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Making His Own Rules

March 17, 2000|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Composer-performer Alvin Curran is one of the bravest and most characteristic seafarers in the world of "serious" music, which has gone through several sea changes in the last quarter century. Curran, who divides his time between Rome and Oakland, will present an important concert at California Institute of the Arts on Saturday as a keynote event of its "Musical Explorations 2000!" series.

Consider Curran's background as a keyboardist first drawn to jazz and then to an increasingly broad palette of music in the eclectic spin of the 1960s, including co-founder of the improvisational group Musica Elettronica Viva.

In an interview from Mills College in Oakland, where he teaches, Curran said composing today is extremely challenging because there are no rules anymore. "I think the defining characteristic of our time is that there are no rules anymore," he said. "As jolly as that may seem, it's really both philosophically and practically a huge responsibility."

Saturday's concert will feature a reworked version of an ambitious choral piece that Curran wrote in the mid-90s, based on the celebrated Norton Lectures of the late composer John Cage, who drew on experimental practices to come up with the text by feeding material from diverse sources into a computer, which sliced the texts into absurd, yet potentially profound bits. His sources included James Joyce, Erik Satie, Arnold Schoenberg and a New York Times financial page.

Curran, whose works often involve layering of different sources and chance operations, heard inspired method in Cage's madness. "I came away feeling that I understood everything there is to be understood about existence and life," Curran said. "It's this handbook of knowledge which is as inaccessible and incomprehensible as knowledge is itself."

Over the last 40 years, Curran has followed the technological curve of music, eagerly utilizing electronics, computer music, and now the Internet. At root, he views himself as an old-fashioned composer, at least in practical terms. "I sit for hours, pounding chords out, very much the way Morton Feldman did in his own work," he said. "I go from one little moment to the next and figure out the reasons for getting there, or not getting there."

Further illustrating Curran's own musical breadth, he will perform two solo sections within the larger piece Saturday, one on piano and one using a sampler. In this section, he "improvises" with a bank of sampled sounds by well-known improvisers and his own sometime-collaborator Anthony Braxton.

If Curran's range as composer and performer seems unorthodox, he sees it as a logical sign of the changing times.

"There are now mixes of all of the above--acoustic, electronic, improvised and composed--all in varying quantities and qualities. This is what's making our present music at the beginning of this century so lively and so unknowable. . . . It's all in very rapid evolution."

He pauses and then laughs. "This makes for tough times." Tough and vibrant.

BE THERE

Alvin Curran, "Music Is Not Music," Saturday at 8 p.m. at CalArts Walt Disney Modular Theater, 24700 McBean Parkway, Valencia. Tickets: $7 general, $3 alumni and $2 students, seniors. (661) 253-7800.

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