The first time on CD for composer Curran's tribute to the sounds of the American coast.
Peter Marsh 2004
Back in the mid 1980s' composer and sound artist Alvin Curran and longtime collaborator Melissa Gould took a road trip down the Eastern Seaboard of North America after winning funding to produce a series of ten short pieces for National Public Radio. Along the way they took recordings of the sounds of foghorns, lightships, coastguard stations and the voices of those who lived and worked there.Once home, they invited some of the most influential and interesting musicians around to improvise with these location recordings to produce what Curran calls 'environmental concerts'.
Though sporadically available on cassette, this is the first time on CD for these pieces, and they're presented along with the original introductions and extensive sleevenotes (including a mini-essay from David Toop). Curran's address book included heavyweight improvisers Steve Lacy, George Lewis and Leo Smith, plus fellow composers Pauline Oliveros, Joseph Celli and John Cage.
Curran's music has always had a warmth at its heart; though he may be a 'privileged intellectual' as he puts it, there's an awareness and a love for the 'emotional' resonances that sounds carry. His settings often inspire remarkable performances. Smith's multitracked trumpets mimic the weary blare of the foghorns, often taking their pitches as the root notes for fantastic chords. The warm, glowing drone of Oliveros' accordion breathes its way through a patchwork of chimes and the gentle fluting of the whistlebuoys. It's like an Unplugged take on Eno's On Land album.
Celli's arsenal of reeds mixes with birds, frogs and bells in a wash of tiny chirps and high frequency whirlings that set the ears tingling with pleasure. Lewis takes a more interventionist approach, his trombone morphed by Curran's treatments and his own extended technique into what could be a foghorn playing an Anthony Braxton piece.
The contributions from Cage and experimental sound poet Chuck Coolidge are less successful; maybe it's just that they seem self consciously avant garde in comparison to the wayward beauties of the rest. Whatever, they certainly didn't engage me very much.
Curran closes proceedings with a 25 minute symphony for environmental sounds, augmented with overdubbed voices. Layers of bells, horns, and the sighs of the Brooklyn Bridge shift in and out of focus. It's hazily, desolately beautiful.
Toop's essay quotes Raymond Carver on the strange emotional power that the cry of the foghorn can carry. Now that technological advances meanthey're disappearing from the soundscape, there's maybe even more poignancy and strangeness to them. Curran and his friends have (for the most part)fashioned a fitting and very beautifultribute to these rich, mysterious sounds.