William Dougherty: When Sound Becomes Like a Spaceship -Sun Ra Arkestra, 2021.

July 9, 2021 at 6pm at the Spanish Academy, Rome.

In THE eight session session of the Summer Intensive of In Qualche Luogo Lontano: Roma (In Some Far Place: Roma)’s summer intensive Alvin Curran and William (Bill) Dougherty will be presenting Relistening Revolution: Musica Elettronica Viva, the Sun Ra Arkestra, and Experimental Improvisation in 1970s Rome and Today. 

In qualche luogo lontano: Roma is the title of the program that takes place in Rome within Space is The Place/The Place is Space. This research project, initiated by Bulegoa z/b in 2018, aims to analyse the role of art as a critical practice that offers tools to stop, look and position oneself in the world, to generate situations and imagine ways of living and producing space. Structured through periodic meetings, it takes various forms, such as presentations, reading sessions, walks, actions on the territory and various artistic productions.


The 1970s were a decade of socio-political upheaval in Italy. Revolutions, both real and imaginary, took place across political, economic, and cultural institutions large and small. Within this cultural climate, experimental improvisation—an exciting and subversive alternative to more traditional notation-based concert traditions—became a throughline that bound communities of radical artists, thinkers, musicians, and activists together.

American composer Alvin Curran, attracted by this culture of possibility, moved to Rome in 1965. He co-founded, alongside Richard Teitelbaum and Frederic Rzewski, the music collective Musica Elettronica Viva which would, from 1966-1971, stage experimental improvisations with found, hacked, and homemade electronic instruments in public spaces throughout Rome.

Around this time, scholar, poet, bandleader, teacher, composer, arranger, multi-keyboardist, Master Tone Scientist, guru, Mentalist, self-proclaimed Ambassador of the Intergalactic Regions of Outer Space and prophet of present / future past, Sun Ra and his Arkestra was gaining international recognition with tours throughout Europe and West Africa. During a brief tour in 1977, Sun Ra performed a rare solo piano concert in Rome. This performance, which was re-released in 2016 on Art Yard Records, features Sun Ra performing long stretches of experimental textures on electronic keyboards and the Mini-Moog synthesizer alongside renditions of Blues standards like St. Louis Blues on the piano.

Today the Sun Ra Arkestra remains active under the leadership of saxophonist Marshall Allen. American composer and current Fellow at the American Academy in Rome, William Dougherty, recently collaborated with the band on a new composition titled When Sound Becomes Like a Spaceship. In a similar spirit to those tracing the socio-political possibilities of experimental improvisation in 1970s Rome, Dougherty’s composition acts as a framework for the members of Sun Ra Arkestra to explore the ways that they listen to themselves, to their instruments, and to each other. In doing so, the composition becomes not a fixed musical object, but a space for people to re-imagine alternative ways of world-making through sound.

William (Bill) Dougherty is a composer, music writer, educator, and current Rome Prize Fellow in composition at the American Academy in Rome. His music has been featured in festivals such as IRCAM’s ManiFeste (2019), musikprotokoll (2018), the Donaueschingen Musiktage (2017), New Music Miami (2017), Tectonics Festival New York (2015), the 47th Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt (2014), and broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Bill has also contributed feature music programs to WKCR-FM New York and has published articles, reviews, and interviews in Tempo, Music & Literature, and VAN Magazine. He is currently guest co-editing a forthcoming special issue of Contemporary Music Review on the music of Éliane Radigue—the first major English-language journal to focus exclusively on her work. Outside of the university, Bill gives private lessons and volunteers as a music instructor and mentor for high school students from underserved communities in New York City.

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Alvin Curran is dedicated to the restoration of dignity to the profession of making non-commercial music as part of a personal search for future social, political and spiritual forms. Curran’s music-making embraces contradictions (composed/improvised, tonal/atonal, maximal/minimal…) in a serene dialectical encounter. His works feature sampled natural sounds, piano, synthesizers, computers, violin, percussion, shofar, ship horns, accordion and chorus. Curran began his musical journey as co-founder of the radical music collective MUSICA ELETTRONICA VIVA, as a solo performer, and as a composer for Rome’s avantgarde theater scene. In the MUSICA ELETTRONICA VIVA years (1966 -1971), he performed in over 200 concerts in Europe and the USA with Richard Teitelbaum and Frederic Rzewski, Carol Plantamura, Ivan Vandor, Alan Bryant and Jon Phetteplace. As an educator, Curran has taught vocal improvisation at the Accademia Nazionale d’Arte Drammatica in Rome (1975-80) and from 1991 to 2006 was the Milhaud Professor of Composition at Mills College in Oakland, California.

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In qualche luogo lontano: Roma is a project carried out in the framework of the MAEC-AECID Scholarships for Art, Education and Culture for the academic year 2020-2021 within the scholarship program for the Royal Academy of Spain in Rome.