Alvin Curran. Solo Works:The 1970’s.
Every so often I stumble across an album that just completely floors me. These moments are searched for and savored by the record collector. Jaded as we might become with the ceaseless flow of mini-miracles or just the regular curiosities of our chosen genres, we really long for the recordings that restore our faith in our addiction and in music. I had one of these moments when I was tipped off to check out the triple compact disc set Alvin Curran- Solo Works: The 1970’s.
I was at Weirdo Records in Cambridge when I casually picked up the book Alvin Curran Live In Rome from the bookshelf. Flipping through the pages I was surprised to see several photo’s of EMS VCS3's and Synthi's littering the studio shots of Curran's 1970's home recording digs. I am always a sucker for period recordings of EMS or Buchla synthesizer jams. I got the attention of my host Keith and I said that I thought Allen Bryant was the synth guy in MEV ( I was wrong twice as it was Richard Teitelbaum that sported an early Moog modular). I was really only familiar with MEV’s 1967 recording of Spacecraft. That and a few homebrew releases of Bryant like Space Techno on IRML. I was corrected and told to definitely check out “that Curran solo set”.
When I arrived home from tour I quickly located a very reasonably priced copy on Amazon Sellers and placed my order. I scoured the web looking for samples here and there of the material that was on it’s way to my doorstep. New World Records had some. But there was a surprising lack of the usual YouTube videos or Soundcloud tracks.
When the discs finally did arrive and were spun, I was really caught off guard. These were not synth workouts or experimental drips and gurgles like something off of Space Tenchno. These were very carefully constructed pieces that sparingly used synthesizer alongside a plethora of other sources. Very beautifully laid down movements of vocal melodies, field recordings, organ and piano work. Exotic sounding instrumentation and world music passages mingle with recordings of cats purring, children talking, nature sounds, gongs, bells and the kitchen sink. All spliced together with subtlety and care. No jump cuts or jarring Musique Concrete blasters. Superb vocal performances and strong, looping Terry Riley-like synth/organ parts. I continued to ask myself repeatedly how is it possible that I had not heard these recordings before? Especially when they encompassed so many elements that were “right up my alley”? Just then the music would twist around another corner and take me on another ride altogether. This stuff is not that obscure!! Curran is a well known and respected musician getting shows worldwide and articles in The Wire. Firmly reaping the benefits of a life spent in academia one would think?? Where do these pieces fit? In between the noise onslaught of MEV’s Spacecraft (where he played amplified thumb piano!) and the later piano/DX7 recordings? In the 1970’s is the only answer. The first piece Canti e Vendute del Gianrdino Magnetico (Songs and Views From the Magnetic Garden) was released in 1973. Surely by the depth, work involved and range of sources it must have taken years to assemble. Then just a year later Fiori Chiari Fiori Oscuri (Light Flowers Dark Flowers) was released. Similarly constructed from a wide range of sources, instruments and techniques. During the second movement the piano takes on the main focus with a frantic pace. Not quite jazz, not quite classical. Just weird percussive piano processed sparingly with ring modulation in parts. This latter technique would be exploited thoroughly in The Works (1976) but with more phasing, ring modulation and guttural ethnic-sounding vocal phrasing. During the second movement a Serge modular synthesizer appears vibrating and melodically stabbing the spaces in between the keening vocals.
The remaining pieces Canti Illuminati I and II I’m still absorbing. Rich choral pieces that I can only describe as “very convincing acid-head renaissance music”. In parts frightening and frighteningly beautiful. I highly recommend checking these recordings out. Especially those interested in artists like Terry Riley or Luc Ferrari. Those interested in spiritual music will also find a lot to soak up here. So many aspects of his music seem to be informed by… or in turn spawned… whole genres.