Looking Back to Move Forward: Charles Curtis on Terry Jennings, La Monte Young, & the Weight of Sound

Photo by Beth Buckley

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In a conversation between Saltern’s Tashi Wada and Charles Curtis from Blank Forms 07, they discuss the perception that many of Curtis’s performances of certain pieces are seen as “definitive.” It’s an interesting conversation that feels pertinent in relation to the release of Curtis’s performance of Terry Jennings’s Piece for Cello and Saxophone. This version on Saltern was arranged by La Monte Young – who Curtis has worked and studied with through the years – and is so striking in the way it marries sophisticated technique with an evolving emotional foundation that becomes hard to describe. Curtis plays with an expressive precision, transforming the maudlin passages into ageless sentiments. 

I don’t know if it’s the definitive performance of this piece, but I have returned to it often since it first made its way to me a few months ago. Jennings’s composition and Young’s arrangement sit in a place where each movement is imbued with an emotional heft and each poignant note carries significant weight. The performance has such a comprehensive gravity to it that its staying power never wanes. In a year that has already featured a number of special releases, Piece for Cello and Saxophone stands out.

Piece for Cello and Saxophone, recorded live March 26, 2016 at Courtisane Film Festival in Ghent, Belgium and produced by Tashi Wada, will be released this Friday, July 1 by Saltern. Pre-order HERE.

I’d like to start by asking about some of your earliest memories related to listening to music. Were there any particular experiences or pieces of music you heard when you were younger that have stuck with you? I remember reading that your mother played the zither and sang. That must have been quite impactful.

My mother cultivated a musical environment in our family, oriented around German folk songs and hymns, music that, in my memory, was predominantly austere, melancholy, and deeply soulful. It is the intimacy and interiority of her zither playing and singing that I remember most. Already then, music was about going inward and finding a hidden source of emotion, beauty, desire, and the transient expression of these. And then, between the ages of 9 and 12, I was involved in musicals, as in Broadway-style musicals, singing and tap dancing and so on. This was obviously more public-oriented, involving showmanship and play-acting and dissembling. I was good at it, but at a certain point I refused to go on, it didn’t feel right. That was when I centered all of my musical energies on the cello.

How did you first get interested in playing music and what was it that drew you to the cello specifically?

My older brother, Henry Adam Curtis, is a phenomenally gifted musician, a pianist and composer; and from a very young age, his example and his dedication were a kind of light leading on ahead of me. I began lessons on the piano, but my brother was so good that it was clear I needed to choose something else, I wasn’t going to compete. At age 6, I thought the cello might be a good comedic prop, I think I imagined it as a bass drum with strings. So I took up the cello and gradually discovered its qualities as a voice, very human, very personal, and emotionally direct, in ways that were mysterious but gratifying, even as a child. I should say that our family was not involved at all in sophisticated music connoisseurship, we did not have classical records or go to concerts. It was my brother’s piano practice, hours on end every day, traversing the works of Bach and Liszt and Schumann and early Beethoven, that engrained this music in my ears and memory. It was he, also, who initiated the exploration of new and experimental music, in our early teens. 

La Monte Young at the Jung Hee Choi Ahata Anahata, Manifest Unmanifest XI, MELA Dream House, New York City, 2017. Photo Jung Hee Choi. Copyright Jung Hee Choi 2017

Before getting directly into the upcoming release of Piece for Cello and Saxophone, can you tell me how you first met La Monte Young and began working with and learning from him?

We met through the violist John Graham, who had played in the very first performance of La Monte’s Trio for Strings when he and La Monte were both students at UC Berkeley in the 1950s. I knew John from classical music circles in New York, and he suggested me for a performance of Trio in the mid-1980s.

What did you think when you first heard about the idea of just intonation?

It was new to me, since students of classical music back then did not learn about acoustical physics or read Helmholtz. But I don’t think I “heard about it” in the sense of a concept or a piece of information as much as I simply plunged into it in the work with La Monte. He led me into that world of sound, with all its attendant rigors of listening and playing and feeling, directly through the music, through the hands and ears and the sensate body re-orienting experience around partials and acoustical beating. It became very clear through actually doing it together. Also, I should add that the basic division of sounds into partials and ratios is very intuitive on the cello, you can actually see the vibrating string divide up into whole number relationships right in front of you.

So this leads me to the new release of your performance of Terry Jennings’ Piece for Cello and Saxophone that’s coming out soon. Can you tell me a little bit about how you first came to know this composition and, more generally, what it is about Terry Jennings’ work that you are drawn to? 

It was La Monte who suggested we play this piece. He wanted to perform it, I think to honor his friendship with Jennings, who had died a few years before. And there he had this very enthusiastic, devoted cellist – me – ready to submit to the undertaking. I didn’t understand what was going on with the piece at first, the score was rather bewildering, but I took it on faith from La Monte. The process of learning this piece from La Monte, in the just tuning that he devised for it, was one of the foundational learning experiences of my musical life.

What it is about Jennings’ music that I’m drawn to would be very hard to describe, and the attempt would exceed the frame of this correspondence. But one could ask, how does a 20-year-old kid from Eagle Rock compose a piece of such strange beauty, and of such deep emotional intensity? What is he drawing from? I don’t want to romanticize the figure of Jennings, but my sense is that, like Rimbaud or Stephen Crane or so many artists who died young, death is inscribed into the work, the emotional life is accelerated and amplified and magnified, and the art becomes a kind of personal memorial to loss and human fallibility. How did Schubert have access to the expressive states of the C-major quintet or the late piano sonatas as a young man of barely 30? This would be the reference point for the Jennings piece. Or the late chamber music of Mozart. To me, the Jennings piece is funerary music, solemn and august and carefully measured, but suffused with beauty and tenderness. But to say even that risks trivializing the music. The music reaches toward emotions for which we have no names.

How did this particular arrangement of the piece evolve to what you performed on this recording? If I remember correctly from researching it, at one point, I believe, you were doing this as a duo with La Monte Young performing the saxophone part as a vocalist but here it’s a solo piece…

One thing about La Monte is that, as great a composer as he is, he is equally a great performer, and his understanding of performance is profoundly tied in with the creativity and interpretive agency of the performer. His own compositions evolve over time in the crucible of performance. In 1988 it was clear that he would not perform in equal temperament, and so to apply a just tuning to this piece was a given. That’s the most significant shift. It happens that the piece, through its internal structuring, already lends itself to the kind of listening and tonal shaping native to just intonation, so the tuning fit perfectly. Then, through the experience of teaching it to me and performing it with me, he saw the possibility of passing the music on as a solo piece that I could play and develop on my own. So, in brief, that’s how this came about.

What’s the most challenging aspect of playing this piece on cello?

Without a doubt the intonation. I play the piece more slowly than Jennings did, and even than La Monte when he was singing it. One can hear that I am at great pains to continually re-establish stable intervals as I move through the melodic patterns. I’m not approximating. The beat-free, just interval is an object of fervent desire guarded by an unbending gatekeeper. There’s no “sort-of”. While I know that they are unachievable in any absolute sense, the searching and striving for those harmonic relationships is the expressive ground of the piece. The chords and the melodies are incredibly beautiful, this is obvious; but it’s the act of navigating them in performance, of bringing them into presence through shaping and adjusting and listening, that is the true music.

Photo courtesy of the Jackson Mac Low Papers, Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego

When you think back over the past 30 years and how much time you’ve spent with this piece of music, what have been some of the lasting memories of working on this piece for you? 

Mostly the initial period of work with La Monte, which was such a gift, not just a musical gift, but a gift of friendship, of real generosity. I was in my twenties at the time, just starting to orient myself beyond the training and experiences I’d had to that point. He shared this music with me in the most natural and unpretentious way, and for me, it was an opening up of door upon door into spaces I had not remotely imagined. 

Beyond that, it is the ways in which this piece reached certain individuals in my life. I could list them, it’s a small handful. I think actually that it is not an easy piece to appreciate, and in my experience, there have been many who were sort of underwhelmed by the piece, either due to a not-so-great performance by me, or because they were not attuned to or primed for its special qualities. But by the same token, there have been some who were really astonished by it, for whom it marked out unique terrain. As I went along performing the piece from time to time, even though the music was almost entirely unknown, the fact that certain people heard and were moved by the particularities of the piece, and by the power of its overall statement, was very meaningful to me. The most recent of these was Tashi Wada, who rather casually asked me if he could listen to a live recording of the piece, having heard about it and being curious. This was almost exactly two years ago. And now we are releasing it.

One thing I always think about when I think of La Monte Young is that his pieces are never finished. Is Piece for Cello and Saxophone still evolving?

I hope so. It’s a very difficult piece to perform and requires a long period of preparation, and so for this and other reasons, it is not going to be presented very often in concert. But when it is, it will certainly change. It most definitely is not a piece that is meant to be replicated each time in identical fashion.

What do you hope listeners take away from this performance, especially those hearing Terry Jennings’ work for the first time?

I can’t answer that! I hope that listeners will listen closely, and give themselves over to the special sounds and tunings and to the slow pacing of the piece, and then they will inevitably take something unique from the experience, something all their own.

Just to wrap up, what are you working on now and looking forward to over the rest of 2022?

I’m wondering that myself. A fair bit of writing has accumulated over the last couple of years, and I am hoping to edit and compile some of that; and of course, there are musical projects in various stages of incompletion or partial completion that I would wish to either finish up or drop by the wayside. A lot of thought and effort goes into my teaching. At my age (I’m 62) there’s a lot there, a lot to process and sort through. At the same time, I’m hoping for some little openings that might lead to entirely new ideas.

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