Alvin Curran: Aural Cinema January 6, 1975

Alvin Curran is an American composer, but even since his student days some 10 to 15 years ago, he has lived and worked in Rome. During that time he has evolved a sophisticated style which has more to do with emotional qualities and literal elements that any contemporary music I can think of. Listening to his solo concert at the Kitchen on December 21 was a lot like watching a film. And I don’t mean just the sound track of a film. A whole wonderful 90-minute non-narrative film is all there in pure sound. The cinematic quality has something to do with the continuity. Curran doesn’t use transitions the way most musicians do. He continually cuts or fades into new material.

The concert opens with some large deep wind chimes, blown by a small fan. The music pans slowly over to Curran’s Putney synthesizer, which adds gentle electronic arpeggios to the sound of the wind chimes. Soon there is a series of quick cuts to a small battered-up cymbal which, with the help of amplification, makes an unlikely deep roar against the wind chimes and the electronic rippling in the background.

This fades into another scene in which Curran taps out fast rhythms on a set of tuned cow bells. The tension builds to a climax, and then the music-film cuts to another place.

It is cold here. A prerecorded tape has begun, and it sounds like the wind. We begin to focus on Curran, who is now drawing a bow across a chunk of cold metal. The sound is shrill and unpleasant. It grates.

The music cuts back to the wind chimes. They sound different now, as they are produced by the prerecorded tape. Curran’s voice slowly fades in against the wind-chime background. He is singing mostly soft falsetto melodies. He doesn’t have much vibrato control, and he relies heavily on the microphone, but his intonation is true and the melodies are musical.

We pull back, and the scenery becomes audible. The bird songs and running water are easily recognizable, but they sound unusually attractive. They were obviously recorded on location somewhere.

A low-register electronic melody is superimposed on the scene. Somewhere off in the distance dogs bark momentarily. We don’t know why they are barking, but the effect is wonderfully cinematic.

The dogs disappear, and the electronic music dominates. Curran enters the picture again. This time he is playing some kind of trumpet, which is as beat-up as the cymbal he played earlier. The music pans slightly to one side, and we hear a new element. In the distance a woman is singing a folk song in Italian. Like the dogs, we don’t know where she came from or why she is there, but she seems to belong. Everything in this unusual montage seems to belong.

After a brief flashback to the running water, we return to the electronic melody. It is in sharper focus now, and it is not as simple as it first seemed. The camera pulls back gradually, revealing that the music has many layers. The aural screen becomes busier and busier. The music is transformed into a lush rippling of electronic sound, something like Terry Riley’s ‘Rainbow in Curved Air.’ Marimba lines may be mixed in too, but the scene is too busy to pick out anything very distinctly.

A squeaking sound intrudes. It is out of place. We begin to zoom in on that, and the rich electronic texture spills off the edges of the screen. As we move closer, we see that it is not just one thing squeaking, but a whole group of things. A flock of prehistoric birds maybe. Another one of Curran’s musical symbols. The music fades slowly to a quiet scene with two electronic tones undulating softly. The running water reappears in the distance for a moment. The music crossfades back to Curran, who is now standing up twirling two plastic tubes. They whistle in tune with the soft electronic tones. The oscillators gradually fade, and the work ends with Curran all by himself, still twirling those plastic tubes.