[Marlboro Festival, 1985. Photo by Steve Sherman]
Many composers search their entire lifetime hoping to find a performer as resolutely dedicated, adventurous and talented as Charles Curtis. Perhaps the San Diego-based cellist is best known as a longtime collaborator of minimalist icon La Monte Young – their intense working relationship spans 24 years – yet Curtis is also renowned for his defining performances of works by Eliane Radigue, Morton Feldman, Terry Jennings, Alison Knowles, Alvin Lucier and many others.
Over the course of one month, I met with Curtis to discuss his life and career. The first time we met, at a dinner party at my house, to which he brought a hefty sack of lemons straight from his garden, I was immediately captivated by his sly sense of humor and forthrightness. We met three more times, once at his colorful, seaside home in Ocean Beach, and twice more at my home in La Jolla. Over pots of green tea, small scones baked by his wife Annegret, a talented chef, and with cats swarming around our ankles, we discussed his life in its entirety. His story is extraordinary, from his sheltered youth in Laguna Beach to his current standing as one of the world’s foremost practitioners of experimental music.
[I recently conducted a series of interviews with the San Diego-based avant cellist Charles Curtis for this month's Paris Transatlantic. Visit their site for the full interview. An excerpt below.]
[My father] lived in NYC for a time and gone to Columbia the same time as Allen Ginsberg and the Beat poets and sort of moved in those circles in the 40s. He was a bit like a captive in my mother’s perfect German outpost in Laguna Beach. Classical music was a very natural element of that environment – my mother encouraged it. Even though she wasn’t what you’d call a classical musician, she was very musical. With her family, part of it was striving to get to a higher social level, to play instruments, to be musically outstanding. Church music, singing, choirs – those are all very German things.
She’d also come from quite a poor family – her father was a cobbler in a little village – but she played recorder, flute, a little bit of violin and a little bit of piano. And she played that very distinctive German instrument, the zither. It’s a little bit like an autoharp. She played it very beautifully and had a beautiful singing voice. The zither and her singing – those are really deep musical memories for me.
In what way?
The thing about the zither that I think is particularly important for me is that it’s a very soft instrument. It sits on the table and you play it with both hands and it resonates with the surface of the table. And it’s very, very quiet. When someone plays the zither and sings ancient German folk songs, those strange melodies and strange accompanying chords, the typical thing is to sort of lean forward into the zither and sing very softly into it. The voice and the strings and the wood of the instrument all resonate together in an incredibly intimate way.
I think my mother’s zither playing and singing was an expression of her longing for her childhood and her past. Sometimes I would come into the house and see her, alone, in her room, playing. It was very private. I would sneak past and listen to it in the background. She had a beautiful singing voice, and incredibly in tune. It wasn’t a developed voice, but when she sang those simple German folk songs, the precision of her intonation was incredible. It really primed me for a particular kind of very intimate musical expression. Something so soft and so precise. It’s funny to think of that, because I don’t know what she would make of the music of La Monte Young (laughs).
Read the full interview here.