Unified Sounding Body

Charles Curtis

OCCAM V for cello

I have learned more about contemporary music from the phone calls with Charles Curtis surrounding this project than in multiple years of college study. Obviously, talking to someone with that history and depth of practice is better than a lecture or a reading, but there is something bigger than just a transfer of information when you talk to Charles. I found myself hanging up the phone each time feeling more interested in this music—and more connected to the people that make it.

The idea of framing OCCAM Ocean as an ecosystem came from my first conversation with Charles, during which we talked about other composers that had something similar, but different—he talking about Luigi Nono’s late pieces, me about the Ellington band. In subsequent calls, questions of health, cats, and pandemic routines were added to the conversation around the music of Éliane and others. He spoke clearly, but not condescendingly, about his own experience playing contemporary music; all this before we sat down on December 14, 2020 to record this interview.

The reader will learn a fair amount about Charles in this interview, but there is a great deal more to find if you look for it. The best metaphor for his place in American experimental music came to me recently from an unlikely source. Jonathan Crary, in his book, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, suggests that we are able to sleep because of the tacit and unconscious trust we have that someone is awake and keeping an eye on the world while we rest. To me, Charles is one of these people; he is there keeping an eye on the music for us, always.

NW What was your first intersection with Éliane or her music?

CC There was a specific moment which actually has been written about by Manu Holterbach. He was living in Grenoble, running a space called Le Cent Deux, The 102, and he presented me there in, I guess it would have been December 2000. He had me over for lunch the next day, and he was playing music I didn’t recognize in the background. I thought it was extremely interesting and I asked him, “what is it that we are listening to?” And, he said, “oh, you don’t know this? This is the music of Éliane Radigue.” I’d seen the name when I was living in New York in the 80s, but I had never actively, consciously listened to her music.

When I came back—at that point, I had just moved to San Diego—I started informing myself a little bit more. He [Manu] wrote about it in a different way. He turned it into a kind of, I don’t know, more of a story: he claimed that what he said when we were listening was, “be careful, this music might change your life,” and that later, after performing Naldjorlak, I came back to him and said, “You were right. This music changed my life.” So I think, you know, he embellished that. I do remember being very struck, very startled, very interested in what I was hearing. I don’t know which piece it was, but clearly it was one of the electronic pieces, possibly Adnos.

Not long after that I was in Paris for the La Monte [Young] performances, the premiere of the solo piece he had made for me. I asked everybody that might possibly know Éliane to please call her and invite her to my concert. She got something like five different calls from five different people saying, “would you please come to Charles’s concert? He really wants to meet you.” That’s accurate. I really wanted to meet her at that point. But I did not want to meet her because I thought I was going to work with her. That was due to a random comment that Gerard Pape made when he introduced us (he had presented my concerts, and he was one of the people who called her). So when he introduced us he said, in almost a playful way, “listen, why don’t you make your next piece for Charles?” And we both laughed, as if “yeah, that’s a nice idea, but how would we do that?”

NW That must have been a fairly extreme idea for her, because at the time she had only written for amplified instruments, right? I mean, for you it’s one thing, but for her that’s a huge rupture in how she was thinking about music. Do you remember what the conversations were like that led up to the decision to try a collaboration?

CC Yeah, I’m almost certain that I initiated the contact. We corresponded by letter at that point, and I wrote to her and said, “why don’t we at least think about this?” I was coming back to Paris not long after that for other things, and she wrote back something along the lines of “Yes, I would love to work on this, but I don’t quite know how.” She made it clear that she was not terribly familiar with the cello, except, of course, its sound and character as an instrument. As you know, her musical thinking is very grounded in a love for traditional classical European concert music which, I think, is worth noting, because it isn’t necessarily true of all of the experimental musicians of her generation. So then it became a conversation about how do we investigate the cello through her eyes and ears?

NW For me, I started to see the trumpet as a machine, and to look at the possibilities of that machine beyond its musical tradition; it’s as if you view your instrument through her eyes. How much of something like the wolf tone had you discovered before you started working on Naldjorlak?

CC I’d been fascinated with the wolf since the very early stages of my relationship to the cello and was always puzzled by cellists’ obsession with eliminating it. I didn’t necessarily come to the work with Éliane with the wolf in mind, but it quickly came to the fore.

You know, for a particular stretch of my life, I was deeply involved in improvisation, noise improvisation, free improvisation, not as much as you, certainly, but I had a very serious duo with Michael Schumacher. Also with Donald Miller, the guitarist of Borbetomagus. In the mid 80s, he and I performed a lot around New York in clubs and odd spaces; a lot of it amplified. So, this is a good 20 years before meeting Éliane, and I was investigating the cello in a lot of roundabout ways, you know: inverting its manner of sound production and going at it from all sorts of different angles. Around the same time I was learning the Richard Maxfield piece, Perspectives for La Monte Young, to perform as a duo with La Monte, which involves long sustained bowed friction sounds and noise resonances. And in the kind of ramp up to the work with Éliane, I was also doing performances with Bhob Rainey. Nobody thinks of me as an improviser, but I have my moments doing that, also later along with Anthony Burr, actually.

I often thought about the wolf and what it implies as a kind of music. Is it music? Is a performance of wolf a piece of music? I guess I felt it wasn’t. Otherwise, I would have done more with it myself. I actually do have a piece that was released before I started working with Éliane, in which I recorded a variety of what you would call unconventional sounds on the cello—friction sounds—and one of them is the wolf. So I was working a lot with the wolf, investigating it as a live phenomenon because it’s elusive, it’s very hard to get it to work. And it takes a lot of practice to get the wolf to really get going.

All of this kind of converged in the piece that Éliane was making, and as I introduced the wolf to her, and demonstrated it, and showed her how you have to get to it, she became very interested. It seemed pretty clear to both of us that it was a great way of capturing the notion of unity (which is what the title, Naldjorlak, means), a great image for the cello as a unified sounding body.

The next step was my theory that the whole cello could be tuned to the wolf, and then the process of attempting that and seeing what happened. That was surprising, and I didn’t anticipate where that would go.

But, to get back to your question, all of the things I was suggesting to Éliane were things that I was already involved in. But, as I said before, it wasn’t clear to me that they were music, and I didn’t know how they related to music. I’ve always had a high bar for what I think is presentable—that’s one of the reasons I eventually made my peace with the concept of free improv or noise. Even though I’m still interested in it—this is a statement that is going to require a lot of unpacking—I think I was more interested in composed music. But if I say composed music, and I’m talking about the music of Éliane, it’s a music that has a great deal of uncertainty and a considerable latitude in terms of its sounding reality but a music that is not extemporaneous. Now, I could qualify that whole statement by saying that there is no music that I play that isn’t also improvised. And therefore, I’m actually very interested in improvisation. If I’m playing a Beethoven quartet, don’t tell me I’m not improvising, right? I am, for sure, in a very significant and productive kind of way.

So, I don’t know. I’m sort of dancing around this idea of how this all comes together as music, and that was something that was extremely impressive to me in the work with Éliane: how she took these ideas that I had and these sounds that I was proposing to her, like bowing the tailpiece wire which is at the very end of Naldjorlak. I used to play that by literally turning the cello upside down and standing up with the scroll of the cello resting on the floor while bowing the tailpiece wire up at the top. I did this in performance a few times with Michael. But she didn’t want me to do that, so when I perform Naldjorlak I move the cello up to my lap and it sits flat on my lap and then I bow the tailpiece wire. I was suggesting these ideas and approaches that literally involved inverting the cello, and what was striking to me—and this is where it reminded me of the work with La Monte Young—was her assurance; the clarity with which she immediately knew how to put this together into a composition: not a series of sounds, not a series of techniques, not a demonstration, and not an improvisation, but something that has an aesthetic structure; a physical logic, which is not completely fixed, but has a kind of logical integrity. It has an integral structure which you’re going to enter into when you perform and, in the case of Naldjorlak, it’s a pretty complex structure. It’s a long piece. It has a number of sections and has very specific ways of transitioning between them. And this is where, going through that process, I had to kind of give it up to her and say, wow, she’s a real composer. This is masterful, this is the real thing. I could never have come up with this.

NW My piece isn’t nearly as complex as Naldjorlak, but it has complexity to it, and she never needs to be reminded of its structure, no matter how long it’s been since we’ve worked on it.

CC It’s true, and we know how she labored over the tape pieces, crafting their structure so meticulously. Before we did Naldjorlak, she said to me that she thought she was done with composing, and that she really didn’t need to keep going. She didn’t want to work on the ARP anymore, and she felt she was done. And then this idea came up. So first she had the piece (Elemental II) with Kaspar Toeplitz and the Lappetites which is, in a way, based on a very early piece, Elemental, which she then adapted to these live versions. Then she did Naldjorlak with me and went on with Carol [Robinson] and Bruno [Martinez] and the basset horns, and then the trio. I think when she finished all of that, there was, and this is just me speculating, a sense that she didn’t need to make more music of that complexity. She didn’t need to do those long pieces anymore, and I think her attraction to William of Ockham, and to Occam’s razor—this notion of the simplest form, abstaining from unnecessary multiplication of parts, and finding a logical structure that expresses its aim in the fewest terms—all of this appealed to her. So the OCCAM pieces are more about a single idea, or a couple of ideas, and how do we move from the first to the second and then to the third and then we’re done. The complexity is now in the multiplication of pieces, and the layering of them, and not within the pieces themselves.

NW You mentioned feeling similarly when you were working with La Monte Young. I think in a lot of people’s minds, they see the two musics as roughly the same thing—drone. I hadn’t been able to articulate my problem with that notion until I read an essay you wrote in which you say that La Monte Young is looking to suspend time, whereas Éliane’s music is always moving forward.

CC Éliane’s music is about change, and that’s why I think that categorizing her music as drone is misleading. Her music is an investigation of change and therefore of a procession in time. And what is very clear in her music is that—and she’s confirmed it in discussions—it’s not about remaining in one place, and it’s not about returning. It’s about going away and, in that sense, you could almost suggest that it has a sort of a teleological quality; not so much in the sense that it’s going towards a goal that we know about in advance, but in the sense that something is going to change; over the course of this process, it is going to take us to a place that is fundamentally different from where we started.

What’s interesting is that there are pieces where you can be led to think that it hasn’t changed, because the investigation of change is so in-depth and focused and careful. She has the capacity to investigate change on such a fine-grained level that, if you don’t join in with that, if you don’t meet her halfway in that level of attention, you’re going to hear it as non-change. That’s what has come to me, little by little, about her music; I’ve come to realize how important the very fact of change is; that, in a way, that might even be the real priority. At the end of that essay I come to this idea that it isn’t even really about listening to music, but that it’s more about a state of attention.

The thing with the music of La Monte Young is that, ultimately, it also highlights change but not by seeking change. Instead, he seeks to create situations in which our humanity is expressed without seeking to consciously—you know, it’s difficult. How to express this? It’s as if his music sets up a tension or a dialectic between an idealized state of non-change, eternity, perfect intonation, and time suspended. And on the other hand, our relationship to that, which is human, and which is marked and imprinted with our own humanity, our own human frailty, our own human limitations, our own human rootedness in time. The word I’m coming up with is “de-idealization.”

The most perfect example of that is the Compositions 1961, the piece in which you draw a straight line and follow it. The same line is drawn on top of itself 29 times. He did it twice: once with Robert Morris, the sculptor, and once in Yoko Ono’s loft with Robert Dunn. There’s a beautiful letter in which La Monte describes these performances to David Tudor including a little stick-figure drawing showing how they drew the line. The drawing of the line is done with such care and with such precision, tracing the line along the floor of the loft using hand-held sights, and yet, after hours of drawing the same line 29 times, what’s revealed is the little inconsistencies from one line to the next, the slight blurring of the line—the imprecisions, if you will—although they are actually extremely precise indexings of the human act of drawing. I’m expressing this at length because it’s, to me, very beautiful to think of. And that’s, you know, that’s 1961. It’s really just a visionary statement on a relationship to time, a relationship to space, a relationship to what it is to be human with this kind of transcendent consciousness of something infinite, something eternal, something beyond the human. It creates this very beautiful interrelation between the human and the infinite. But I think you wanted me to talk a little bit about working with La Monte.

NW If you want to, or to talk about the differences in working with each of them.

CC I think one of the things that is interesting to work out here is that the process of working with Éliane—working without a score, working as a conversation, working as a process of discussing and trying things out and coming to agreements together and then moving forward with the piece as something that exists in memory—all of these processes are often roughly grouped under the idea of oral tradition or oral transmission, which I don’t think is really the best way of categorizing it. Oral tradition for me is something like raga or blues, in which you continue the tradition by learning how something sounds—memorizing—more to do with mimesis. This is more about an experimental process, setting up conditions and working out structures and then materializing this in sound. But anyway, after having worked with La Monte for almost 20 years at that point, that way of making a piece was completely normal to me, and I think that was fortuitous. Both for me and for her, and also for the process going forward, because if I hadn’t had that we might not have had the courage to go ahead. And because we did, and because it proved to be something not just valuable and interesting but actually eminently practicable, it therefore laid the foundation for the subsequent work. It gave her the assurance that, actually, this works.

That being said, there are clearly differences, because when I work with La Monte there isn’t the sense that we are going to collectively or collaboratively come up with a piece. La Monte approaches the concept of the composition in a different way, and he definitely has the entire composition in mind before we start working. But, because he is himself a great performer, and a great improviser, the idea that he has of the composition is of a musical organism which is open to, and susceptible to, the pressures and processes of performance. It is by no means a fixed entity to be reproduced in performance. It is something that is inevitably going to change and transform through the act of realization, and that understanding is built into all of his compositions, even something as early as Trio for Strings from 1958. That piece has changed so extensively and profoundly over the decades and, to a large extent, those changes have occurred through my interactions with La Monte, through our friendship and investigations of the piece. It has changed in length. It has become a just intonation piece. The instrumentation changed. So even there, a piece that is fixed in score-form as a work of post-Webern twelve-tone composition, has transformed substantially, and everything that he composed subsequent to that, starting with the Compositions 1960 and on to the Four Dreams of China, and on to his work with his ensemble, the Theatre of Eternal Music, and to The Well-Tuned Piano to The Tortoise His Dreams and Journeys and on and on to Just Charles and Cello in the Romantic Chord in a Setting of Abstract Number One from Quadrilateral Phase Angle Traversals in Dream Light, the solo cello piece that Éliane heard, which is drawn from The Well-Tuned Piano, and is itself a transformation of material from The Well-Tuned Piano, which is subsequently transformed in performance through a very detailed kind of improvisation within a rule structure; all of this is music that has a sense of transforming and evolving composed into it.

So, being directly involved in that kind of relationship between composition and realization through my work with La Monte put me in a place where I could come to Éliane and say: Well, let’s see, how should we do this, how do we make this piece? We don’t need a score. We don’t need a recording to listen to and copy. We don’t need a structure to refer back to; I don’t need to take notes. We can work this out, and it’s going to be something that can be remembered. After all, I had just played a three-plus hour solo piece by La Monte Young in which everything is remembered!

But it isn’t just La Monte’s music that prepared me for that. You know, I also played in bands in New York in the 80s, I played in King Missile, I was in a band called You Suck. I was in a band called The Mood Surfers. I was in a lot of different bands actively involved in a performance practice in which you made songs or pieces collectively, and you just remembered what you were going to do. I met those kinds of musicians during a period when I had dropped out of Juilliard. They didn’t read music, hadn’t studied instruments the way I had, didn’t play classical music, but I recognized them immediately as consummate musicians. They were able to realize the music that they had in mind in ways that were so expressive, so precise, so beautifully developed, but coming out of memory, out of their imagination, out of the direct relationship between listening and playing. You know, actually making sound.

In that period, I was not yet familiar with the Velvet Underground, and all these musicians in the mid-80s that I was playing music with were obsessed with them. I didn’t actually have my first exposure to the music of the Velvet Underground through recordings but through these friends playing their songs for me, like someone saying “What? You’ve never heard ‘Pale Blue Eyes’?,” and they would take a guitar and play it for me. I just mention this because it gives us a sense of music that it is just there as this ethereal, ephemeral presence. But that it is not, therefore, just an abstraction. It has, in a way, an even greater presence; it is even more present. And so through these experiences, it was completely natural to me that you could create, and realize, and perform, and work with music in that way, without relying on a recording, without relying on a score, without even relying on notes as reminders. And, on top of it all, what we’re talking about here are compositions that are worked out in great detail; stuff that actually has detailed contours, edges, and structures, you know, whether we’re talking about Velvet Underground songs or La Monte Young’s music. And of course, it took its own form with Éliane, because of her ideas and way of working. But, for me, the basic approach was quite natural.

NW One difference between Éliane and La Monte’s methods, though, is that he does have a score-as-object to be reproduced while, as Silvia [Tarozzi] said in our discussion for this issue, we are Éliane’s scores. Somehow that gives me a feeling of having control over how OCCAM is disseminated rather than a piece like Trio for Strings. Does that bother you?

CC Well, no, I’m not bothered by this, because I don’t feel like I have a vested interest in the evolution of the music. I’m grateful to be part of it and to have these experiences, but I certainly don’t consider myself a guardian of the music. In the case of La Monte Young’s music, yes, there are written artifacts but, certainly, the solo cello piece has no score. The Well-Tuned Piano has some secret scores made by people who transcribed recordings, but that puts the piece in a different light. It suggests the performance is actually capturable—and that the score has captured the organic openness of the performance—but the score can’t capture that.

I think that people tend to see these things in distinct categories. For example, if it’s free improv or jazz or indie rock, then there’s not going to be a score, and that’s understood. But they think it’s radical in the case of Éliane, because they associate her with experimental music. They also associate her with the fixed medium of tape or another recorded format. There’s another sort of misunderstanding, which is that her electronic pieces are recordings that exist as objects to be purchased and listened to at home. Actually they weren’t. The fact that they were not released until, I think, the mid-to-late 80s on Lovely Music is not just accidental. She told me recently that she had an offer in the early 70s from Chantal d’Arcy to release Ψ 847 on LP on the Shandar label, which would have been quite a big deal, and she refused because of the side breaks. But I think personally that even beyond that she might have been uncomfortable back then with the kind of casual at-home listening such a release might have pointed to; you know how painstaking she was about setting up the tape playback concerts. Anyway, in regard to her music, there’s a misunderstanding because she lives in a world of formal music making, and it comes as a surprise to many people that this kind of formal music making could be generated through the non-fixed form of discussion, memory, and live performance. I think it was a surprise even to her that it could work on that level of detail.

But it’s also important to talk about why it works. One of the reasons is because the sense of what the composition is has to shift from being a fixed entity. If it’s a fixed entity that can be remembered and then reconstructed from performance to performance, that’s one thing, but that’s not what it is; it’s an ocean of composition that exists in a kind of reactive and contingent relationship to the moment of performance, and to the space of performance, and to the acoustical conditions. I don’t know to what extent that’s the case for you with your instrument, but it certainly is with the cello and the kinds of sounds that we were seeking and teasing out and cultivating. They are borderline sounds; they are very unstable sounds not just because they’re hard to elicit in performance. They have a kind of chimerical status, even within the structure of the instruments. The particular time in which the performance takes place, the temperature, the humidity, to a certain extent the acoustics feed back into the very availability of those sounds at the moment of performance. So therefore, it is clearly not a matter of a composition which is known in advance and replicated in performance, but it is a composition which emerges through a series of stresses, pressures, availabilities, possibilities that are immediate to the moment of performance and have to be actually investigated in real time.

So, Naldjorlak, in the final analysis, is a kind of acoustical investigation of the cello happening in real time in front of an audience. The wolf is a case in point. The wolf doesn’t just exist, like an F-sharp—or another soft resonance or sustained friction sound—that I can just go to and play. It’s actually a very involved circuit of mechanical responses within the instrument, and it’s not even fully understood, I don’t think. But to play it means to construct it in time, to build it up through a whole series of techniques and tuning procedures; not just to “find” it or “approach” it, but to actually make it happen. So I’m in the paradoxical position of finding out what’s going to happen as I do it. And therefore, it becomes a kind of a radical listening event. Listening, reacting, and changing the actual performance from moment to moment through reacting to what you’re listening to, what you’re putting in, what the instrument is giving you back. Sometimes I think that what I’m listening to is not even the sound, but the instrument itself. Does that exist? Can you listen to just the instrument?

So in that sense, I’m not sure I agree with Silvia that we are the score. That would seem to suggest that we have the score inside us, that it is a thing that we’ve internalized, and then refer to, at the time we play the piece. I have this other idea that the score is kind of generated through the interaction between performer and instrument in the space at the time of performance; a score is being generated that you read and react to as you perform. And while this score is being written in sound, it is then being erased as the sound fades away and re-written as the next sounds arise in every moment of the performance. It’s a kind of a whimsical idea of mine, but I think it captures the idea that this performance is neither an improvisation per se, nor a fixed composition that we just need to remember and put out there—more or less the way it was last time and the time before that and next time too—but that the piece is going to be constituted by the act of performing; it’s going to be made and realized in that moment-to-moment listening process.

© Blank Forms
© Blank Forms

Unified Sounding Body