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Alvin Curran - Under the Fig Tree

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Artist: Alvin Curran

Album: Under the Fig Tree

Label: Die Schachtel

Review date: Jul. 29, 2010

Providence-born composer Alvin Curran’s embrace of chance and expansive notions of what sounds might fit into a piece of music place him square in the lineage of John Cage, but his choice to exile himself to Rome implies a more romantic sensibility. Both forces are at work on Under the Fig Tree, which includes two pieces that Curran realized four decades ago but did not commercially release until 2010. They’re quite dissimilar in sound and method, but each represents the first step on paths that Curran has continued to pursue.

“Under the Fig Tree” is an electronic setting for a solo instrumentalist. Originally performed by trombonist Giancarlo Schiaffini, Curran is the soloist here. He stretches long, elaborately winding lines played on a VCS3 Putney synthesizer, at some points fading into the rich prepared backdrop but more often taking the foreground with the boldness of the featured instrument in a concerto. Curran’s synth playing superficially resembles Terry Riley’s contemporary keyboard work, but it’s much less tethered to form and freer to wander. Although the music underneath him performs an orchestral function, it’s assembled mainly from appropriated sounds and further layers of synthesizer. Buzzing insects, bells, birdsong and snatches of conversation weave in and out of the mix; it must have sounded radical back in 1972, when Curran recorded them, but now they just sound right. Anyone who has been spending time with Emeralds or Oneohtrix Point Never should check this LP out to see how it was done the first time around.

Cosmic title aside, “The Magic Carpet” is a more challenging work. It grew out of a room-sized sculpture that Curran’s friend and fellow Roman expat Paul Klerr had created in 1970 by filling a gallery space with metal rods and wire. Curran fixed contact mics to the metal and added some glass and metal tubes, which anyone who came into the room could either passively or actively set in motion. This proved to be the first of many installation pieces that Curran has made over the years. Its conception is at once Cage-ian in its embrace of the aleatoric and democratic in the way it leaves the final result up to the listeners rather than the composer. The music’s density waxes and wanes, at some points little more than a light metallic drizzle, at others as thick and overwhelming as a full choir belting out some Penderecki during business hours in a steel mill. No, there aren’t any singers, just a massive melt of swelling and morphing sound that doesn’t really develop; it just changes. It’s not as easy a listen as “Under the Fig Tree,” but it’s just as rich and involving.

By Bill Meyer

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