In 2017 my dear friend Martijn Comes came with the idea to ask Reinier van Houdt to do a release for Moving Furniture Records.
After some emails between three of us we decided we would ask Alvin Curran to compose new work and so our first commission project started.
Now 1 1/2 year later we can present you the result with Dead Beats, composed by Alvin Curran for pianist Reinier van Houdt.
On the CD you will also find the composition Inner Cities No 9 ‘9-11-01’, which was Alvin Curran’s first composition after 9-11, also written for Reinier.
The album is presented as double CD and comes in lovely artwork designed by Rutger Zuydervelt and extensive liner notes by Tobias Fischer.
Read the full story behind the two different compositions below
About the album
Everything at Stake
Truth, multiplicity and the piano in the works of Alvin Curran and Reinier van Houdt
By Tobias Fischer
The piano has always been at the core of Alvin Curran’s oeuvre. Granted, you’d expect a statement like that from the liner notes to a collection of his piano pieces. In this case, however, he’s said so himself, in a candid interview with sound artist Andrew Liles: “It’s the focal point and kind of a totem for all my work in music.” Certainly, thanks in part to a cycle like “Inner Cities”, which spans twenty years of his career, it has become a sort of constant in a catalogue with very few constants, the perfect tool for a composer who likes to think beyond tools. Still, the bond between Curran and the piano has always been one of attraction and repulsion.
It was certainly where everything started. The piano was the first instrument Curran learned to play as a five year old son of virtuoso parents, stepping into the footsteps of a mother who accompanied silent movies and a dixieland jazz band trombonist. After studying with Elliott Carter, his path towards academia seemed paved. Rejecting this future wholeheartedly implied rejecting the piano as a symbol for the very tradition he had become to loathe. By the time the group of “long-haired, mad-eyed, stoned-out hippies” around him, Frederic Rzewski and Richard Teitelbaum had set up the Musica Elettronica Viva collective and were touring in support of their first big piece, “Spacecraft”, he considered the instrument outright bourgeois. It was a revolutionary thought at a time rife with revolutionary thoughts. When the MEV members had arrived in Rome just one or two years earlier, they only had one thing on their mind: “erasing our whole background”. That Curran eventually returned to the piano with the same fervour with which he had abandoned it is a tribute to his dedication to music rather than ideologies. Or, as he would later state: it was a manifestation of his belief that it didn’t matter how the music was made, but that it was made at all.
Rejection and Return
On “Spacecraft”, Curran still, in a sense, performed a ‘piano’. As if to mock his own classical pedigree, however, the instrument in question was a thumb piano mounted on a ten-litre motor oil can, whose sounds he picked up and mangled with contact microphones. “Spacecraft” felt like an alien attack on pretty much everything the establishment considered sacred. It was not just, as Curran himself put it, a music that no one had ever heard. It was music few classically educated listeners wanted to hear. When the MEV stopped off in Berlin, certainly not a city unreceptive to sonic experimentation, the audience’s reaction mostly consisted of hostile boos and furious verbal attacks, with some listeners purportedly jumping on stage to stop the show. In short: The effect of the music was overwhelming. After the collective’s members had renegotiated the borders between freedom and form, meanwhile, it seemed as though the demons inside of them had been pacified. Suddenly, everything was possible again, including a reappraisal of tools and techniques they would once have considered reactionary: Only a few years after “Spacecraft”, Frederic Rzewski had already returned to the grand piano and romantic harmonies.
Curran would follow suite not much later. But it was a gradual and quiet comeback. Even the momentous “Inner Cities”, started in 1991, began inconspicuously as a half hour long meditation over an A major chord, before growing into twelve moments and six and a half hours of music. Nothing is premeditated here, or at least not in the sense of there being an overarching concept. Daan Vandewalle may be the pianist most closely associated with the cycle, thanks to his integral performances. And yet Curran dedicated one of its most emotionally resonant moments, the moving 9th part, to Reinier van Houdt. The piece, as Curran explains, is the first of his compositions after 9-11 and, although not a political statement in any overt way, it does reflect on the relationship between the arts and life:
“The music in no way is meant to narrate those events. If anything it might contain some hint of the hopelessness of the contemporary arts and artists to confront tragedies of this proportion; and at the same time the need for artists to continue their own tragic/comic campaigns of hope and utopias which we all know are just around the corner.”
A Personal History
For Curran, Reinier was an obvious choice, a pianist “who will certainly make each note sound like the history of time.” Or perhaps, what we are hearing here is actually van Houdt’s own, personal history, which reverberates through the “raucous, aggressively impolite and obsessively meticulous” back alleys of these “Inner Cities”. It is a story which reads like an inversion of Curran’s in some ways, but it, too, starts with the piano. Van Houdt came to the instrument later, and his first interests were not jazz, grooves and improvisation, but contact mics, cheap recording devices and “unpredictable sounds” culled from a wild assortment of objects. The piano, as a miniature orchestra, was the spiritual core that held all of these disparate sources together. Whereas Curran’s roots were in tonality and romanticism, van Houdt’s were in dissonance and sound art: When auditioning at The Hague’s Royal Conservatory, his program consisted entirely of 20th century composers, from Cage to Messiaen. It was not a calculated decision but one of the heart, as perhaps nothing can ever be calculated in the work of a musician who believes that, as he once told me, “everything is at stake” in the arts.
It wasn’t that van Houdt wasn’t familiar with Bach, Schumann or Chopin. Some of their pieces had, in fact, found their way into his repertoire. But he gravitated naturally towards the sounds that preceded music, the vast world of raw creativity, unshaped and unformed, undiluted and inexhaustible. At the conservatory, Chopin and Liszt almost had to be forced on to him by his teachers. Against his expectations, he turned out to actually like them and still performs them in concert. And yet, he, just like Curran, could not ignore his true calling. Leaving conventional notation behind was one of the first steps on his journey, which quickly led to the discovery of the works of Cage, Cardew and Scelsi. Through Scelsi, he eventually stumbled on the work of Curran, the two having worked together during the latter’s early time in Italy, and decided to write him a letter asking for more piano music – thereby initiating a long and fruitful collaboration.
Truths that Only Art can Generate
Like Curran, van Houdt believes that art exists as an alternative way of life. It produces, according to van Houdt, “truths that only art can generate.” Increasingly, these truths are creating their own shape, outside of the standard models which have dominated Western composition for centuries:
“There is no such thing as a current form anymore and I don’t think there should be one,” he argues, “I like this multiplicity, as long as people are staying true to their idea.”
It is a perspective which closely resembles the underlying premise of the “New Common Practice” favoured by Curran: That, in a time when we have access to staggering amounts of music, “all of these techniques, all of these languages, all of these alphabets, all of these worlds of sound, all of these tendencies in direction are available to everybody now.”
“Inner Cities” is a great example for the complete elimination of all borders. In the liner notes to the full recording, Curran lists page after page of references, from the almost-trivial (“accidentally stepping on Dietrich Fischer Dieskau’s foot”) to the truly mindblowing (“shaking Stravinsky’s hand”). One can easily see the connection between the long-form pieces of Morton Feldman and how Curran extracts galaxies of emotion and texture from tiny melodic cells. But there is a lot more going on here. According to van Houdt,
“these pieces deal with the city as an intersection of influences, but on an inner level. Inside of us, all of these disjointed musical parts are floating around without any conceptual grounding. This makes them shed their cultural significance. Here, all sounds are free and their encounters in the space of our consciousness feel entirely natural.”
Dead Beats and DJs
If “Inner Cities” is Curran’s most grandiose work so far, “Dead Beats” was the hardest to write. As the title indicates, pulse and movement are the guiding principles, although Curran is certainly right in his prediction that no one is going to “jump up and start dancing” to the music. If he speaks about the DJ taking the universal dance and song forms to their logical 21st century conclusion, he’s not being facetious. What “Dead Beats” shares with the DJ mix, beside its emphasis on rhythm, is the idea that disparate parts can combine into a unified whole and that the beginning of a performance does not hold any indication about the end, as much as each step builds on the previous one. While writing, Curran was never once sure where to start, never once clear about how to proceed, and there was never a true sense of flow, as the music was scored in intermittent bouts of inspiration over a period of several months. If, while listening to “Dead Beats” you find yourself lost, wondering where the music was just a few minutes ago, then you’re pretty much in the same spot as the composer.
And yet, there is true beauty here, perhaps most poignantly in the dramatic fourth movement, with its echoes of, yes, Chopin, Schubert and a fragment of a bluesy passage from Curran’s own “Era Ora”. It is this beauty that transcends the formal aspects, and makes us forget just how radical this music really is. Curran was right: In the end, it matters desperately little what instrument the music was composed for, that it was written for a very specific pianist, and that it mirrors the arrangement of a baroque dance suite “as a loving memory of Western music itself”. What matters is that it is was written at all.
Alvin Curran/Reinier van Houdt ~ Dead Beats
Order and chaos. We usually think of them in manicheistic terms, as fundamentally incompatible states that are mutually annulling, extending that same logic to the relationship between the avant-garde and tradition. Dead Beats relies on that contrasting setup to carry out its demolition by means of a haphazard melodic flow that softly, even weakly, states: anarchy is order. “Inner Cities”, which started out as a single piano piece and grew into a 12-piece, 6-hour long musical cycle, twists and turns into the psychic landscape of composer Alvin Curran, full of people and places all over Europe and the US, outlined with events so fantastic they could only belong to the mundane (“to help Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik get an introduction to the Pope”). It is not that we contain multitudes, but that multitudes contain us, the impossibility of our singularity dispersed among the memories that cling to every other object and every other subject, all that matter we continually shed and which is perfectly layered into dust with the passing of time.
On the other side, “Dead Beats” parts from a classicality ironically named – the hints of traditional structures that do not behave responsibly, the subtle suggestion of uselessness’ supreme value, rules in the service of nothing in particular, or in other words, sheer play. The two pieces superficially contrast with each other as formal opposites, but both of them tend towards uncertainty, towards falling apart and rebuilding themselves anew, wielding spontaneous emotions (somber severity, estrangement, and hope in the first track; playfulness, tension, and wonder in the second) to gel together disparate aural experiences. Heavy, expressionist chords blast away into dramatic, romantic harmony, a simple melody suddenly transforms into ambient diffusion – structures revolt like dust falling back in seemingly identical yet completely different patterns, the intense fragmentation of perception and reasoning stumbles into said patterns as if they had a reason. Order becomes an outcome of chance, but the experience of it is made only possible by the thought of an underlying system.
Reinier van Houdt’s playing perfectly conveys this anarchic spirit, the feeling of taking the entirely wrong steps and yet arriving at the chosen destination, the unseen object of desire. “Inner Cities”, which in this recording bears the subtitle “9-11-01”, seems immersed in uncertainty, with van Houdt laying out the piece as if he was, like us, listening to it for the first time. Yet the uncertainty also recedes and stable forms emerge, whereas in “Dead Beats” the flow moves in the opposite direction, with certainty sometimes going missing, an absence that beautifully glows from beyond the patterns, unexpectedly coming back in jazzy or in classicist phrases. Van Houdt seems very sure of where he’s taking us, and it is in this contrast where we can realize just how much that underlying system is mostly equivalent to an act of faith. It is order, and yet we are far from being in control. That means, to retake the initial thread, that it all naturally falls into place, that the fragments need no external referents, that there is no opposition between those two terms but continuity, complementarity, a (chance) game of presence and absence. “Dead Beats Part V” sounds like van Houdt is just making things up on the go, its zigzagging rhythm blundering around ragtime like a drunken Nancarrow player piano, a cartesian nightmare in which we are only human, we are all just dead beats accidentally coming in at the right time, at least every now and then, and that’s OK. (David Murrieta Flores)
Twee jaar geleden nam dit project een aanvang. Producer Martijn Comes kwam bij Sietse van Erve, de man achter Moving Furniture Records, met het idee om een album op te nemen met pianist Reinier van Houdt. Al pratende kwam die op het idee om in plaats van bestaande pianostukken op te nemen, de componist Alvin Curran te vragen om een nieuw stuk. Aldus geschiede en nu twee jaar later klinkt ‘Dead Beats’ in de Willem II Concertzaal in Den Bosch en ligt er een prachtige nieuwe dubbel-Cd, met daarop ook nog ‘Inner Cities nr. 9 ‘9-11-01’.
De Amerikaanse componist Alvin Curran, inmiddels 80, is een muzikale duizendpoot. Weliswaar klassiek opgeleid op piano, we horen het nog terug in dit ‘Dead Beats’, beperkte hij zich al snel niet tot dit genre, nog tot dit instrument. Zich bewegend op het kruispunt van hedendaags gecomponeerde muziek, folk, vrije improvisatie, experimentele pop en nog heel veel meer, gaat hij continu nieuwe uitdagingen aan. Als componist, maar ook als uitvoerder en maker van installaties en andere geluidskunstwerken. Een constante daarbij is dat Curran volstrekt zijn eigen weg gaat en daarbij zijn eigen definitie van wat muziek is hanteert. Wat het publiek ervan vindt laat hem daarbij koud.
‘Inner Cities nr. 9 ‘9-11-01’ schreef Curran in 2001, naar aanleiding van de aanslagen op New York, eveneens speciaal voor Van Houdt, al is het stuk onderdeel van het bijna vierenhalf uur durende en uit elf delen bestaande ‘Inner Cities’. Het begint allemaal uiterst ingetogen, breekbaar, tot ergens in de zevende minuut de horror erin kruipt en het stuk een delicaat evenwicht krijgt tussen uitbundige kracht en ingetogen pulserende patronen, daarmee de complexiteit van deze verschrikkelijke gebeurtenis in noten vangend.
In ‘Dead Beats’, het hoofdwerk van dit album, tart Curran de wetten van het betamelijke. Hoe krachtig en ritmisch deel één van dit nieuwe stuk ook mag beginnen, al snel bemerken we dat er iets opvallends aan de hand is: Van Houdt laat op de gekste momenten stiltes vallen, alsof een deel van de noten op zijn partituur is uitgegumd! Het klinkt bijzonder vervreemdend, een ritme met een hik. Gaandeweg brengt Curran er meer structuur in, maar gaten blijven er vallen. Tegelijkertijd horen we het ritme in dit deel en sleept Curran ons mee. Het tweede deel is veel ingetogener, bedachtzamer en bezit een onderhuidse spanning, al speelt ook hier dat verbrokkelde notenbeeld een rol. Alsof het allemaal niet te mooi mag worden. Prachtig ook het verdere verloop, waarin de spanning steeds verder wordt opgevoerd tot, middels een strakke opeenvolging van akkoorden, een wolk van klank wordt geproduceerd, waarbij de live geproduceerde klank zich mengt met die van de net daarvoor aangeslagen noten die nog door de ruimte zweeft, samen tot een verdicht patroon. Het derde en vierde deel zijn van een innemende, bedwelmende schoonheid, hier horen we Currans achtergrond in de romantische pianomuziek het beste terug. Maar let op: het mag dan net Schubert zijn, een pianist die zo Schubert speelt, kan het met zijn carrière verder wel vergeten. Dit is pianomuziek met een romantische inslag maar Curran doet er alles aan om op de meest onverwachte momenten roet in het eten te gooien. In het vijfde deel keert Curran weer terug naar zijn eerste opzet. Qua klank lijkt het geluid wel iets op zo’n zelf spelende piano: hard en droog. Maar er is iets met het instrument niet in orde, want wat we hier horen is allesbehalve coherent te noemen! Bijzonder is ook het laatste deel, dat bestaat uit een serie keihard aangeslagen akkoorden, onderbroken door stiltes.
En ja, dat is nu net het interessante aan ‘Dead Beats’. Wat we elders nooit zouden accepteren, is hier het uitgangspunt geworden. Curran zet daarbij ons beeld van ‘mooie pianomuziek’ danig onder druk en met Van Houdt heeft hij een prima vertolker gevonden. Dit spel met Curran meespelen getuigt niet alleen van lef: bewust dingen doen die eigenlijk niet horen, is ook nog eens lastiger dan wij denken. Dat procedé van Curran voelt aan de ene kant ongemakkelijk, maar levert aan de andere kant ook prachtige, onverwachte momenten op voor wie zich ervoor kan openstellen. En dat is zeker een aanrader.
Één van de leuke eigenschappen van de Toonzaal is de laagdrempeligheid. Na de inleiding (door Sietse van Erve) staat Reinier vanuit het publiek op en loopt naar het podium met de vleugel die voor hem klaarstaat. Reinier is een pianist met een indrukwekkende staat van dienst, naast conservatorium studies in Budapest en Den Haag, heeft hij een lange lijst aan premières op zijn naam staan. Hij gaf uitvoeringen in New York, Londen, Moskou, Tokyo, Egypte, Toronto en gaat u zo maar door.
Reinier van Houdt houdt zich bezig met vernieuwende muziek en in zijn vrije tijd vraagt hij zich af of de wereld wel of niet een gesloten logisch systeem is. Deze avond voert hij het werk van Alvin Curran uit, dat deze aan het componeren was toen het World Trade Center werd opgeblazen. Alvin woonde daar niet al te ver vandaan.
Het muziekstuk waagt zich aan zaken die eigenlijk niet mogen in de muziek. Onduidelijke ritmes, onverwachte stiltes die plotseling invallen. akkoordontwikkelingen die vreemd aanvoelen. Dynamiek die van uiterst zacht naar kei- en keihard overgaat. En toch ontwaar je na enige tijd de grotere structuren die zich beginnen te ontwikkelen, de stiltes die een (overigens niet dansbaar) ritme verbergen. Het moet een crime zijn geweest voor Reinier van Houdt om dit stuk te leren spelen juist omdat het zo vaak tegen de intuïtie ingaat.
Het hoort zo niet te zijn, maar dat is precies hoe het in het echte leven ook toegaat. Voor wie het stuk in alle rust wil na luisteren, het is op CD verschenen bij Moving Furniture Records, opgenomen in de Toonzaal door Kees van de Wiel.
ALVIN CURRAN/REINIER VAN HOUDT – DEAD BEATS (2CD by Moving Furniture Records)
Moving Furniture Records, the Amsterdam based label for the music of our times has slowly but very surely expanded its roster beyond subtle noises and immersive drone, to arrive at Olympian heights with recent releases worthy of worldwide recognition and appreciation.
Last month for example, MFR released the seminal Breach, a hard-hitting, key work in the oeuvre of electronic artist Zeno van den Broek and virtually at the same time Terreng by Jon Wesseltoft and Balázs Pándi saw the light of day: a stellar, brutal performance way beyond formal minimalism or micro-tonality the label was hitherto known mostly known for.
Following on the heels of the first series MFR initiated as a branch of the big tree trunk: the Eliane Tapes series with works by artists influenced by leading composer Eliane Radigue, the label now kicks off another offshoot. The Contemporary Series begins with a hefty double CD of works for piano by Alvin Curran, performed by maestro Reinier van Houdt, featuring extensive and insightful liner notes by Tobias Fischer.
One of the two pieces – Dead Beats – is a commissioned composition by MFR, written by avant-garde mastermind and maverick composer Alvin Curran, especially for (and dedicated to) maestro pianist Reinier van Houdt. As was evidenced by the World Premiere performance of the work late last year at Korzo, The Hague, Curran – following in the footsteps of for instance his ferociously epic work For Cornelius – has written a piece of deceptive simplicity in terms of musical material which, however, due to repetition and multiplication reaches dynamic turns and developments that are devastating for both audience and performer.
These beats are not made for dancing, although a pulse is hammering throughout the piece, audible and silent. There is a pounding rhythmical quality to the piece; an insistence of forwarding motion, of ebb, turning into flood into tidal wave into tsunamic force into a flood of biblical proportions (and back again to stiller waters). Curran has Van Houdt build, like a virtuoso bricklayer, a structure of utmost variety and quirkiness yet solid and firm, in a continuous flow, flux and motion.
Not only – mind you – a facade upon which the darting eye and ear easily loose their merry ways, but also an interior which is maze-like: a Borgesian library of wonders (redolent maybe, in fragments of Schubert and maybe Chopin too or bluesy lines even). Splendid music of revolutionary radical nature of putting everything at stake, all at once, in the writing, performance, recording and reception with the audience in equal measure. This is truly the music of our time by one of the greatest composers, by one of the best pianists of our time, presented in a stellar recording which captures all and every detail and subtly overtone.
And then there is ‘Inner Cities (No. 9 – ‘9-11-01’)’ too. The other piece, another half hour of Curran for piano as performed by Van Houdt. The work could easily feel like a bonus, an add-on or afterthought to the massive and expansive Dead Beats. Inner Cities, however, deserve much more attention than a position as encore or coda.
This – the ninth part of a twelve-moment cycle, totalling over six hours – harbours devastation on emotive grounds in deeply resonant free floating tones and relative restraint. The work showcases dramatically moving meditations beyond mere political commentary of the actual event-based narrative.
More than anything the meditations seem to speak of hope versus hopelessness; of man’s and art’s struggle for meaning or a voice in the face of monumentally tragic events like the 9-11 attacks. And above all: for the need to keep on pushing for (y)our utopia: to keep the work up, to write, perform, hear. To encounter.
Therewith the grand Inner Cities (No. 9) underlines not only the revolutionary nature embedded in the work of both Curran and Van Houdt; it also bears testament to MFR’s releasing this double album – the label as the wholly natural intersection of disjointed musical parts of top drawer quality, once again making its mark with a series to cherish.