Called by ArtForum "one of the great cellists" as well as "spellbinding and minimal," Charles Curtis has woven a unique career through the worlds of classical performance and musical experimentation. A student of Harvey Shapiro and Leonard Rose at Juilliard and the recipient of the Piatigorsky Prize, upon graduation Curtis was appointed to the faculty of Princeton University. Subsequently he was Principal Cellist of the NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg, where he appeared as soloist with conductors such as Herbert Blomstedt, André Previn, Günter Wand, John Eliot Gardiner and Christoph Eschenbach. Curtis has been guest soloist with the San Francisco Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, National Symphony, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Janacek Philharmonic, Orquestra de la Maggio Musicale Florence, and orchestras in Brazil and Chile, among many others.
For more than twenty years Curtis has been closely associated with the legendary avant garde composer La Monte Young. As soloist and as director of Young's Theatre of Eternal Music String Ensemble, Curtis has participated in more performances and premieres of Young's music than any other musician. He is one of the few instrumentalists to have perfected Young's highly complex just intonation tunings, and is one of only a handful of musicians to have appeared in duo formations with Young. The La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela four-hour-long solo composition, "Just Charles and Cello in the Romantic Chord," for solo cello, pre-recorded cello drones and light projection, the only solo composition composed by Young for a performer other than himself, received performances in Berlin, Paris, Lyon, Dijon, Bologna, in the New York Dream House, and in the monastery village of Polling in Bavaria. Curtis has studied the Kirana style of Indian classical music both with La Monte Young and in master classes with the late North Indian master vocalist Pandit Pran Nath since 1989, and has been a regular member of the Just Alap Raga Ensemble, led by La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, since 2003.
Already in the early 1980's Curtis was involved in the downtown New York alternative music scene, performing regularly in clubs like the Mudd Club, CBGB, Acme Underground, The Cooler, ABC No Rio, Tonic and the Knitting Factory. He collaborated over a period of years with poetry-rock pioneers King Missile, John S. Hall, You Suck, Dogbowl and Kramer, and with creative musicians such as Donald Miller of Borbetomagus, Michael J. Schumacher, Alan Licht and Dean Roberts. Emerging from this scene in the 1990's, Curtis led the Charles Curtis Trio, presenting sound-installation-style minimal rock music with spoken texts, sine waves and slide projection in clubs and festivals throughout Europe; their double LP/CD "Ultra White Violet Light", designed for simultaneous play on multiple stereo systems, was described by British magazine The Wire as "one of the most treasured sound art objects of the last few years". His large ensemble and electronics work for children, "Richard's Trip", was released in 2000 by Deutsche Grammophon. Curtis has created original music for films by Luke Fowler, Raha Raissnia and Jeff Perkins, whose 2008 film "The Painter Sam Francis" was screened at festivals and museums internationally.
Curtis has enjoyed a distinguished and extensive chamber music career. At the age of nineteen he performed the Tchaikovsky Trio with Oscar Shumsky and Earl Wild at Carnegie Hall, the live recording of which is now available on the Ivory Classics label. As cellist of the Ridge String Quartet he toured Europe, Japan and North America, including numerous concerts with Rudolf Firkusny as guest pianist. A guest at many prominent festivals including Marlboro, Ravinia, Wolf Trap, La Jolla and Schleswig Holstein, Curtis was featured as continuo soloist on Kathleen Battle's album "Grace" for Sony Classical, and toured with Miss Battle and Anthony Newman performing Purcell, Dowland, Handel and Bach. The cultivation of the art of chamber music as an intellectual history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is at the heart of the project Camera Lucida, an ensemble and concert series of which Curtis is Artistic Director.
In the last few years Curtis has developed a unique repertoire of major works created expressly for the distinctive qualities of his cello-playing. The great American experimental composer Alvin Lucier has composed numerous works for Curtis, including pieces for cello and sine waves, cello and piano, and cello with large orchestra. French composer liane Radigue created her very first work for a purely acoustic instrument for Curtis, the hour-long solo "Naldjorlak I," which Curtis has performed scores of times throughout the world; more recently "Naldjorlak III" and "Occam 5" have been developed collaboratively with Curtis. Artist and performer Alison Knowles created a unique graphic score for Curtis which has been realized in galleries and alternative settings. These, along with the monumental works of La Monte Young and rarely-heard pieces by Terry Jennings, Richard Maxfield and Morton Feldman, have been championed by Curtis through regular performances and recordings. In 2005 Curtis presented "Waking States," a series of seven concerts in fifteen days at various New York venues of music by Young and Zazeela, Lucier, Radigue, Jennings and Feldman. Solo concerts in the last few years have taken him to Christchurch Spitalfields London, the Auditorium of the Louvre in Paris, the Hebbel-Theater in Berlin, the Kampnagelfabrik in Hamburg, Issue Project Room in New York, the RedCat at Disney Hall in Los Angeles, and to festivals, museums and alternative spaces in Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Latvia, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Spain, Italy, Slovenia, Switzerland and Canada. Each summer Curtis performs and teaches in the La Monte Young - Marian Zazeela permanent installation at Kunst im Regenbogenstadl, Polling, Bavaria.
photo credit: Beth Ross-Buckley