit cards, etc etc. etc. Spread here and there they will also find our harps, triangles, kotos, saxophones, cembalons, violins, dumbegs, mbiras, electric guitars, hi-hats, synthesizers, sitars, dijeridoos, tubas and kazoos, etc. But of these sounding things, the most prominent and widespread will likely be our "modern" pianos - large rugged musical instruments whose very presence was once synonymous with the word "home," and to many people, like my father, synonymous with the very essence of music itself. These will be found anywhere the archeologists look - on every pacific atoll, on land from Murmansk to Tierra del Fuego, at the bottoms of oceans and on mountain tops. Inside of rotting dirigibes if such are found. These ubiquitous objects could be the key to decoding a whole epoch. An instrument, like no other that enabled any and all musics to come to life: a miraculous invention of pure pleasure, noble sentiments and paranoia; of high art, cheap entertainment, seduction, torture, spirituality, night-life, low-life; of aristocrats, Bourgeoises, and plebians, of geniuses, fools, criminals and the insane; of cowboys, anarchists, countesses, and utopian experimentalists; of love, fear, ecstasy, despair, and transcendence... and if, amidst all our cultural artifacts, it were only our pianos, that survived, imagine how much of our story these mute, half-worm-eaten, rusted black boxes could tell, if they were once again made to speak. Could these skilled scientists of the future then, be able to reconstruct not only what we called music, but everything in our lives that our music revealed about us? would thay be able through this heap of rotting wood, steel and ivory to decode our era? Much as we have "read" past cultural histories in the Tablets of Ebla, the Rossetta Stone, in the Dead Sea Scrolls or in so called "prehistoric" Cave paintings. amd rock drawings ........ So what would it mean to our future archeologists to find pianos (very often replicas of the same instrument) in such diverse places as a Siberian Prison, a Roccoco Orangerie in Darmstadt, at a huge outdoor Stadium in Hollywood, a miners hut in south Africa, on an open seacliff in Canada, in a garage in Mexico City. And would they know that this instrument contained the entire history of the 19th century as well? Could these same archeologists imagine what infinite and passionate acts of creativity these instruments inspired in the 20th century, when musicians and artists used them not only to "play music" as it were, but played them with herrings, set them on fire, made love in them, buried them, blew them up, plucked them with crow bars, beat them with whips and toilet brushes, bled on them, played them with their elbows and baseball bats, feet and sex organs, gave them digital implants, poured alcoholic drinks into them, hung them from cranes, dropped them from planes, pushed them into the sea, and made swimming pools in their shape - extreme acts of ritualized devotion, creative indifference and violence just to prove that this instrument had infinite sonic capabilities and meanings, and perhaps was indestructable. In short, these scientific discoverers would quickly see that our piano was not only a universally acknowledged musical icon, but became in our time an infinite source of human invention, extending far beyond anything any one in the previous (19th) century (excepting satie) could have ever imagined. What amazing histories this instrument would reveal if they reconstruct what the artists of the time did with it: Rubenstien, Ruth Crawford, Scelsi, Busoni, Scott Joplin, Feldman, Rachmaninoff, Annea Lockwood, Art Tatum, Joseph Beuys, Glenn Gould, The Kontarski's, Gershwin, Cowell, Cecil Taylor, Marion McPartland, Cardini, Gurdjieff, Lamonte Young, Liberace, Cardew, Viznagradski, Elton John, Horowitz, Fats Waller, David Tudor, Antonello Salis, Myra Hess, Rzewski, Memphis Slim, Giuseppe Chiari, Charlemagne Palestine, Thelonius Monk, Mischa Mengelberg, Bela Bartok, Rebecca Horn, John Cage, Michelangelo Benedetti, Jerry Lee Lewis, Richter, Chris Newman, Ursula Oppens, Dollar Brand, Buster Keaton, Alvin Lucier... Is the piano ,"tout court," the history book of our time and will these archeologists be able to appreciate the subtle expressions and differences implicit in this small number of diverse pianists? Will any of these distinguishing terms: "E, " "U," Highbrow Lowbrow, elite, Bourgesoise, Avantguard, Futurist, folk, pop, expressionist, impressionist, classical, postmodern, Hollywood, Darmstadt, ragtime, quatertone, 12 tone, 19 tone, bebop, Baroque, Roccoco, Romantic, stride, Shuffle, rock, Swing, stochastic, new age, electroacoustic, digital, welltempered, meantempered, midi, bad tempered, Kansas City, Vienna, 52nd Street, Minsk, free and prepared and unprepared, composed improvised, have any meaning to these future researchers? In a word , will they be able to tell us what it was that we were doing musically in l908 or in l998 or any time between? Fanciful speculations, as these, have in fact little to do directly with my TWENTIETH CENTURY, for this is a work of extreme transparency and accesibility; it harbours no paradigms, agendas, or metaphors . It is simply my story at this moment and and now, yours as well. Long a maker of acoustic and electronic concert music, my composing has taken on a distinct character shaped by the sounds and spaces of the environment. I have created works for sites such as rivers, ports, gardens, wells, caves and quarries - a kind of natural theater is common to my work and the TWENTIETH CENTURY is very much in this line of thinking. The essential technical ingredients here are a computer-playable piano (a Yamaha"Diskklavier," no doubt created with the same home entertainment potential that earlier mechanical pianos were constructed), a Computer, software written (in "Max") by Chris Dobrian, Scot Gresham-Lancaster and Stefan Tiedje, a simple feedback system consisting of a microphone, digital sound effects processor and loudspeaker ( inside the piano). and of course the beautiful natural setting of the Schlosspark Pavillion. This work is originally proposed as a duo with a companion piece titled the TWENTYFIRST CENTURY shown as a piano suspended precariously from the ceiling. The two instruments performing independently but simultaneously are to be included in an opening exhibiton of the KLANGTURM in St. Poelten Austria in the spring of 97. So here is a special one sided version of the whole. And in this occasion I was inspired by Alban Berg's extraordinary and eloquent comment on the 20th Century, in his "verstimmtes Klavier" solo in Act III of Woyzzeck. Like all gifts from above, this came to me watching a recent television production of the opera, late at night in a hotel room in Schwetzingen. To me, this little nasty but poignant fragment of music said everything one could say about the 20th century, so I felt it could further be elaborated (de and reconstructed) by computers to see what might lie beyond it. But without going into a lot of technical warble, the Berg fragment, while a main catalyst, is one among many musical elements, which the computer is called upon to compose with, in a process akin to musical quilting. Where all kinds of "algorythmic" designs are woven and rewoven into an unending musical tapestry: A mindless, limitless, rational process of moving electrons and mathematics made audible (computer software), on an exsquisitely crafted but aging acoustic machine or great rational and irrational design (a concert piano). Will this experimental surgery of neural networks - some already over 200 years old - lead us safely out of here or are we destined to stay in the 20th century forever - taking piano lessons on the Internet?

The Twentieth Century (1994), for Diskklavier and midi grand piano. First performance Donaueschingen Festival, Nov. 1996.

Alvin Curran


The Twentieth Century Installation Page

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