Alvin Curran: Live in Roma is the title of a new book from the Milanese record label and publishing house Die Schachtel, which gives attention to the Italian and American avant-gardes. (Forced Exposure distributes it in the U.S.) When I was in Rome last month, I was happy to meet Curran, with whom I'd exchanged numerous e-mails over the years. The composer has been in Rome for nearly five decades, and now lives with his wife, Susan Levenstein, in an apartment with a spectacular view of the Colosseum. The Schachtel book has, among other things, an absorbing long conversation between Curran and David Bernstein, who teaches at Mills College and edited the recent history about the San Francisco Tape Music Center. In one passage, Curran wonderfully evokes the atmosphere of Rome in the mid-1960s:
There were characters left and right; it was like some unwritten children's book that I myself was part of; and every time I turned a page I'd meet a new character. And they weren't just "any" characters. Right off the bat I met Fellini; I met Antonioni, Bertulucci, I met these characters, some were famous, some were known, some were unknown; I met a lot of great people at that time such as Julian Beck and Judith Malina of the Living Theater, and Robert Wilson, who suddenly showed up out of nowhere and did Deaf Man Glance. I mean this place was jumping. Giuseppe Chiari, my god, there's a guy, a genius; he died very recently, I consider him one of my main teachers. He was the heart and soul of Fluxus and beyond and largely unrecognized in the music world, but a darling of the art world and internationally.
Nam June Paik is suddenly here in Rome with Charlotte Moorman at the Feltrinelli bookstore, and she's immersed in an oil drum full of water with propellers on her breasts. I'm mixing up a couple of years—basically it's 1965-67—that I'm compressing into this memory lane. Earle Brown shows up; Morty Feldman is here; Elliott Carter, Barbara Mayfield, and Allan Bryant, a very interesting person, who already in the very first days of MEV [the pioneering electronic improvisation group Musica Elettronica Viva], was constructing these amazing stringed instruments; everyone was making stringed instruments, but he was making stringed instruments not just with metal strings, like guitars with weird tunings. He was making them out of rubber bands and using motor propellers to play them. I'm telling you, I'm just dropping, like, about an eighth of all of the stuff that was going on. Can you imagine? The Living Theater, and all this was happening, not just like a fairytale, but like a children's storybook that's preparing you for a revolution, and I didn't know that. I felt something in the air and so did everybody else; but had no idea what.
Curran is insufficiently celebrated both in his native America and in his adopted homeland. Above is a video of a recent work, Oh Brass on the Grass Alas — a play, of course, on Gertrude Stein's famous line for Virgil Thomson, "Pigeons on the grass alas." It was first staged at the Donaueschingen Festival in 2006; Curran wrote about it for the New York Times's fantastic Score blog. This is perhaps something for Make Music NY to take a look at! Curran's well-stocked website is here.