Well, we started “working” together in maybe 1996, but by working together I mean recording non-sense, primarily improvised songs as adolescents. He and my brother have been friends since they were 9 years old, and when we were a little bit older our group of friends (middle school and high schoolers) all played in each other’s bands and “side projects.” We certainly didn’t know what we were doing, and were trying to figure out how music worked, but we also tended to listen to really weird music, and so we didn’t feel a strong sense of musical limitation. Most importantly, we all genuinely loved the music our friends made. Zach and I had a band called Puckered Yeast, which largely consisted of us improvising songs at open-mic nights in Syracuse, and I think that was the mainstay of our youthful collaboration. Zach was also in a band called Mad Bears, with my brother, Tristan. They recorded and incredible (I stand by that assessment to this day) album called Lines and Squares. It was Tristan on Casio keyboard, and Zach singing these dark, fable-esque stories. Their hit song was a song called Rover, about a giant dog that inadvertently crushes entire towns when it rolls over. They joked that someday they would be famous, and perform it on Pops concert.
In 2005 I rewrote Rover as a 25 minute chamber work. Not quite a Pops concert, but, it’s what I had to offer. I actually revised the piece recently for a performance by Alia Musica featuring Tony Arnold. The 2005 version sparked a revisiting of our creative relationship. Zach had gone on to study creative writing at Oberlin, and honed his craft in some regards, although there’s also something wildly intuitive about his approach. His sense of word choice, and phrasing, and character, and voice; it has always been distinctively his. He can improvise verse that is better than anything I could ever write. Because he is a musician, possibly, he also has a very good ear for what can be sung. I honestly can’t imagine working with anyone else. The pieces we write are very much collaborations, and usually we spend a lot of time generating text, and story ideas. He’s immensely creative, and talented, and the works really are his, as much as mine.
Your pieces often have wonderfully imaginative titles (Sex Poem for Lightbulb by Beetle, Passion of the Wilt-Mold Mothers, The Long Hibernation, and my personal favorite Bear on Hi-Hat, Roach on Snare, Kitty on Purr, with a Squeeze-Box Solo by Yours Truly). Do you choose titles that are intended to be programmatic and evocative of some kind of story
Aside from the last title you listed, all of those titles, actually, Zach came up with. The last title is for a tape piece I wrote, and the source material is literally made up of a wind-up bear laid on a hi-hat, a cockroach walking on the head of a snare drum, a kitten purring, and me opening and closing a broken toy accordion. I do like the idea of imagining me and all those animals in a band together though.
You also often write for voice. Is storytelling through music an important form of expression in your music?
Storytelling is central to what I do. My most important work, I think, is as a half of a short story writing duo whose medium happens to be chamber music. I have a very difficult time writing without text, and am not particularly interested in doing it. I want to grapple with lived experience, and the story form, for me, seems the most potent entry point to that. That said, I am fundamentally a composer, and am fascinated by sound, and form, and counterpoint, and I love music that is not programmatic -I love sound. I’ve also recently become more interested in language, and linguistics, and the possibilities of exploring the intersection between music and language. I’m also interested in the semiotic implications of music. My creative mind is most excited when I can work with all of these elements together, and when I’m trying to grapple with questions of our shared existence through this medium.
In 2013 you began the festival Musicarte Panama along with Andrés Carrizo and Liliana Carrizo. Could you talk a little bit about this project, it’s history, goals and how you met Andres and Liliana?
MusicArte is a bi-annual new music festival in Panama City highlighting Latin American new music. We’ve had two festivals so far with composers including Mario Lavista, Ileana Pérez-Velazquez, Carlos Sanchez Gutierrez and Valentín Pelisch and ensembles and performers includeEnsemble Dal Niente, Grupo Paisaxe, Alia Musica, Graciela “Chelín” Núñez and the soundSCAPE Trio. So far it has focused on Latin American composers, but has featured performers from both Latin America and the US. I think the tendency, in the US, when we look outside our national borders, has been to look to Europe. It so happens that there are incredibly creative composers and performers working in Latin America as well. For me the festival has been a consistent source of discovery, and collaboration, and relationship building.
Andrés and I met at the soundSCAPE Festival in 2011, and initially bonded over a shared love of Latin American literature. He and I both returned to soundSCAPE in 2012, and I met Liliana (they are married) shortly after, in Milan. Andrés is a composer, and Liliana is a musicologist. We started talking about the festival that summer in Italy, and by the next summer it was a reality. Like many collaborations, at its heart is friendship. We’ve never managed to live in the same city, but we are very close. My wife, Sarah, and I are the godparents of their children.
In addition to continuing to feature music from established and emerging Latin American composers my hope is that we can broaden the leadership of the festival to include musicians that have participated in the past. So, for example, Valentín Pelisch was invited to our first festival from our call for scores. When we were planning our second festival I suggested inviting him back as a featured composer, which resulted in him producing a concert length work that was fantastic. I personally love his music, and would like to see him take a larger role in planning the festival.
I’ve always found your music to be very eclectic in terms of style, aesthetic, instrumentation, etc. Is that something you strive for in your music?
My musical language has always had a playful approach to genre. I’m an eclectic listener, and see no reason to limit myself, even within the context of a given piece, to staying within a single musical idiom. When one is writing within the context of “new music” as a genre I think there is often an assumption that the musical materials themselves are somewhat neutral, or without connotation. When genres are juxtaposed we become aware of the cultural and personal associations that come along with genre, especially when the materials are either anachronistic (in a value-neutral way), or draw from musics outside of the western classical tradition. For example, if a piece is going along in the idiom of what one may think of as consistent with current new music aesthetics, and then introduces a radical shift in style, to say, an operatic aria, the listener likely recognizes the shift to the anachronistic style as the introduction of a musical language that is outside of the idiom of current trends, and it is likely that the listener intuitively brings to the “outside” music whatever extramusical associations they may have with that genre. The effect is similar if the “outside” music is a form of popular music. We have a baseline assumption of what is within the genre of new music, whether it is post-minimalism, or new complexity. When that genre is violated by a music that is outside the palate of new music, I think this heightens the poetic implications of the music. This is, of course, somewhat dangerous territory in which to tread. If it ends up sounding like pastiche, with all of the negative connotations of trite pandering that this word has, then for me the technique has failed. Similarly there is a question of cultural appropriation. I try to approach the question of genre seriously and respectfully, even if I am being playful with the materials at times.
You also have a background as a guitarist (performance honors in guitar performance at Syracuse University). How has your experience as a performer influenced the way you approach and/or listen to music from a compositional standpoint?
Specifically as a guitarist, being a performer has drawn me to poly-stylistic materials. The guitar, rivaled in the last 35 years possibly by turn tables, is the instrument of popular music in the 20th/21st century. Almost any guitarist can speak multiple musical languages. Style analysis, to use the academic term, is what guitarists learn to do intuitively. I performed somewhat as a classical guitarist as an undergraduate, but no longer do (though I love classical guitar music). There are many composition lessons to be learned in the process of preparing a piece for performance: in getting your hands dirty in the music. After I stopped performing as classical guitarist (which time was very short lived), I continued to perform as an improviser. There is something about playing with other people that can’t be replicated in the composing process. You also learn a lot about writing for instruments that you don’t play by listening to other talented performers improvise on their instruments as you play together. I also use the guitar to compose tape parts for a series of collaborative pieces I have been writing with trombonist Juna Winston. I have a Godin guitar with a special pickup that converts the guitar signal into a polyphonic MIDI signal. I use this with a pedal that Roland makes which has a ton of midi instruments and synths in it. Some of them sound terrible, and these ones I am especially drawn to.
Can you talk a little about your work and involvement in social activism? Is your involvement in fighting for social justice something that has informed your work as a composer?
My adult life has been essentially divided between my work as an activist and my work as a musician. Currently the social justice work I do is as a union organizer. I represent a little over 900 healthcare workers in Western PA, bargaining contracts around wages and benefits and other terms and conditions of employment, fighting for better patient care, and if necessary, going on strike. It’s a workforce that is 90% women who are usually the primary breadwinners in their families. The hospitals that I represent are primarily rural community hospitals, meaning in this political moment, with PA being a red state, Trump country. The issues that Trump used to mobilize rural America (the economic issues, not the racism and xenophobia) are really the same issues that we are working on. Neoliberalism has been devastating to rural communities (as well as urban communities). Jobs that used to be decent working class jobs that you could raise a family on have either been exported, or the mines have dried up, or the unions have been broken, and now they are low wage, if they exist at all. Healthcare is an exception, because it can’t be exported, and because it is one of the few private sector areas where there has been a growth in unionization. But of course, in the face of this, you see a wave of privatization and massive healthcare corporations emerging whose only goal is to minimize expenses through cutting labor costs or through cutting corners on standards of care, and of course, by trying to break the unions either through legislation or through aggressive anti-union campaigns. I’m fundamentally though, sympathetic to the people who found hope in Trump’s message, though again, not when it comes to the racism, xenophobia, or the willingness to make apologies for his rampant misogyny. I have seen an emboldening in my members (those swayed by Trump, which I think is fewer than most of their demographic) as far as their willingness to say racist or xenophobic things, and I think this is a direct result of years of Republican race baiting culminating in Trump. Not that this makes it excusable.
Prior to being a union organizer, I was a community organizer. I worked with public housing residents in New Orleans after Katrina, when the city decided to use the storm as an excuse to demolish all of the public housing units in the city, even though the vast majority were undamaged by the storm. I also worked on housing issues in Syracuse, as well as other organizing both there, and in other cities.
As far as my composing goes, I think it, as well as my interest in other art forms, especially literature, fulfills more of a role of questioning for me, than of political action. That questioning (what is the nature of violence? Are we, as humans, by our nature predisposed to building oppressive societies and waging war? To racism? To sexism?) has been driven in my composing by my political engagement. At a certain point I started to realize that political ideologies were limited in their abilities to answer these questions, and that art was more qualified. I think that’s why I’m drawn to the story form. Similarly, and probably at around the same time, I also realized that to make the kind of art I want to make I needed to make it my life’s work to try to understand people. In some ways my organizing has always been at service to my art. I always knew it was important for me artistically. I don’t delude myself into thinking that my music is somehow an effective force for political change, in the way that organizing is, however, and I’m not writing politically didactic pieces. Composing for me is a process of questioning, not declaring.
Do you feel artists (even outside of music) have a responsibility to create socially and/or politically engaged art?
This is a really big question for me, and I’m not sure I have an answer to it, but I’ll try to work through my thoughts on it, because it’s been pretty central in my life. I feel compelled to follow my artistic and aesthetic questions where they lead me. I also believe as a human being that I have a responsibility to oppose oppression and violence in the best way I know how. Unfortunately, I think there are more effective ways to oppose oppression than to do so through art. If you are choosing to be an artist (really, if you are choosing to do anything other than wholly throw your body against the machinery of war, oppression, imperialism, etc.) I don’t believe you are making an ethical choice given the state of the world. What this means, fundamentally, is that I have to apply this thinking to myself as well, and recognize that by being an artist I am engaging in a massive amount of privilege, and that there isn’t really a way to justify this morally -that I am morally failing. So is everyone around me, and so is most of humanity. All of us, really, are morally compromised, depending on our level of privilege -the more privileged, obviously, the more compromised you are, or at least, the more responsibility you have to work undo systems of oppression. If you choose to be an artist, it’s up to you to figure out how to sleep at night. I personally think it’s more interesting to acknowledge this and engage it than it is to try to justify our decision to walk away from our responsibility to the world in order to make art that very few people will ever even be interested in. I think people that find an easy answer to how they can justify doing this either aren’t thinking hard and sincerely about the question, or are deluding themselves, or are very good politicians.
Even people who make overtly political art that I agree with, I question their sincerity. It tends to be that this work occurs in universities or arts organizations whose communities are made up of fairly progressive people, so being seen as political can increase your social capital as an artist. Yet these organizations, as a whole, engage in practices that are antithetical to the values of their intellectual communities. Imagine that I, as a composer, write a big orchestral work called “Stop the War,” or something like that, and it gets played at the university where I am a professor. I feel great about myself; really morally pure because I’ve taken a stand. Well, it turns out that my university, like most universities, is actually deeply entrenched in the military-industrial complex. Say it’s Syracuse University, where I did my undergrad. Syracuse has a special training program for high-level Pentagon officials as part of it’s Maxwell School of International Relations. Every year literally the architects of the war that my orchestral work is supposedly opposing are sitting in a room only 100 yards from me and studying how to more effectively execute the war that I am so opposed to. Do I do anything about it? There they are, right in front of me. Do I work to end my educational institution’s participation in war? Nope. I don’t have tenure, or if I do, I’m hoping to eventually become an administrator, or get more funding for my program, or whatever, and anyway, who am I to think that I could have any effect on what happens at the university? I don’t have any power. So I just keep writing pieces like “Stop the War,” and feel great about myself. Clearly “Stop the War” is doing nothing to stop the war. And when I am confronted with the actual machinery of war, I don’t fight against it because it might cost me something if I do. In addition my university, like many urban universities, is aggressively gentrifying and displacing local residents, mostly working class and mostly people of color. Do I oppose it? Do I fight against my employer? If I’m like most people, probably not. So, what am I actually doing when I write “Stop the War”? I’m either fooling myself into thinking I’m doing something meaningful when I’m not, or I’m being self-serving and using politics as a way to differentiate myself as a composer and create an identity for myself that I can market.
I am not proposing that academics should go out and sacrifice their careers in order to take on their university administrations. The labor market is far to insecure, and favors the employer far too much for this to be a viable strategy. What we would end up with is just a lot of really good, principled composers who are out of a job, and literally thousands of replacements willing to take their place, and tow the line and stay quiet. The only solution to this from a long term perspective is for academics to form strong unions, and bargain contracts that protect their intellectual freedoms even if they are criticizing their employer. Unfortunately, many universities insist on what amounts to gag clauses in their collective bargaining agreements that prevent professors from criticizing their employers, or standing in solidarity with other university workers. It would have to be a strategic priority not only to unionize, but to oppose these gag clauses once the union is formed. Even with a gag clause you are better off with a union than without. The other barrier to this is a psychological barrier. We, as academics, don’t think of ourselves as workers. We are intellectuals, and unions aren’t for intellectuals. Therefore our pride leads us to cede power to the administrators. If we want to be able to take on strategic fights in the arenas where we have the most power -in our workplaces, in our communities, etc. -then we need protection. Unfortunately, labor law does little to protect free speech. Therefore, our only option is to bargain contracts that protect us, as a baseline for starting to exercise our power in a manner that isn’t career suicide.
Getting back to “Stop the War,” of course, maybe I am being overly cynical here. Whereas I don’t believe an individual artist making a single political work of art is a particularly effective way to make change, on a broader scale I think that arts and culture are extremely important to build community and give energy to social movements. We, as activists, need literature, and film and music that inspires us, and deepens our understanding of the world and its nuance. In saying this I am completely contradicting what I said earlier about the the impotence of being an artist in the face of oppression, and also contradicting what I said about the irrelevance of political art. When art becomes integrally linked with a community of resistance, as jazz did say with the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, then it becomes incredibly important as a force for building community and energizing the struggle, even if the actual subject matter of the music is, in its most literal sense, apolitical. It doesn’t matter if the name of the piece is “Stop the War,” or “Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat.” What matters is what the community of musicians, and the community of activists, stand for, and how they are feeding each other.
New Music, or Modern Classical Music, or whatever we want to call it, doesn’t strike me as particularly poised to fill this role, but this could change at any moment, and how we make our art, and what we stand for could become incredibly important. If this is something we care about, and we are not going to be activists, then our only option is to act as if our music could at any moment become powerful, and act as if the decisions that we make about how we organize ourselves as a community are deeply important, even if all evidence is to the contrary. With Trump’s election this seems to be happening more and more.
I also want to add that there are plenty of artists whose work I admire that make no claims to be political, and never have, and are engaging in aesthetic explorations that I find fascinating, and love. As artists, our first commitment, over our careers, and our political obligations to the world, should be to our work, in whatever direction that takes us. Otherwise we will never say anything profound (or rarely).
So, as to your original question, whether we have a responsibility to make political art, I don’t know, fundamentally. We have a responsibility to oppose and alleviate suffering and oppression to the extent that we can, which is a responsibility that we will inevitably fail to live up to. Art does play some role in this, and it is important, though it probably isn’t the most important thing we can do.
In addition to composing, activism and organizing the Musicarte Panama festival, you are also Chair of the Board of Alia Musica in Pittsburgh. What is your role with this organization, and with Alia Musica more generally?
Alia is a very special organization, in that it is a new music organization that really has dedicated itself to fostering the New Music Community in Pittsburgh as it exists outside of academia. It is both a new music ensemble, made up of some of the best freelancers in Pittsburgh and beyond, but also a presenting organization that frequently showcases ensembles and composers both nationally and internationally. It was founded 10 years ago as a composer’s collective, with Federico Garcia DeCastro as the galvanizing force for the organization. For many years its primary mission was to promote and perform the work of Pittsburgh-based composers. The unintended consequence of this was that a community of composers and performers committed to building New Music in Pittsburgh, and who were not explicitly associated with any of the academic institutions in the city, came together around Alia. In turn, Federico has used the platform of Alia, I think, in a very generous way, to build the Pittsburgh new music community into something bigger than Alia. Every two years we dedicate the overwhelming majority of our annual budget to producing a New Music Festival whose purpose is primarily to showcase other younger ensembles that are emerging in Pittsburgh, or to bring artists from outside Pittsburgh to come and participate (Ken Ueno, Tony Arnold, Frederic Rzewski, Quince etc.). I don’t want to misspeak and imply that building the New Music community in Pittsburgh is only the work of Alia. David and Heidi of E.L.C.O. have been doing similar work, as did the late Dave Stock when he founded the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble (PNME) over 40 years ago, although PNME is no longer really a part of the New Music community in Pittsburgh. None of the performers live in Pittsburgh, and very few of its audience members are musicians or part of the New Music Community in Pittsburgh. This isn’t a criticism. It is a deliberate strategy on the part of PNME, and an interesting experiment as such. Also, they are only a summer series, meaning they don’t exist in Pittsburgh for 11 months out of the year. One very interesting aspect of the Pittsburgh New Music community is that the faculty at Pitt seem unusually dedicated to fostering New Music in Pittsburgh outside of the university. This isn’t something you see, for example, in Boston as I understand, or from the other universities in Pittsburgh even. This is in part because Pitt runs a really great new music series called Music on the Edge at the Warhol Museum, where they bring top-notch performers to Pittsburgh. It’s actually very generous from the perspective of the non-academic New Music community. They could use that money to hire JACK to do student reading/recording sessions, or bring ICE to do the same, or whoever, and keep it all very insular. And they do do this to a certain extent, but they also produce a really incredible concert series for the public that is also affordable. In addition to this they have started to produce a micro-tonal music festival every other year, which again is all public, and attracts a lot of musicians and artists that are not associated with Pitt, and brings in a lot of very talented musicians to participate from elsewhere (Alia was honored to present a piece by Haas as part of the last/first festival).
Fundamentally, though, getting back to Alia, I think our role, and really Federico’s role in building this community in Pittsburgh, is incredibly important. There are a number of really good, grassroots ensembles forming in Pittsburgh that didn’t exist 4-5 years ago (when I arrived), and I think Alia played at least a small role in making that seem like a tangible possibility, and a reasonable thing to do. I think also the culture of New Music is changing nationally in a way that, 10 years ago, when Alia started, it seemed impossible to exist outside of academia for a composer, so Alia was a necessity simply so that Pittsburgh composers could have their music played. Now New Music ensembles are springing up in Pittsburgh, and in most cities with any sort of New Music scene, and Alia can start to branch out, and do things like collaborate with Ken Ueno, or have Quince in residence for a year performing really exciting music that mostly was not written by Pittsburgh composers. We aren’t the only opportunity for Pittsburgh composers, which is great.
As far as my role as Board Chair, it has been a mix of Board development and collaborating with Federico to develop a strategic vision for the organization as we continue to grow, and become more of a regional presence. As a transplant to Pittsburgh I have also tried to leverage my network outside of Pittsburgh to create new opportunities for the organization. We brought Alia to Panama, for example, to participate in MusicArte.
Do you have any upcoming projects or collaborations?
I’m working on a concert-length work for trombone and tape with Juna Winston where I compose the tape part, and he composes the trombone part. Eventually we will create a version that is for open instrumentation. The piece is called The Triptych, so obviously it is in three parts. Two of these are finished. I’ll be making the third (which I expect to function as the middle movement) this Spring. I’ll probably rewrite about a third of The Passion of the Wilt-Mold Mothers, and Quince and I have been talking about some instrumental interludes for the piece, and staging (very conceptual, not making it into a chamber opera or anything like that). Nat 28, another Pittsburgh based new music ensemble run by Zoe Sorrell, and I have been talking about a piece featuring guest soprano Anna Elder, who is absolutely amazing, and who has also been loosely been brainstorming with me about a potential puppet piece or marionette opera with her ensemble, Kamratōn. As you know, I’ve wanted to do something like that for years, so that would be amazing. Anything with text, which is basically anything I do that isn’t my collaboration with Juna, will obviously be written in collaboration with Zach, my lyricist. Carlos Camacho and I have been talking about a piece for his percussion trio, Three by Radio, which would be a special challenge, but Carlos is an incredible performer, especially of text. His performance of The Fall of the Empire (Rzewski) blew me away. He has such incredible poise. I’d like to work more with invented language, as I did with The Passion of the Wilt-Mold Mothers, and have been reading more deeply in linguistics to that end. Alia has been working on a version of The Parasite, and Her Sister, which I wrote a couple years ago for Ensemble Dal Niente’s Latin American tour, and which gives the performers a lot of latitude as far as improvisation. I’d like to do a decent overhaul of that piece before it is performed again in any formal capacity.
And the always necessary top 5 list - what are the top 5 pieces (regardless of genre or aesthetic) that have had the biggest influence on you and your career as a musician?
This is an impossible question. Ok, so none of these are pieces, but…
- The movie La Bamba made me buy a guitar at a garage sale when I was 7, although I pictured my future as flying around in a space-car to various 1950s themed space cafes, and playing Ritchie Valens covers.
- Punk rock zines in the mid-90s made me believe that how we make music and what we stand for is important, although looking back, most of the actual political content was not particularly nuanced, with the exception of the Riot Grrrl movement, which was really amazing. I think that music scene was really important in both my later political activism, and my thinking of myself as a feminist.
- John Cage’s writings when I was 19 persuaded me that everything was wrong, and converted me to anarchism, and propelled me to (literally like a month or two later) go out and start getting myself thrown in jail, haha! I took Cage probably more seriously than he took himself.
- Conversations with the late folk singer, Jolie Rickman, and her song, Emma Goldman were particularly important. When I am feeling cynical about music and its possible impact I think of the way she put the question back on me, and asked me to examine the impact that music has had on my own life, which, obviously, has been profound.
- Experimental jazz from the 1960s and 1970s, and artists that have carried on that tradition. Again, an inherently political genre, historically speaking, but it also taught me that I didn’t need to be able to comprehend something in order to like it, and in fact, that I like aesthetic experiences that are beyond my comprehension, at least at first glance.
- Also, Bolaño’s 2666 is the best thing I’ve read. I like to read. Books. Books influence me.
Below are some examples of Curtis' compositions
The Long Hibernation (performed by members of Ensemble Dal Niente at MusicArte 2013)