Alvin Curran is an American composer, sound artist, writer, and educator. Over the course of his vast career, he has created sound installations, solo performance pieces, radio works, choreographic works, environmental concerts, and music for string quartets, chamber ensembles, and saxophone quartets. Many of his works combine acoustic instrumentation with electronics and taped/sampled sounds, including voices, fog horns, and sounds from nature such as wind, water, and animal noises. Curran co-founded the groundbreaking electro-acoustic improvisation ensemble Musica Elettronica Viva in 1966, and began releasing solo work during the '70s, beginning with the acclaimed Canti e Vedute del Giardino Magnetico in 1975. He continued releasing solo electro-acoustic works as well as collaborations with free jazz musicians such as Steve Lacy and Evan Parker throughout the decade. During the '80s, he began focusing on environmental concerts (later compiled on the release Maritime Rites) and radio concerts involving multiple ensembles performing simultaneously throughout different locations; 1994 release Crystal Psalms is an example of this style. Other works since the '90s have included an ongoing series of solo piano pieces titled Inner Cities, percussion work Theme Park (1998), and pieces for the shofar (an ancient Jewish horn), including 2013's Shofar Rags. As varied as Curran's works are, they convey a clear fascination with history, both human and natural. There's also a sense of absurdity and playfulness to some of his work, particularly his later, sample-heavy material.
Alvin Curran was born in Providence in 1938. Since childhood, he took piano lessons and played trombone in various marching bands and jazz groups. During the 1960s, he studied composition with Ron Nelson at Brown University, and later at Yale with Elliott Carter and Mel Powell. He moved to Berlin with Carter after graduation before relocating to Rome after a year. Along with Richard Teitelbaum and Frederic Rzewski, Curran founded Musica Elettronica Viva in 1966. Performing improvisations using synthesizers, horns, percussion, and non-musical objects, and the collective played over 200 concerts throughout Europe and the United States, sometimes to hostile audiences, and became a major influence on free jazz, electro-acoustic improv, noise, and experimental music in general. Curran left MEV in 1971, but remained in Rome, where he taught vocal improvisation at the Accademia Nazionale d'Arte Drammatica between 1975 and 1980. He began releasing solo recordings during this time, starting with 1975's Canti e Vedute del Giardino Magnetico (Songs and Views of the Magnetic Garden), which mixed gentle synthesizer waves, bells, vocals, natural sounds, and electronic effects. Fiori Chiari, Fiori Oscuri (Light Flowers, Dark Flowers), incorporating animal sounds and children's voices, was composed around the same time and released in 1978. Curran also participated in improvisational jazz collaborations, such as 1977's Threads (with Steve Lacy and Rzewski) and 1978's Real Time (with Andrea Centazzo and Evan Parker).
Natural History, a montage mainly consisting of untreated field recordings, was released as a cassette in 1983. Curran began producing Maritime Rites, a series of environmental concerts for National Public Radio, in 1984. In 1986, Curran released piano compositions For Cornelius/Era Ora, the first of which was dedicated to his former associate, composer Cornelius Cardew, who died in 1981. Curran also began composing pieces for electronics, samples, and live instruments called "electric rags." The computer-conducted Electric Rags II, performed by the Rova Saxophone Quartet, was released by New Albion in 1990. Beginning in 1991, Curran was the Milhaud Professor of Composition at Mills College in Oakland, California, where he taught until 2006. 1994 release Schtyx/VSTO collected two chamber compositions, one created for choreographer Trisha Brown, whom Curran often worked with. Crystal Psalms, a recording of one of Curran's ambitious radio-communication ensembles, was also released in 1994.
Animal Behavior, featuring the war-themed, sample-based title piece, was Curran's first release for John Zorn's Tzadik label in 1995, followed by percussion work Theme Park in 1998. Real Time Two, a previously unissued recording with Centazzo and Parker, was also released that year. Our Ur, a collaboration with Domenico Sciajno, appeared on Italian label Rossbin in 2003. Lost Marbles, a Tzadik release including pieces representing many of Curran's wildly contrasting styles, was issued in 2004. Also that year, New World Records issued a double-CD of Curran's Maritime Rites works. The sample-heavy Toto Angelica was released by I Dischi Di Angelica in 2005, and a four-CD box set of Curran's ongoing series of solo piano pieces, Inner Cities, was issued by Long Distance that year. The Art of the Fluke (with Cenk Ergun) was released by Tear in 2007.
Curran's first three solo recordings as the triple-CD Solo Works: The 70's. Two of Curran's previously unissued early-'70s pieces were released by Die Schachtel as the LP Under the Fig Tree, also in 2010. POPtraits (with Paolo Tofani and Mauro Tespio) was released by Cramps Records in 2012. Shofar Rags was released as part of Tzadik's Radical Jewish Culture series in 2013. Radiophonic performance On Hearing the Brooklyn Bridge Sing in Yiddish was digitally released in 2015. Natural History was given its first vinyl issue by Oren Ambarchi's Black Truffle label in 2016. Double-CD From the Alvin Curran Fakebook: The Biella Sessions (with Giancarlo Schiaffini, Alípio Carvalho Neto, and Sergio Armaroli) was released by Dodicilune in 2017. Superior Viaduct reissued Canti e Vedute del Giardino Magnetico on vinyl in 2018. Also that year, New World Records released Curran's Endangered Species, a double-CD of jazz standards transformed using a Disklavier, an analog-digital hybrid grand piano.