composer's liner notes

In the middle 1970s I began to formulate ideas and projects leading to the making of music outside the concert halls—often in large open and naturally beautiful sites. Ports, rivers, lakes, caves, quarries, fields, and woods, always ready sources of my musical inspiration, now became my new music theaters.

Over the years, these projects, large and small, were often mediated by radio and radio-production, which already had, especially in Europe, a notable role in the evolution of contemporary sound-art. Bringing a cast of extraordinary musicians and poets together in far-flung sites along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard—while conceptually easy to imagine—is something that the modern recording studio—and radio broadcasting in particular—are best suited for. So, in 1984 it was providential to discover a competition offered by National Public Radio and its newly minted Satellite Program Development Fund. The unconventional but timely ten-part radio series proposed by Melissa Gould and me was awarded funding; then as now, we were thankful for this support which enabled us to record all the major locations and artists in the summer of 1984 during a month-long adventure on land and sea. The composing and mixing were then done in the midst of the July heat in my Via Vestri sound-studio in Rome (with an eight-track Otari and DBX mastered to a Revox two-track, 15 ips). The superb audio engineering was in the hands of Nicola Bernardini. To my knowledge these programs were broadcast by some 50 radio stations throughout the United States—leaving over the years an artistic trail like a kind of quiet myth. The series was intermittently made available on cassette through the Deep Listening Foundation. Now, twenty years later, these works—which I feel are a microcosmic period piece and a memorable point of arrival and departure in my early creative journey—are at last available for all to hear. All except dear John (who was astonished when I asked him for only five monosyllabic words) and now Steve Lacy, to whom I wish to dedicate this work “in memoriam.”  

Alvin Curran, 2004


Maritime Rites is a series of ten environmental concerts for radio composed by Alvin Curran. This series features the Eastern Seaboard of the United States as a musical source in collaboration with improvised musical performances by ten distinguished artists in the American new-music scene: John Cage, Joseph Celli, Clark Coolidge, Jon Gibson, Malcolm Goldstein, Steve Lacy, George Lewis, Pauline Oliveros, Leo Smith, and Alvin Curran. The programs use specifically recorded natural sounds as musical counterpoint to the soloists, whose improvisations are freely restructured and mixed by Curran. As nature is spontaneous and unpredictable, so is the music of man. Curran simply brings the two together in a common radiophonic sound-space letting both chance and intention make the music. Featured here are the foghorns of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and New Brunswick, Canada. Also included are maritime bells, gongs, whistles, and regional bird and animal life. Comments from lighthouse keepers, Coast Guard personnel, and other local people are woven impressionistically throughout.

There are nine eleven-minute programs, each featuring a specific artist as soloist. The tenth program of about twenty-five minutes features Curran in a closing work of “symphonic” dimensions.

Rich in ambient detail, Maritime Rites presents the foghorn as indigenous American “found” music par excellence and the source of one of the most enduring minimal musics around us. The series is also a comprehensive aural documentary of our regional and national maritime heritage, including such historical sounds as the Nantucket II Lightship, now out of service and doing duty as a museum docked in Boston Harbor. The Lightship’s horn is the only one of its kind (and the loudest!) on the East Coast and was recorded extensively during an exclusive session ten miles offshore with the special cooperation of the ship’s crew. As the foghorn gives way to other electronic navigational aids, this work may serve as an historical document of some of the most beautiful and mysterious sounds of the sea.

As an expression of sonic geography, Maritime Rites brings together different areas of the Seaboard in a single musical moment. The series was expressly conceived for radio, the only medium that can safely accommodate more than sixty foghorns at once and bring an entire coastline, seemingly live, into anyone’s home!

As a form of radio-art, Maritime Rites is intended for everyone, however conventional or radical their musical interests. It should have a special appeal to the audiences in the regions where some of the sounds originate and likewise to those who may never have heard the haunting sound of a foghorn.


1. Leo Smith, composer and multi-instrumentalist, playing trumpet and seal horn in his composition World Music. This solo is mixed almost indistinguishably with the sounds of boats passing through Wood’s Hole, Massachusetts; the foghorns at Portland Head, Maine, and Point Judith, Rhode Island; the boat horns of an American Container Line vessel in Port Elizabeth, New Jersey, and a McAllister tugboat in New York Harbor.


2. Pauline Oliveros, composer and accordionist, performing her piece Rattlesnake Mountain. Mixed with her solo, in a quiet rhythm that emulates breath itself, are the sounds of the whistle buoy near Robinson’s Rock, a threetoned gong from the Graves near Camden, and foghorns from Rockland Harbor, all in Maine. Also heard is the voice of the only female lighthouse keeper in America, Karen McLean of the U.S. Coast Guard, Doubling Point, Maine.


3. Steve Lacy, composer and soprano saxophonist, playing his work Coastline, whose melody is inspired by the contours of the Italian coastline near Sperlonga. Combined with his solo are foghorns from another coast: Portland Head and West Quoddy in Maine; Governor’s Island in New York Harbor; and Cove Point, Maryland, in Chesapeake Bay. Also heard are Coast Guard personnel Tim Barber, Portland Head; John Richardson, West Quoddy; and Eddie Calhoun, Cove Point.


4. Clark Coolidge, experimental sound-text poet, reading from his 1982 work titled Mine: The One That Enters the Stories. Also heard is Arlan Coolidge, retired chairman of the Brown University Music Department, reminiscing about Block Island, Rhode Island, in 1918 and playing a portion of the popular 1917 song “Smiles” on the violin. This material is mixed with the foghorns of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, all three horns on Block Island, and the foghorn on the Block Island Ferry during its crossing.


5. Joseph Celli, composer and oboist, playing reeds, English horn, and a mukha veena, an Indian double-reed instrument. His solo is combined with the haunting, almost ghost-like night sounds of plovers, a bell buoy, loons from Maine, peepers from Connecticut, frogs from Maryland, and the foghorns of Letete Passage in Black’s Harbour and Southwest Head Light on Grand Manan Island, both in New Brunswick, Canada, and Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay. Also heard is the ambient sound of the radio room at the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Little Creek, Virginia, and an original sea chantey sung by dancer Simone Forti.


6. Jon Gibson, composer and soprano saxophonist, playing his composition Soft Shoulder against a mixture of foghorns from Tangier Island West Thorofare in Chesapeake Bay; Montauk Point and Montauk Point West Jetty, on the tip of Long Island, New York; Point Judith, Rhode Island; and the Elbow of Cross Light on the New Jersey side of the Delaware Bay.


7. Malcolm Goldstein, composer and violinist, playing his composition From Center of Rainbow, Sounding against sounds exclusively from the state of Maine: two bell buoys in Camden Harbor; seals and eider ducks near Lime Island with the Rockland Light heard in the distance; the foghorn on Manana Island and the voices of lobstermen Phil Raynes, retired, and Clive Poole, both of Camden—an unusual dialogue between an old salt and a new-music violinist.


8. George Lewis, composer and trombonist. His solo—virtuoso soundings falling somewhere between human and animal expression—is mixed with the horn of the historical Nantucket II Lightship, the wave-activated whistle buoy in the Ambrose Channel, New York Harbor, and the voice of Captain Ken Black leading us through his Shore Village Museum in Rockland, Maine. Composer Anthony Braxton is also heard reciting five words.

9. John Cage, poet and composer, reciting five monosyllabic words of his own choice. These are mixed—in a rigorous exercise in silence—with the famous diaphone horn of the Nantucket II Lightship and the broken horn of the Edgartown Lighthouse on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, which was recorded from the interior of the structure through a hole in the outer wall.

10. Alvin Curran, composer and the vocal soloist in this twenty-five-minute program of symphonic dimensions. The first section features the natural sounds of more than sixty foghorns and bells, gongs, whistles, and ships’ horns, all recorded on location between New Brunswick, Canada, and Chesapeake Bay, which are blended into an everthickening texture creating an imaginary panoramic soundscape. Of special note are the horns from Boothbay Harbor in Maine and a recording of the now dismantled Brenton Reef (Rhode Island) Lightship diaphone made by Peter Kilham of Foster, Rhode Island, in the 1950s. Also heard is a play on the word “rite” by composer Elliott Carter and reflections on foghorns by Senior Chief Daniel Warrington of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Aids to Navigation School on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor. The second section begins with the high-pitched malfunctioning horn of the Race Point Light on the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and features an improvised chorale of voices (all Curran) against the mysterious, almost humanlike vocal sound of the Brooklyn Bridge, which is caused by its vehicular traffic (drastically muted in the following decade to appease residents of lower Manhattan, this unique sound no longer exists); conch shells, and a concluding foghorn concert with horns from Upper New York Harbor. The program ends with folklorist Bill Bonyun of Westport Island, Maine, who sings a traditional American sea ballad, “Rolling Home,” accompanying himself on the concertina-like bandoneon.  

Alvin Curran, with Melissa Gould, 1985-2004

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