by Alvin Curran

The composer and his 300-plus member band of German musicians ready to break into controlled chaos. (Photo: Susan Levenstein). Listen to excerpt 1 (opening).

One gray November Sunday morning in 1953 I was marching down Dorrance Street in Providence, R.I., playing the “Colonel Bogey March” (a tune later heard in “Bridge on the River Kwai”) in a local National Guard Band of about 15 musicians led by my high-school music teacher Eddie McCabe. I was a mere kid — they needed an extra trombonist. As the band was about to pass the viewing stand — mind you this was my first and last appearance in military clothing, including an ill-fitting helmet that sat mostly over my eyes — I went for a low C-flat, a note only playable in seventh position, the one where you push the slide to the near end of its fixed tubing, but the slide kept going, flying magically from my hands and to wit from the trombone — dropping, like-oh-my-god, klunk, to the indifferent asphalt… The band kept going and in view of the city’s mayor I had to dash back, retrieve the slide, and run like crazy to catch up with the show.

This epochal adolescent trombone blunder was yet another instance of me publicly losing control of my own music making. At the time it was an enormous embarrassment, but in later years a controlled lack of control has become an eminent characteristic of my music and the music of many of my friends.

It was in those days when I first heard the name of Charles Ives, born in 1874, who wrote brass band oom-pahs into his symphonies and “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” into his piano pieces and whose father was the wackiest bandleader Connecticut or anyplace else ever saw. Route 44 connected the city of Hartford to Hy Diwinsky’s Deli in Providence — a sawdust memory of wooden barrels full of the world’s best kosher pickles, just near my home off Hope Street. This connection made it virtually impossible that I should have anything to do with Charles Ives, an eccentric “goy” and Hartford insurance man.

This was not true for my early mentor Arlan Coolidge, a blueblooded Yankee who dedicated himself to promoting the great classical and early popular American music traditions and also fully supported Ives’ sonic collisions; nor for my later and most important teacher, Elliott Carter, who in his youth studied with Ives but did not join in mythologizing him — as Helen Carter would snarl in her English-horn like nasality “…We don’t like ‘the popular’ in music… do we Elliott?”

I grew up in a Jewish-proletarian home where Mozart, Yiddish songs, Fats Waller, and John Philip Souza were musical equals and all of us, the whole family, embodied these musics. Even without being able to know my destiny as a so-called experimental composer, I was surely learning and studying for my role as a musical escape-artist in my early youth and teens. Ives was a well-to-do Yankee — seemingly light years from my own class and cultural background — but we shared a common bond in our love for brass-band music, chorales, populist Americana, and unpredictable and chaotic events.

On any eclectic day in the 1950s I might have practiced some Beethoven bagatelles; arranged a Gerry Mulligan tune; played a Brahms symphony in the orchestra and Souza in the band; heard a concert of Art Tatum, Bartok, or Christian Wolff at Brown University. In retrospect a very normal diet of insatiable discovery. I knew instinctively that popular musics (including all the sacred forms) were an unending biological celebration of vitality and the sheer physical wonder at walking upright in a body that makes and receives audible sound. I also understood that beyond musicological jabberwocky there were pinnacles of “deep listening,” Monk and Menuhin, where the “crunch” was, hence: whether listening to Kosher pickles or transcendental sonatas, if you can’t hear the crunch forget it, throw ’em away!

In the untamed American musical arts — the contemporary classical ones — there is no generalized practice of exclusivity. My models and friends — Ives, Partch, Wolff, Anthony Braxton, Jim Tenney, Maryanne Amacher, Robert Ashley, LaMonte Young, Earle Brown, even Morton Feldman dangling a cigarette from the corner of his mouth — are all informed by fake books and jazz joints as well as by their mystical numbers. The secret passion of the whole Yale School of Music in the early 1960s was country and western; backstage, a big band the size of Missouri is playing non-stop. Our whole kit and caboodle mirrors the street, the dive, the temple, the tube, the dream, the aura, sometimes all at once. Popular music — decades of it from Stephen Foster to Snoop Dog — is the schoolyard, the conservatory from which we all graduated, where we learned that 4/4 time, like 11/8 time, belongs to everyone.

Throughout our esteemed Western tradition, high music and low music seem to have their own clothes, vibes and dialects, but they have never stopped understanding, loving and inspiring one another. In today’s musical America they mix and remix freely. The dialectical fusion of opposites in breathless tempi and dense existential polyphonies — vivid dreams of the Futurists — is now an everyday subway ride. The Europeans elegantly call it “contamination.” We call it “hey, whatever,” whatever it takes to keep the holy art-music from aging, from imploding into modernist sterility. Pure or contaminated, all music making, whatever its political, social, economic, or theological origins, is a kind of primal, if not libidinous act of self/collective-liberation, an act of escape from our unarguably less-than-perfect temporal and spatial conditions. To liberate ourselves by disappearing into sound, into some universal promised land “wo die Citronen blühen,” and it matters little whether the sound originates from from Jascha Heifetz’ fiddle, Oum Kalsoum’s voice, or a car crash…

Probably my own most radical foray into “contamination” was “Oh Brass on the Grass Alas” (thanks Gertrude). I got the idea to write a piece for 350 amateur brass band musicians in Germany, at Donaueschingen 2004 (the renowned Festival of Contemporary Music founded in 1921 by Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill) when I was sitting in the Kaestner Schule at a concert of a very interesting Indonesian group of improvisers. … For a moment my mind wandered, and as I looked out the great glass window I began to imagine hundreds of musicians performing on the sloping grass and fields just behind the school and in full view of the audience seated inside. “Oh Brass on the Grass Alas” was born!

Whatever the risks, it was the pure theatrical concept that defined the piece from the very start — elemental sound in space, people and sound in motion in an immense outdoor space — with luck, the music would somehow write itself. I proposed it to the festival director, Armin Koehler, and he accepted.

My extra-large concept was to create a music event involving all the bands in the Bad-Württemburg area. With such a vital musical resource culturally excluded from the traditionally elitist three-day festival, I thought, let’s invite this local treasure directly into the home of the new music aliens. Something like what Cornelius Cardew and Frederic Rzewski, Christian Wolff and John Tilbury had in mind under the utopian motto of “people’s music”?

In the most arcane and provocative shenanigans of our unending avant garde story — the absurd sweaty happenings, morally superior chance operations, impeccable Fluxus nonsense, exquisite simplicity, apocalyptic complexity and obsessive remixing — the damned spores of popular music are everywhere! In Stockhausen’s piano-bar playing and Schoenberg’s ubiquitous Viennese waltzes, in Pauline Oliveros’ accordian. So why not bring the musical energy of those bands, their knowledge of collective sound, their innate musicality and authentic detuned bloopers into the revered temple of Xenakis, Ligeti, and Feldman?

With “Oh Brass” came a unique chance to sculpt the sounding material of dreams, as if in a kind of madhouse in which tonality and atonality are finally rendered irrelevant — because the entropy of huge scale not only makes “soup” happen but causes it to happen in heavenly and dysfunctional random tunings. I wanted to write a music that would sound as if Alvin Curran wrote it but that could be played by anyone, of any age and level of skill, and played with commitment as well as enjoyment. It would be a complex music of utter simplicity — in a music theater open to sun, rain and wind. A theater-pasture where cows, goats, and humans are all at home.

I had written other pieces for brass bands from Providence to Bomarzo and other music for hundreds of musicians. In “Crystal Psalms” (1988) some 300 performers spread out in six countries played together on radio without seeing or hearing one another. And in the summer of 2005 in Nora, a spectacular Roman ruin on the southern tip of Sardinia, I had 125 young musicians from the Cagliari conservatory musically occupying the streets, homes and shops of this once bustling seaport, redefining those magical spaces with elemental musical gestures.

Nonetheless, “Oh Brass on the Grass Alas” was the most difficult work I have ever undertaken, because of the sheer numbers of musicians involved; the logistical, musical and choreographic organization; the acoustic risks of playing outdoors; the not indifferent job of winning the confidence of a mass of skeptical new music-shy performers on whom everything depended; and finally the delicate task of composing elemental musical structures which would translate into pure moving sound in an area of about three football fields — a genuine spatialized music without the comforting reinforcement of walls and roofs.

With the help of Armin Koehler and my great assistant musical director Peter Stelzl, I enlisted six local bands, more than 300 players aged 8 to 80. Counting the musicians is one thing, another is getting them to pull off a convincing performance of, for instance, an unending unison which slowly moves several hundred meters across an open field.

Rehearsal photo: Susan Levenstein. Listen to excerpt 4 (unisons).

Or musicians each walking randomly in silence for 15-30 seconds in any direction, stopping and playing one long tone — walking, stopping, playing and repeating this gesture in ever shifting densities and patterns for six minutes, generating continuous random re-orchestrations of three different chords, à la Xenakis, Ligeti, Cage.

Photo: Susan Levenstein. Listen to excerpt 2 (wandering).

In one section the bands regroup in their own ensembles, distantly spaced on the field, and hurl triads, clusters, dyads, unisons, and other clumps of powerful musical aggregates at one another.

Photo: Susan Levenstein. Listen to excerpt 3 (warbling).

Then they re-form in one long lineup, all playing what I have always considered the most abhorrent musical gesture: trills. Here they are — enough trills in a 2-to-3-minute nonstop counterpoint to last you and me a lifetime.

After the trills comes a nutty Italianesque funeral march I had written years ago, rearranged for Achim Freyer’s “In Hora Mortis,” and now present in its ultimate version lite — a mere loop of enharmonic chords with a classic oom-pah beat carrying the coffin of the descending whole note chromatic scale melody. To this the players leave the field and march through the listeners’ hall to a courtyard.

Photo: Hans Kumpf. Listen to excerpt 5 (trills-march).

Here the work ends with “Es Ist Genug,” an aptly titled Bach chorale and one of the world’s most radical pieces of tonal music, which has haunted me for years since my first hearing it as a student, emerging as if out of nowhere in the middle of Berg’s Violin Concerto.

Photo: Susan Levenstein

What more satisfying closure than this musical gem — with my own spin on it: played in two keys, arranged for the mass of musicians in A-flat, and in ad libitum canon for a solo piccolo trumpet playing in D … a certain genteel lifting of the hat toward Mr. Ives, whose portly and transcendental shadow lies over all of us — over me, over New England, over the pickle barrels, over the fields in Donaueschingen, over the Souzaphones, the trills, the dizzying new freedoms, over the whole 20th century and then some.

Photos: Hans Kumpf, Sudkurier, Susan Levenstein

This article was written with Susan Levenstein. It was published, with fewer pictures and less music, as Oh Brass On The Grass Alas in The Score: Four Innovative American Composers Sound Off (a New York Times blog), on March 27, 2007.

Oh Brass on the Grass Alas: video trailer by Claudia von Alemann (10').


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