MUSIC 24/7

by Alvin Curran

Alvin Curran playing two keyboards at a concert at RAI studio in Rome, October 2006. (Photo: Roberto Agostini)


The human animal is eminently musical, a creature that consciously builds its own instruments and organizes and projects repeatable sound structures in time, heard in selected spaces on occasions of special purpose. Human music is a vehicle for personal and collective enjoyment and expression, and a means to transcend time and place. Its widespread presence and diversity suggests an underlining socio-physiological necessity. Apparently there are no people on this planet during the last 30,000 years who did not and do not make their own music. So it is no surprise to wake up in the year 2007 and find music everywhere all the time.


Until the advent of consumer music publishing in the 19th century, and particularly until the beginnings of sound reproduction ­ piano rolls, wire and disc ­ in the early 20th century, what we now call “art music” (the highbrow stuff as distinguished from working-class pop music) was live music made by various artisans and artists for the elite classes of their time ­ music composed, published, and often performed by living composers for the enjoyment and cultivation of their noble, religious, or bourgeois patrons. The European masters of the last 500 years are clear examples of this proposition: Monteverdi, Purcell, Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms, Chopin, Wagner, Verdi, Mahler ­ even Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky in the early 20th century ­ were the most in-demand composers of their respective times and places.

The rapid rise of duplicated, recorded, and broadcast music changed this forever, offering such quantity and diversity to listeners as to challenge the fast turnover of newly commissioned compositions and even the longstanding tradition of live concerts, and in the second half of the 20th century the increasingly globalized music business, with its growing production, media and distribution technologies, made the music of anyone from any time potentially available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to anyone else anywhere on our planet ­ a state of affairs that is unique in the history of human music.

With this unprecedented universal availability and vast consumer potential, a new parity between the musics of living composers and dead ones, and those of any other nation and time, has come to be a permanent fact of life. The “music of our time” has become the “music of all time,” period.

One factor in this new picture, bigger than Beethoven, is the powerful influence and ubiquitous aura of Afro-American musics now evident in practically every musical culture on the planet; this poses a formidable counterweight to a once exclusive, essentially white European cultural monopoly and at the same time offers a mesmeric source of alternative musical energy ­ witnessed particularly by my own generation in its successive attraction to blues, Dixieland, swing, be-bop, rock, free jazz, post-free, hip-hop ­ and leaving its stamp on art music from Debussy to David Lang.

To complete this story, we must consider that the events of “our time” take place nearly a century from the time Arnold Schoenberg caused a massive rift in Western compositional practice by conferring equality on all 12 equal-tempered tones. Schoenberg’s historically natural proposition has on the one hand liberated composers from the imposing weight of Europe’s musical past, encouraging them to experiment endlessly with new musical syntax. On the other hand its unnerving dissonance has contributed to the consolidation of reactionary tendencies, among these the almost religious preservation, restoration, and performance of all previous Western music. Schoenberg’s revolution is even responsible, in the end, for today’s trendy escape from his democratized 12 notes into exotic tunings ranging from Balinese microtonality to cool scientific French spectralism.


As a composer of art music I find this new ballgame disorienting, perfectly natural (because it all happened in my own lifetime), and marvelous in its anarchic essence and unknowable consequences. To quote an apt phase in John Cage’s Norton Lectures “I-VI,” “This is the new confusion…” ­ and indeed it is in this new confusion that I suspect we may find both the seeds and the genesis of a New Common Practice ­ the very practice of endless possibility and confusion we now inhabit.

Nowadays, composers must cope not only with an infinite world of recombinant sonic potential ­ the placing and joining of any imaginable sound with any other sound, often disregarding their original meanings and contexts ­ but also with putting these sounds in untried containers and spaces not always within walking distance ­ as in Internet music and sound installations: the new big buzz.

One group of composers (the majority) sensibly consolidates its contemporary experience within acceptable and reasonable limits dictated by prevailing academic, economic and cultural trends. The other group focuses on unfettered creativity and experiment even if at the expense of career or general acceptance — Maryanne Amacher, Laurie Anderson, Robert Ashley, Anthony Braxton, Glenn Branca, Morton Subotnik, Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, Frederic Rzewski, LaMonte Young, John Zorn, to name just a few — and seem to be constantly stirring up trouble, not knowing or even caring whether we are unleashing deadly germs or finding new cures.

As today’s composers are left with a compass pointing in all directions at once, much of the general public is like so many derelict ships, adrift on endless seas of musical offerings, searching for some life-saving detritus. In megashops they anxiously seek new thrills by diving in the Vivaldi bins, the doo-wop bins or in the bins of Baroque, ska, metal, bluegrass, Gregorian, Kraut, space, house, goth, Mannheim, grunge, gypsy, salsa, Tuvan, free, Bulgarian, Elizabethan, Indian, dub, bebop, scratch, noise, chamber… all of them “music for the end of time,” mute rivers of immaterial sonic memory cleverly recorded on cheap materials with guaranteed short life-spans.

The offer never stops, the shops never close, new products never cease to appear. The inventory contains every imaginable recorded sound in the universe, and the dispensaries are everywhere. Who needs them? The whole shebang is now downloadable — in an Internet mall the size of Jupiter and Mars combined. But like those photos we see of wretchedly poor people combing mountains of garbage to extract anything life-sustaining, there’s always somebody somewhere searching in these endless bins for a new musical experience.

And the same people will listen to the stuff while they sleep, eat, meditate, work, shop, travel, procreate, and run. Contemporary humans have become pathological music junkies reduced to searching obsessively for the ultimate “Ode to Joy” cell-phone ring.

The contradiction is clear: Business has never been better, despite the territorial clash between composers of art music (presently the underdogs) and pop music (the undisputed top dogs) as both struggle in a contest for cultural and economic space with each other and with all the musics ever made: Feldmanesque string-quartets are pitted against feel-good muzak, 5.1 home-symphonic blowouts against unmediated sub-woofer rumble, songs of endangered peoples and animals against dub, art-ensemble free-soup against concerti for viola da gamba, concerts of ship horns against sonic meditations, sunspot flurries controlling Max Patches against mobs of detuned mandolins, gangsta against Zydeco cocktails against amplified gastric juice installations, Klangforum Germanic perfection against Turkish rap stars against experimental Internet improvs with strangers who you cannot see, touch, smell, or even hear very well.


Among the new critical theorizing ­ Stochastic, Phat, and Fractal ­ and in this sonic pandemonium of apocalyptic consumerism, everyday normality, and the post-post modern substitution hypothesis (i.e., any audible music or noise is as good as any other), certain questions float to the surface: Where’s the art music? Where’s its beloved ritual? Its new direction? Its discerning listeners?

Excerpt from a live performance of Alvin Curran’s “Weft Warp and Purl,” for sampler. First performed at the Knitting Factory in New York in Jan, 2000, it uses sound from past concerts at that venue as its raw material.

And, of special personal interest, Where are its composers? The honest answer is: here we are ­ a small curious obdurate and often threadbare band who for unknown reasons cannot do otherwise. Us and a few imaginative producers and caring patrons ­ the same ones Mozart begged work from, and Beethoven wrote pleading letters to. This is what I tell my befuddled students when they ask me how to make a living from this perplexing “confusion.” Yet, the bottom line in bucks tells us there simply is not enough demand for music which insists on simply engaged and focused listening attention ­ and which, without aid of visuals and without shaking your booty, asks you take this as “the” music of our time, as if it were made by the village shaman next door. In a world where most music is made by corporate harmonists, kick-ass tunesmiths, and turntable fakirs we, the artisans and curators of the traditional cultured musical forms, are a tribe of job hunters out on the prowl.

Admittedly between the memory museum and the maelstrom there’s a lot of stuff going down, and the new music thing is far from over. A struggling but very lively and resistant new musical culture continues to appear like weeds in the cracks of the sidewalks everywhere … in clubs, labels, festivals, in university music departments, in organizations like Meet the Composer, The American Music Center, and the A.A.C.M. and its many spinoffs, through sumptuous foundations, grants prizes and residencies, commissioning programs for symphonic, choral, chamber, live-electronic and band; in the new jazz, the long-overdue prominence of women composers, a phenomenal burgeoning of new forms of electronica, DJ, multimedia-opera, radiophonic sound-art, urban and Internet sound installation. In this vast field of cross pollination and morphing-genres, musical creativity is booming, producing numerous evolving forms that are being cultivated ­ on the American scene, in Europe, in South America and now Asia and Africa ­ with increasing audience and respect ­ always pleading for more money but, like it or not, always there.

This is the world I have been working in for 50 years and on reflection lucky to have been a part of. Neither my mentor and teacher Elliott Carter nor I could have known that I would go off and write successful string quartets and works for fog horns, 6-hour piano concerts and radio soundscapes of insects and moving air. The sheer openness and wackiness of our times demand constant migration and survivalist invention; they promise everything but guarantee absolutely nothing.

John Cage was penniless but immovable in purpose; by the end of his life he could hardly satisfy the demand for new pieces. Some of my colleagues have gone on to make laudably successful careers. I continue, as do so many musicians today, to produce original music for the sheer pleasure of composing ­material and existential consequences notwithstanding ­ and amazingly I actually live off it. Even if all these efforts only wind up as grand compost for some future musical species, they will at least have served the practitioners of this ancient craft well in our magical and sometimes enviable activity of making sound for a living.

P.S.: As the recent YouTube concert given by a kitten-on-the-keys improvising feline pianist is in my opinion some of the best music of the year, maybe the “new confusion” is beginning to bear fruit.

Published as Music 24/7 in The Score: Four Innovative American Composers Sound Off, New York Times blog, March 11, 2007

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