Charles Curtis, Alan Licht, Dean Roberts: May 99

April 2023

In the spring of 1999, Charles Curtis, Alan Licht, and Dean Roberts brought an unconventional mix of drone, improvisation, and experimental rock on an eleven-stop tour of Europe. The concept was straightforward, yet novel: each night, they would improvise a single piece while sustained sine waves played for the duration of the concert. May 99, culled from three shorter pieces recorded for a radio program at Amsterdam’s VPRO near the end of the tour, represents an early high watermark in the collision of minimal and rock sensibilities that started to become prevalent in the late 90s and is an ear-opening listen even for those familiar with the musicians’ other projects.

May 99 combines resonant sine waves in the style of eminent downtown New York composer La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music with scratchings, scrapings, and warblings produced by Licht and Roberts’s guitars, Curtis’s cello, and a variety of electronics. Just as sine waves hold together these sundry improvisations, a shared tendency toward the minimalistic—Licht’s performances with the Blue Humans, collaborations with Loren Connors, and solo guitar records; Roberts in the band Thela and his solo project White Winged Moth; and Curtis performing with Young and his own Trio—brought together three musicians with very different backgrounds, creating fertile ground on which they generated the album’s unclassifiable sounds. 

For the past thirty years, ALAN LICHT, a key figure in the pantheon of experimental guitar players, has been a performer, programmer, and chronicler of New York’s art and music scenes. As a guitarist and improviser, Licht has lent his talents to dozens of collaborations with the likes of Jim O’Rourke, Rashied Ali, Jandek, Keiji Haino,  and Michael Snow and has performed in such revered bands as Title TK, Text of Light, and Arthur Lee’s Love. He released Common Tones, a collection of never-before-published interviews with artists and musicians, with Blank Forms Editions in 2021.

CHARLES CURTIS is one of the premiere avant-garde cellists of the modern era. Trained at Juilliard, Curtis was also a pupil both of vocalist Pandit Pran Nath and composer La Monte Young, and he is one of the few musicians to have mastered Young’s rigorous practice of just intonation. Curtis has performed and premiered modern classical, minimalist, and chamber music compositions all around the world. Numerous major composers—La Monte Young, Alison Knowles, Alvin Lucier, Éliane Radigue, Christian Wolff, and Tashi Wada among them—have written works specifically for him. Curtis is Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of California, San Diego. Recent releases include Performances and Recordings 1998–2018 (2020) and Terry Jennings: Piece for Cello and Saxophone (2022), both on Wada’s label

New Zealander DEAN ROBERTS has created celebrated electroacoustic compositions that have brought together currents of avant-folk, rock, and minimalism into a single flowing stream for nearly three decades. A pupil of the Scratch Orchestra’s Philip Dadson at the University of Auckland, Roberts emerged from the city’s experimental music scene as one of two guitarists in the droning improvisational noise-rock band Thela, whose first two records were released by Thurston Moore’s label Ecstatic Peace!. In the years since, Roberts performed and recorded solo under the alias White Winged Moth; founded his own label, Formacentric Disk; joined Tower Recordings while living in New York; and taught sound studies, acoustic ecology and intermedia arts in Auckland and Berlin. His most recent release is Not Fire (Erstwhile Records, 2020).