Avant-Gardists Reach Toward the People: Alvin Curran, Ingram Marshall, David Mahler, and Warren Burt March 7, 1977

I don’t know the reason. Maybe soon we will no longer need the idealistic avant-gardism defined by rugged individuals like Ives, Partch, and Varese. Maybe that kind of extremism just doesn’t interest composers as much as it used to. Maybe audiences and grant money are influencing trends. Maybe it’s all a matter of economics. Maybe it’s just the ’70s. In any case, those loft and gallery concerts in Lower Manhattan are often not the somber, elitist, probing events that one normally expects in avant-garde sectors. One still hears tough, individualistic experimenting, to be sure, but one also hears quite a few events that are mellow, accessible, and even entertaining. Sometimes jazz and pop elements enter in. Sometimes there is an emphasis on lush sounds, old-fashioned lyricism, and even nostalgia. Some events are so thoroughly unobjectionable that I find it difficult to understand why the music hasn’t drifted into film scores, experimental rock, and other commercial mediums. I’ve noticed a great increase in concerts of this sort around SoHo during the past few years, and this season there have been more than ever. Let me describe four extremely accessible concerts that I heard, all within the course of about a month.

Alvin Curran’s concert at the Kitchen was a solo performance. He began by playing a toy piano, then switched to a real piano as the prerecorded voice of a small boy faded in. The boy was counting in Italian. Gradually Curran began to feed in some twittering from his portable synthesizer. Then we heard real birds chirping on the tape, and Curran took out his ocarina and played some virtuoso licks along with them. There was no clear narrative connection from one thing to the 1977/takehisa-kosugi-happens-again, and the sequence of events didn’t seem to have much to do with the title, ‘Light Flowers, Dark Flowers,’ but some tenuous poetic thread connected everything satisfactorily. As we continued through the 90-minute work, presented without interruption, we heard the boy’s voice telling a fantasy story about landing on the moon, with synthesizer accompaniment; we heard Curran do some lovely falsetto singing; and we heard a final return to toy-piano music, similar to that which began the piece.

Curran, now 38, evolved his style over quite a long period and from quite a few sources. Since 1973 he has been concentrating on long solo pieces, such as this one, that bring together his jazz background, his Brown-Yale background, his current life in Italy, his years with the group Musica Elettronica Viva, his work in writing scores for Italian films, his taste for the unpolished sounds of ocarinas, toy pianos, and such, and his love for birds, dogs, ocean waves, and other natural sound sources. He sings well in several different vocal styles, has recently developed an excellent piano technique, and sometimes plays brass instruments well, too, as on his recent album ‘Canti e Vedute del Giardino Magnetico’ (Ananda records, Via dell’Orso, 28, 00186 Rome). It is lovely music, and I think almost anyone could enjoy it.

Ingram Marshall, a composer-performer from California, presented a somewhat similar continuous solo work in a loft on North Moore Street. This hour-plus work, ‘Fragility Cycles,’ was largely prerecorded, though Marshall also fed live synthesizer sounds into the mix, and he occasionally played a gambuh, an end-blown Balinese flute. This piece was a veritable panorama of lush stereophonic sound, with more or less continuous reverb, and it came across with a gloss reminiscent of many commercial film scores. The music moved from resonating vocal ‘cries in the mountains,’ to flute solos, to an electronically distorted Sibelius symphony, to processed speech sounds. Swedish as well as English texts were transformed in the adroit multitrack mixtures, and everything blended smoothly into a big, velvety piece. It was a superpleasant concert, and while a familiarity with Sibelius would have been useful, one didn’t really need to know anything about music or avant-garde developments to appreciate what Marshall was doing.

David Mahler’s concert at the Kitchen was also easy to follow. One tape piece was longish and static, but not to an extreme degree, and the rest of the program was quite straightforward. Mahler sang several simple, personal, almost pop-style songs, and he invited the audience to try out little sound-producing gadgets laid out at one side of the room. In one piece, which I liked a lot, he manually pulled a piece of tape back and forth across tape heads. The sound on the tape was one spoken word, ‘Aviva,’ which, of course, sounded almost the same when he pulled it the other way. The program was a short, modest, homey sort of affair, quite direct, and quite accessible.

Another example was a program presented by Warren Burt on the Monday-night series at St. Marks in-the-Bowery. Burt’s background is strictly classical avant-garde. A few years ago I heard some of his electronic pieces, which I remember as somber and intricate. But now he has other interests. The first half of his program was a reading. The text was an actual Communist diatribe he had found somewhere, but he had changed the political terms into musical terms and had turned it all into a satire on Socialist Realism. The second half of the evening was a set of original pop songs with guitar accompaniment. The tunes were pleasant and the lyrics were often witty, though it must be admitted that Burt’s performance level was quite a ways below night club standards.

As I said, I don’t know why avant-garde composers such as these have been seeking wider audiences and moving toward more accessible styles. Nor am I sure I like the idea. On one hand, I keep thinking about Off-Off-Broadway, about how it began around 10 years ago as a vital experimental genre with brilliant discoveries every season, and then gradually became a sort of farm-club system for commercial theater, and I keep hoping that the same thing won’t happen in music. On the other hand, I’m a little tired of hearing long, drawn-out experimental works that explore only one small experimental question, and I’m glad to see composers reaching out to general listeners—especially with someone like Curran, who does so in such a sensitive, personal way.