Obituary of Alvin Lucier: a visionary composer and passionate teacher
Few composers have understood the value of a good accident like Alvin Lucier did. Of course, any good artist, in any discipline, should be attentive to the revelations and possibilities that present themselves in the unguarded moments. But Lucier, the influential visionary of experimental music who died this week at the age of 90, created a work that seemed to exist in the sound space between shot and chance, between entropy and control. Over the course of a 60-year career, Lucier was a visionary who constantly pushed the boundaries of what music could be and how it could be created.
He was not a musical prodigy, but rather a conceptual artist who approached sound with a deep well of curiosity and eccentricity. Some composers deal with notes and scales; Lucier communicated directly with the physics and acoustic phenomena of sound itself, embracing unpredictability and instability. If the simplest definition of music is “organized sound,” then Lucier was determined to tip the scales from the organized side of the equation towards pure sonic processes – with an attentive ear to the properties of the space in which this sound could be heard.
One of the qualities of Lucier’s work was the guiding feeling that the instability of a performance environment could be seen as essential to the work itself. Consider his most famous composition, âI Am Sitting in a Room,â which is as iconic and oddly quotable as avant-garde sound art. He embodies Lucier’s genius for process-based music. Its conceptual basis is explained in the work itself: the composer recorded the sound of his own voice describing the piece, then re-recorded the sound of this recording being played in the room, then re-recorded the sound of this recording, and so on, until the frequencies in the room exceed any semblance of intelligible words. “What you will hear then are the room’s natural resonant frequencies articulated by speech,” explains Lucier. For those who are patient enough to sit with the coin for 45 minutes, it is mesmerizing to hear Lucier’s soothing voice dissolve into a distant alien roar, like a photograph of a photograph of a photograph.
The piece has become a classic work of American minimalism, its influence echoing half a century of experimental and ambient music. You can feel Lucier’s influence in so many different areas of boundary-pushing musical creation: by William Basinski Decay loops and their use of degradation and deterioration of bands to Flaming Lips’ Zaireka and her willingness to embrace the inherent instability of reading equipment in Laurie Anderson’s blurring of the line between music and the art of performance. Yo La Tengo is also known to be huge Lucier fans – the trio performed with Lucier in 2016, swapping their usual deafening guitar noise for an eccentric piece performed with whispered vocals channeled through balloons.
Like many of Lucier’s greatest pieces, âI Am Sitting in a Roomâ was conceived as a result of a happy accident. Lucier got the idea after someone told him about a sound engineer named Amar Bose, who had tested his own speakers using them to play back the sounds produced by the speakers themselves. This was a primarily practical endeavor that Lucier reinvented as an artistic concept, which feeds on the singular properties of the piece in which the piece is performed.
After studying composition at Brandeis and the Tanglewood Music Festival (where his mentors included Aaron Copland) and beginning his career as a neoclassical composer, Lucier began to drift into the American avant-garde after attending performances by John Cage and David Tudor in the early 1960s. Cage’s emphasis in his compositions on random and random operations, such as raffles, had made “non-intention” fashionable in avant-garde circles. Lucier gradually embraced Cage’s belief, famously expressed in “4’33”, that any sound could be musical, and he found new and inventive ways to advance Cage’s investigation of random processes.
His first pivotal piece, “Music for Solo Performer” (1965), arose from an encounter with physicist Edmond Dewan, who provided Lucier with the use of a brain wave amplifier. Lucier soon imagines a play in which a musician sits on stage, doing nothing, with electrodes attached to his head; the musician’s own alpha waves are amplified, vibrating 16 percussion instruments.
Another piece, “Vespers” (1968), was inspired by a chance encounter with a person whose company produced portable pulse oscillators, known as Sondols, which are commonly used by blind people. These gadgets also became improbable musical instruments: Lucier had blindfolded performers move around a space containing the oscillators, which emit frenzied clicking as they approach walls or furniture. The result was a sort of crackling percussive symphony that also served as a âsound photographâ of the space in which the piece was performed.
In 1970, after establishing himself with such major works as “Music for Solo Performer” and “I Am Sitting in a Room”, Lucier began teaching at Wesleyan University, where he has remained a staple in the department of music for over 40 years. His unique approach to teaching has broadened the minds of thousands of students, both trained musicians and inspired amateurs, who have studied under his direction.
I would know: I was one of them. In 2009, as an impressionable first year at Wesleyan, I was fortunate enough to take Lucier’s âIntroduction to Experimental Musicâ course. Every Tuesday and Thursday we would sit in a basement classroom, trying to soak up everything while Lucier presented us with major works by experimental composers like Robert Ashley, David Behrman or Gordon Mumma (three artists with whom Lucier formed the Sonic Arts Union in 1966), or regaled us with a live performance of â4’33â.
Lucier had a sweet and excitable way of speaking (in a soft voice you might recognize in “I am sitting in a room”), and he seemed endlessly curious about the sound and the myriad ways to handle and fuck it. . It never seemed arrogant when he included several of his own pieces in the program, or when his name appeared in the manual he had assigned. It made sense. Of course, his work should be on the agenda. Studying experimental music with Alvin Lucier was like studying existentialism with Jean-Paul Sartre, or studying feminist history with Mary Wollstonecraft. It was a strange privilege.
Every day was a revelation. Lucier was delighted to play classical works by great minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, introducing us to methods of musical creation by repetition or tape loops or manipulations of the human voice. (I remember being blown away by Reich’s âCome Out,â a looping experience with an urgent social message, and suddenly realized I recognized the loop because it had been sampled by Madvillain.)
One day Lucier asked us to bring a comb and two stones each to class so that we could perform âComb Musicâ by George Brecht and âStonesâ by Christian Wolff. Another day he hypnotized us with the vocal blasts of “Turtle Dreams” by Meredith Monk. Lucier also seemed to have an unusually vivid memory; he lit up when he told us long stories about conversations he had with John Cage in the 1960s.
Lucier didn’t make the kind of music you listen to while driving down the highway with the windows open, and to his detractors his work may seem clinical or distant; âI Am Sitting in a Roomâ is, of course, a scientific experiment as much as a song. But anyone who spent time in Lucier’s class could tell that this man took a strange joy in manipulating the sound. Some of his works even revealed a mischievous and mischievous side: “Nothing Is Real” from the 1990s, for example, consisted of distorted fragments of The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” emitted from a loudspeaker placed inside. a tea-pot.
This sly spirit of rebellion permeated the classroom. There was a subtle feeling that we were being taught the kind of music that would have horrified our high school orchestra teachers. Rightly so, many of Lucier’s alumni have embarked on an important musical career. A brief and non-exhaustive list of musicians who studied under Lucier would include Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser of MGMT, Amanda Palmer and rapper Heems, formerly of Das Racist, who tweeted wednesday that Lucier’s class âinformed my approach to rap music.
It would also include songwriter and guitarist Ben Seretan, who this week posted a nice souvenir of Lucier in his newsletter. “He’s taught me a lot – and countless others – to listen, to steer us in fascination and wonder,” Seretan wrote. “As the sound moves the air and the radio waves pass through me, I want to laugh easily, I want to hold everything up to the light.”
Lucier’s mission seemed to be to convince us that anyone could design and create works of experimental music. There was no final exam. Instead, the final project was to prepare and perform an original, strangest and most inventive composition possible. A student created a mini-symphony of âWalk! Signals he had recorded at the downtown crosswalk. Seretan turned his guitar to maximum amplification, then simply huffed on it. Another friend of mine created a “symphony for three or more computers,” a cacophony of arbitrary motherboard beeps between multiple computers.
As for me, I turned my electric guitar into a percussion instrument, lightly hitting the body with the loudest possible volume and amp gain. It made excruciating feedback noises (which scared my roommates when I rehearsed), but Lucier seemed to like it and I got an A-.
Lucier remained creative until the end. Last spring, when a location in Brooklyn hosted a 26-hour “I’m Sitting in a Room” marathon in honor of Lucier’s 90th birthday, he was interviewed in the New York Times. He then mentioned that he was executing “crazy ideas” that had long existed in his mind, such as “a duet with a bat that lives in the belfry of the Wesleyan Memorial Chapel”.
When news of the composer’s death spread on Wednesday, my Facebook and Twitter feeds filled with tributes to Lucier. While some of my former classmates published articles on specific pieces they loved from Lucier, I found it strangely moving when others recalled their own bizarre experimental compositions that they had created under instructions. by Lucier. It was part of Lucier’s life’s work: to convince ourselves that any of us could be an experimental composer and that anything could be music.
Zach Schonfeld is a New York-based freelance writer and journalist. It regularly contributes to Dough, fork, Vulture and other publications. Previously he was senior writer for News week. His first book was published in November 2020.