rare and forgotten experimental music

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Alvin Curran - For Cornelius / Era Ora

As a consolation for taking down the earlier Alvin Curran LP I posted, here's another Curran LP, though a very, very different one. For Cornelius / Era Ora has two pieces for piano, written in 1981 and 1986, respectively. It was Curran's first release of fully composed music performed by other people, his earlier LPs containing semi-improvised solo electroacoustic works performed by Curran himself.

"For Cornelius" is performed here by the great Ursula Oppens. It's been recorded several other times, by Yvar Mikhashoff, Eve Egoyan and others, but this recording is the first time it appeared, and it's a beautiful version of the piece. It was written shortly after the death of Cornelius Cardew, the great british composer and political firebrand. Curran has some additional notes about the piece at his website here.

"For Cornelius" is in three contrasting sections. The first one is a simple, pretty, Satie-esque little lyrical part, only a few minutes long. The meat of the piece is in the second part, a long droney work, reminiscent of Charlemagne Palestine's Strumming Music, with very gradual harmonic motion, moving towards increased dissonance over the whole section. The third section is a short little afterthought, similar to the first part, and makes something of an ABA structure, contrasting these very different sonic worlds.

"Era Ora", unlike "For Cornelius", has only ever been released on this LP. It's performed by Ursula Oppens again, with composer and fellow MEV member Frederic Rzewski on a second piano.

"Era Ora" belongs to a relatively small set of pieces written for multiple pianos, here only two, but writing for multiple pianos seems to create some significant logistical problems. Pianos are big and difficult to move, so just getting two of them together on a stage or in a studio can be pretty hard to do. It creates a very unique sound, though, and allows for an extremely rich texture - just one piano can make a lot of noise on its own.

The piece begins with a jazzy little intro section on one piano, while the second piano plays tense pulses in the background. Slowly the pulses take over, and the jazzy element disappears. One piano keeps pulsing, sometimes using the sustain, and the second piano adds some higher pulsing occasionally as an accentuation.

It quickly becomes difficult to distinguish one piano from another in a textural piece like this. Like the second section of For Cornelius, there are some nice contrasts between sustained and non-sustained sections, particularly around the mid point of the piece, where the pianos are playing staccato chords which get beautifully washed out with the sustain pedal, then come back into sharp focus when it's released. Eventually the texture thins out somewhat, ending on a melodic, slower section somewhat reminiscent of the beginning of the piece.

Brian Olewnick, who often writes for AllMusic.com, among other places, has a good review of the LP here on his blog.

This LP was released in 1986 on the great New Albion records. Unlike most of New Albion's releases, it has never been released on CD and is long out of print, and New Albion seems to have wound down operations - doesn't look like they've put anything out in about two years - so a re-release looks pretty unlikely.

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