The Crystal Psalms of Alvin Curran
In 1988, the same year Negativland was pioneering the concept and practice of the Teletour, another maverick experimental music composer produced a radio concert like no other before or since. His name is Alvin Curran and the piece in question was his Crystal Psalms, a concerto for musicians in six European nations, simultaneously performed, mixed and broadcast live in stereo to listeners stretched from Palermo, Italy to Helsinki, Finland via six separate but synchronized radio stations.
The name of the radio concerto came from an event that Curran wanted to commemorate with the solemnness it was due; Kristallnacht otherwise known as Crystal Night or Night of the Broken Glass. It had happened fifty years before the broadcast on November 9th and 10th in Germany. This was the date of the November Pogroms when civilian and Nazi paramilitary forces mobbed the streets to attack Jewish people and their property. This horrendous event was dubbed Kristallnacht due to all the broken glass left on the ground after the windows of their stores, buildings and synagogues were smashed.
On Kristallnacht rioters destroyed 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland. They ransacked and set fire to homes, hospitals and schools. 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. This was the opening prelude before the sick opus of the Third Reich’s genocide. It was Hitler’s green light, ramping up his twisted plans. The Third Reich had moved on from economic, political and social persecution to physical violence and murder. The Holocaust had begun.
The year before the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht a number of cultural and arts organization had begun making plans for a series of worldwide memorial events. Alvin Curran was in on some of these conversations. Curran had long been part of a vanguard group of ex-pat American composers living in Italy. He was also a founding member of the collective acoustic and electronic improvisation group Musica Elettronica Viva, sometimes known as a Million Electron Volts or simply MEV. They formed in Rome in 1966 and are still active today.
Started by three young Americans with Masters degrees in music composition from Yale and Princeton, MEV combined an Ivy-League classical pedigree with a tendency towards musical anarchism. Just as their music often involved chance operations, or the use of random procedures, the members of the group met by chance (or was it Providence?) on the banks of the Tiber River in Rome in 1965. Without scores, without conductors, they went like bold explorers into the primeval past of music, and its future. Curran says of the band, “….Composers all, nurtured in renowned ivy gardens; some mowed lawns. They met in Rome, near the Cloaca Maxima—and without further ado, began like experimental archeologists to reconstruct the origins of human music. They collected shards of every audible sound, they amplified the inaudible ones, they declared that any vibrating object was itself ‘music,’ they used electricity as a new musical space and cultural theory, they ultimately laid the groundwork for a new common practice. Every audible gurgle, sigh, thump, scratch, blast, every contrapuntal scrimmage, every wall of sound, every two-bit drone, life-threatening collision, heave of melodic reflux that pointed to unmediated liberation, wailing utopias, or other disappearing acts—anything in fact that hinted at the potential unity among all things, space, and times—were MEV’s ‘materia prima.’”
Curran draws from this same ‘materia prima’ as a prolific musician and composer and by the 1980’s had an established solo career. At the time of this writing that solo career is now long and storied. Crystal Psalms is just one of his many innovative works. It is also just one of a number of pieces he created specifically for radio. To my knowledge it is the most technically complex of the pieces he has written for radio.
Crystal Psalms was unique in its conception and required hard dedicated work to pull off. Perhaps that is why these kind of radio events are rare. Of course their rarity could also be due to the lack of imagination on the part of the corporate media that dominates the airwaves. The project brought together over 300 people, including musicians and technicians, in six major European cities. These musicians and technicians, separated into groups at these six locations, could not see or hear what was happening at the other locations. Yet together they performed as a unified ensemble to realize Curran’s score. In commemorating a dark and destructive moment of human history Curran demonstrated our creative possibilities for international artistic and technological collaboration.
Curran organized the concert in the fall of 1987 at a meeting in Rome. The producers from each of the six radio stations were there. These included Danmarks Radio; Hessicher Rundfunk, Germany, ORF, Austria; Radio France; RAI, Italy; VPRO, Holland. The RAI in Rome was chosen to be the main technical center, and HQ, probably due to the fact that this was the facility closest to the composer. Alvin wrote the music between May and September at his home in Poggidoro, about an hour drive outside the city.
The score was written for six groups of complementary ensembles –one group at each station in each country. These ensembles consisted of a mixed chorus (16-32 voices), a quartet of strings or winds, a percussionist and accordionist. Each of these six groups was conducted independent of each other. And even though they were separated by large distances in space, each of the ensembles played in time together. To accomplish this a recorded time track was heard by each conductor that kept them all synchronized.
Besides the live music, pre-recorded tapes were also used. These tapes were filled with the sounds of Jewish life. Among those heard was the ancient shofar (a ritual ram's horn that has been a mainstay in Curran’s music), recordings of the Yemenite Jews praying at Jerusalem’s Western Wall (the “Wailing” Wall). Other sounds on the tape included children from Roman Jewish orphanage, recordings of many famous Eastern European cantors sourced from various sound archives. Curran even included sounds from his family. He recorded his young niece singing her Bat Mitzvah prayers and his father singing in Yiddish at a family get-together. Birds, trains, and ship horns make appearances. But throughout it all is the sound of breaking glass. Meanwhile the live chorus is singing fragments from the Renaissance Jewish composers Salomone Rossi from Italy and another named Caceres from a famous Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam. Curran also used choral fragments from versions of the Jewish liturgy composed Lewandowski and Sulzer in the 19th century.
Crystal Psalms is made up of two long sections, 24 minutes, and 29 minutes. tructured in two contiguous sections. In the first there is a ton of percussion created from fallen and thrown objects. Amidst all these heavy sounds he used an 18-voice polyphonic structure to weave an increasingly dense texture from the musical fragments being carried by each "voice". As these fragments repeat the weave is brought ever closer together.
In the second part elements from the pre-recorded tape are more apparent. It moves from one moment to the next, one location or place in time before jumping to something else. Curran says, “Here tonal chords are anchored to nothing, innocent children recite their lessons in the midst of raging international chaos.” Idling cars, Yiddish lullaby’s, are separated by glass breaking, and all undergirded by moments on the accordion, organ and fiddles. A familiar melody will quickly disappear when blasted by noise. A solemn choir sings amidst the sound of someone shuffling through the debris. Fog horns drift in and out as telephones go unanswered. The listener with an ear for classical music will recognize bits of Verdi’s “Va Pensiero” turned into a menacing loop. At the end of it all, the cawing of menacing crows, a murder of crows, who have come feed off the destruction.
Curran writes of his piece that “There is no guiding text other than the mysterious reccurring sounds of the Hebrew alphabet and the recitation of disconnected numbers in German, so the listeners, like the musicians, are left to navigate in a sea of structured disorder with nothing but blind faith and the clothes on their backs -- survivors of raw sonic history.”
The event of the radio broadcast was for Curran a very special moment. In creating it, this experience of human artistic and technological collaboration, existed for him alongside the memory of the inhuman pogrom memorialized on its 50th anniversary. Curran say, “By focusing on this almost incomprehensible moment in our recent history, I do not intend to offer yet another lesson on the Holocaust, but simply wish to make a clear personal musical statement and to solicit a conscious act of remembering -- remembering not only this moment of unparalleled human madness of fifty years ago, but of all crimes against humanity anywhere anytime. Without remembering there is no learning; without learning no remembering. And without remembering and learning there is no survival.”
The radio concert was a one off event, never to be performed live again. However recordings from each of the stations involved were made and in 1991 Alvin remixed these into an album. Writing about all of this I’m reminded of something the American folk-singer and storyteller Utah Philips said in regards to memory. “…the long memory is the most radical idea in this country. It is the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we're going, but where we want to go.”
Let us remember then, the stories in history, personal or global, we would do well not to repeat and those other stories where people work together towards a common good. Just as this day is the product of all our past actions, so tomorrow will be built on what we do today.
Crystal Psalms, New Albion records, 1994
This article originally appeared in the March issue of the Q-Fiver, the newsletter of the Oh-Ky-In Amateur Radio Society.
Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory series.
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.