5.5 Questions for Charles Curtis

sound 6.17.14 Charles Curtis

What led you to the kind of music you play?

I grew up as a straight-ahead classical cellist, with the twist that my older brother, as a composer, was very into what we thought of as the avant-garde, ca. 1975 – that meant Cage, Berio, Stockhausen, Crumb – mostly music I am not so interested in any more. We got the records out of the local library – Gesang der Juenglinge, Indeterminacy – and marveled at the weirdness. Then my brother started making pieces that featured me as cellist, so as a teenager I was performing shocking new music with him that involved screaming, theatrical gestures, typewriters, feedback and so on. This is the prehistory to my involvement in new music. But what ultimately moved me in the direction I have continued on was my encounter with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela in 1986, and the very intense work I got into with them and their music. I found a level of refinement and focus that went beyond what I was familiar with in classical music, and an aesthetic stance of non-irony, respect for craft and beauty, an unapologetic relationship to deep musical feeling; all this was very unusual in the 1980’s, and seemed very challenging and deeply rewarding. Subsequently I found similar qualities in the music of Feldman, Alvin Lucier, Radigue, and just a few other composers.

What is your favorite piece to play and why? (Can be specific to your SASSAS performance if you like.)

This I cannot answer with a single piece. Whereas most classical performers, and new music performers for that matter, are expected to play “all kinds of music”, and therefore might have “favorite” or “least favorite” pieces, I’ve taken a different approach and play only pieces that I identify with very closely. I almost never find myself playing music I dislike or feel even ambivalent about. Each piece I play presents a unique experience to me, and feels part of my own ongoing work as an interpreter and performer. The experience of playing La Monte Young’s and Marian Zazeela’s “just Charles and cello in the romantic chord” is unlike any other I have had in my life, at times like an out of body event; but it was like that when I was involved in their “just alap raga ensemble” as well. The Radigue piece I will play in our concert is also a powerful experience, as are the Lucier pieces I have played over the last ten years, though they tend to be shorter.   I should add that there are pieces from the classical repertoire that I play that give me a comparable feeling of satisfaction; Webern and Janacek would be two examples, but Beethoven, especially the late period, from opus 102 forward, is in the same category for me. I add this just for the record.

Who are some other musicians and/or artists you admire and why?

I will mention a handful of performers that I greatly look up to: the clarinetist Anthony Burr, the tubist Robin Hayward, the pianist Ozgür Aydin; amongst classical musicians I would have to mention the cellist Peter Wiley, formerly of the Guarneri Quartet. In terms of composers, the names would be the expected ones: La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, Alvin Lucier, Éliane Radigue, Christian Wolff, and of a younger generation Tashi Wada, whom I think of as being in the same category as the above. Among my teachers, I would note the cellist Harvey Shapiro, the conductor Günter Wand, and here again La Monte Young, as the ones who were most inspiring to me.

Does location influence your approach to a performance, how and why (or why not)?

Location is a very important factor to me. However, I am not so interested in choosing “special” or “interesting” or “ideal” or – god forbid – “atmospheric” locations, I’m more interested in reacting to and addressing the location that I find myself in. I like to confront reality, whatever that is, and in the case of performance I like to confront my surroundings and discover what sorts of influences and particular results the surroundings give rise to. I am absolutely allergic to the silliness of putting a cello recital in a bar or a laundromat just because it appears piquant to someone. At the same time I have performed in many kinds of environments because I was asked to, and I chose to respond. I love playing in my children’s school, which is acoustically and socially a noisy and distracting environment, but it has a special and poignant resonance because of who is there. I love performing in my own living room. I’ve played in people’s gardens, and that can be very unpredictable. And in pretty much every manner of public gathering space one could think of. Each place yields its own special sounds, and I like to think of performing as a process of revealing some underlying quality or identity of that place. Probably I am influenced by Alvin Lucier in this regard.

What are your future plans?

Continue doing what I’m doing, because I like it. But maybe also trying to take some more time off in the near future to reflect on what I’ve been doing, because I’ve been doing it for a very long time now.

Please pick a favorite or stand out clip/track from our archives and tell us why you chose it:

Regarding an event from the archive, I’m going to single out the tape event at the Schindler House in 2102, which I attended and found to be a really valuable and superbly curated occasion to listen to tape music in an intimate environment, in small rooms, enveloped by the sound. All of the pieces were strong, and I especially enjoyed hearing Terry Riley’s You’re No Good all the way through, together with other listeners. I quite like to listen to recordings in a public setting.


One thought on “5.5 Questions for Charles Curtis

  1. Fantastic concert by Mr. Curtis. The astonishing variety of sounds and tonalities he extracted from the room, to say nothing of his cello, made for a riveting performance of three like-minded but very different works. Though they will lose something on tape, I hope SASSAS can make them available via archives so I can enjoy the performance again.

    Extraneous noise from the venue (a pavilion with an open door onto what appears to be West Hollywood’s own Parc des Buttes-Chaumunt, right on Kings Rd!) posed only a minor challenge and actually added sonic atmosphere, unlike the typical chamber setting. Bravo!

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