As a child Alvin Curran would stay up late listening to the ship horns outside his bedroom window in the port town of Providence, Rhode Island. But instead of thinking of Moby Dick he dreamed of making music with the sounds. Curran is now renowned as one of America’s most eclectic composers. Based in Italy he continues to draw on sounds from the natural world in his compositions. Curran is composer-in-residence for the Totally Huge New MusicFestival (August 9th-18th) and several of his pieces will be performed across the ten-day new music extravaganza.
“Anything that is resonant is my instrument,” explains Curran. “It could be a primitive ram’s horn, electronics, walking through puddles or the sound of a thousand tubas. It is not a mash up or a remix, it has evolved out of my own DNA.”
Curran’s broad approach to contemporary classical music perfectly suits the experimental festival which is masterminded by the all-embracing Tura New Music. The headline artists include Italian electronics composer Agostino Di Scipio, Japanese deconstructed pop artist Haco, UK’s David Toop, Australia’s figurehead of experimental music Warren Burt, Robin Fox, Michael Kieran Harvey and ensembles Speak Percussion, Decibel and Clocked Out Duo.
The impressive list of international artists is thanks in part to the International Computer Music Conference which is being held in Perth this year. The conference is the pre-eminent annual gathering for computer music practitioners from around the world and is expected to attract hundreds of international artists to Perth during August.
Over the course of his career Curran – who is one of the keynote speakers at the conference – has witnessed the overwhelming impact the electronics and computer music has made on music culture.
“I have bridged nearly fifty years in electronic music making from the early synthesiser and tape to this brave new world of digital electronics. You know, I’m sick of learning new machines,” he laughs.
He believes electronics has become the meeting place of popular and unpopular (experimental) music and is forming a new musical genre. Curran’s keynote address for the conference will explore the history of electronics and make some daring predictions about the future.
“Soon there will be internet concert halls and microchip enhancement of musicians,” he says. “I’m serious!”
And Curran could well be the one to make it happen. His latest commission is a double piano concerto which draws on music contributed form the iPhones of people in the audience. Curran’s extensive catalogue of works defies categorisation and includes pieces for radio, solo works, large scale choreographed pieces, sound installations and theatre works.
Yet for all his eclecticism Curran’s entry into music making was fairly traditional. He played trombone in jazz bands and studied composition at Yale School of Music with Elliott Carter. He then moved his base to Europe and ended up co-founding, with Frederic Rzewski and Richard Teitelbaum, the radical collective Musica Elettronica Viva. He counts as colleagues people like John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Earl Brown, Milton Babbit, Steve Reich, Morton Feldman, Robert Moog, La Monte Young and Giacinto Scelsi.
Curran has had several teaching posts around the world but he and his wife have remained based in Rome where Curran’s rooftop vegetable garden overlooks the Colosseum.
“Culturally, politically and economically Italy has been in a continuous and dangerous slide for the last 25 years. But I don’t have anything to lose anymore, I’ve done my career. And this city has been here 2000 years which gives a sense of permanence to the chaos and change.”
These days when he composes Curran’s inspiration comes from simply being alive and having work to do.
“I want to continue making music that makes me happy and that others can enjoy. Music can transport you; it’s like a transport system.” He continues the analogy with a chuckle: “You pay a ticket and get on and if it’s good you go with it. That’s what I do, I transport people and things!”
He has written a piece for Decibel ensemble which he describes as Alvin Curran minimalism, “a kind of virtuoso chamber piece”. Way Out Back will be premiered Sunday 11th August at Hacket Hall alongside works by other ICMC keynote speakers.
Curran is a keen exponent of taking music out of the concert hall and performances of two of his works will take place at Victoria Quay, Fremantle in the final weekend of the festival. BEAMS (2005) is Curran at his most avant-garde and requires 35 musicians, a chorus, basketballs, bass drums and metal objects.
“This piece is a form of provocation that leads to delight,” Curran says mysteriously. “For example the instrumentalists have to roll on the floor while playing. It is written in the spirit of randomness and pure fun and invites the public to be part of it.”
Maritime Rites is an iconic outdoor piece which has been performed in rivers, lakes and ports around the world since it was first created in 1979. The Fremantle version will feature Curran performing a sixty minute midi-keyboard improvisation in the Victoria Quay B Shed. He has also requested a ‘sail by’ of a rock band on a boat. Curran will be drawing on thousands of digital samples of ship horns, signal bells and other related sounds including recordings of the ship horns outside his bedroom window that first inspired him all those years ago.
Totally Huge New Music Festival August 9th-18th
More details tura.com.au