Alvin Lucier

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Alvin Lucier (born May 14, 1931) is an American composer of experimental music and sound installations that explore acoustic phenomena and auditory perception. A long-time music professor at Wesleyan University, Lucier was a member of the influential Sonic Arts Union, which included Robert Ashley, David Behrman, and Gordon Mumma. Much of his work is influenced by science and explores the physical properties of sound itself: resonance of spaces, phase interference between closely tuned pitches, and the transmission of sound through physical media.

Early life[edit]

Lucier was born in Nashua, New Hampshire. He was educated in Nashua public and parochial schools and the Portsmouth Abbey School, Yale University and Brandeis University. In 1958 and 1959, Lucier studied with Lukas Foss and Aaron Copland at the Tanglewood Center. In 1960, Lucier left for Rome on a Fulbright Fellowship, where he befriended American expatriate composer Frederic Rzewski and witnessed performances by John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and David Tudor that provided compelling alternatives to his classical training. He returned from Rome in 1962 to take up a position at Brandeis as director of the University Chamber Chorus, which presented classical vocal works alongside modern compositions and new commissions.

At a 1963 Chamber Chorus concert at New York's Town Hall, Lucier met Gordon Mumma and Robert Ashley, experimental composers who were also directors of the ONCE Festival, an annual multi-media event in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A year later, Mumma and Ashley invited the Chamber Chorus to the ONCE Festival; and, in 1966, Lucier reciprocated by inviting Mumma, Ashley, and mutual friend David Behrman to Brandeis for a concert of works by the four composers. Based on the success of that concert, Lucier, Mumma, Ashley, and Behrman embarked on a tour of the United States and Europe under the name the Sonic Arts Group (at Ashley's suggestion, the name was later changed to the Sonic Arts Union). More a musical collective than a proper quartet, the Sonic Arts Union presented works by each of its members, sharing equipment and assisting when necessary. Performing and touring together for a decade, the Sonic Arts Union became inactive in 1976.

In 1970, Lucier left Brandeis for Wesleyan University. In 1972, Lucier became a musical director of the Viola Farber Dance Company, a position he held until 1979.

Works[edit]

Though Lucier had composed chamber and orchestral works since 1952, the composer and his critics count his 1965 composition Music for Solo Performer as the proper beginning of his compositional career. In that piece, EEG electrodes attached to the performer’s scalp detect bursts of alpha waves generated when the performer achieves a meditative, non-visual brain state. These alpha waves are amplified and the resulting electrical signal is used to vibrate percussion instruments distributed around the performance space. Other important early pieces include Vespers (1968), in which performers use hand-held echolocation devices to locate the approximate physical center of a room, to deepen their understanding of acoustical perception, and to reveal the elements of environmental space through non-visual means.

I Am Sitting in a Room[edit]

One of Lucier’s most important and best-known works is I Am Sitting in a Room (1969), in which Lucier records himself narrating a text, and then plays the recording back into the room, re-recording it. The new recording is then played back and re-recorded, and this process is repeated. Since all rooms have a characteristic resonance (e.g., between a large hall and a small room), the effect is that certain frequencies are gradually emphasized as they resonate in the room, until eventually the words become unintelligible, replaced by the pure resonant harmonies and tones of the room itself. The recited text describes this process in action. It begins, “I am sitting in a room, different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice…”, and concludes with “I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have,” referring to his own stuttering.

Other key pieces[edit]

Other key pieces include North American Time Capsule (1966), which employed a prototype vocoder to isolate and manipulate elements of speech; Music On A Long Thin Wire (1977), in which a piano wire is strung across a room and activated by an amplified oscillator and magnets on either end, producing changing overtones and sounds; Crossings (1982), in which tones play across a steadily rising sine wave producing interference beats; Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas (1973–74), in which the interference tones between sine waves create "troughs" and "valleys" of sound and silence; and Clocker (1978), which uses biofeedback and reverberation.

Students[edit]

For Lucier's composition students, see List of music students by teacher#Alvin Lucier.

Honorary Doctorate[edit]

Lucier was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Arts from Plymouth University in 2007.

Discography[edit]

Films[edit]

  • 1976 - Music With Roots in the Aether: Opera for Television. Tape 3: Alvin Lucier. Produced and directed by Robert Ashley. New York, New York: Lovely Music.

External links[edit]

Listening[edit]

Movies[edit]

Bibliography[edit]

  • Cox, Christoph. “The Alien Voice: Alvin Lucier’s North American Time Capsule.” In Mainframe Experimentalism: Early Computing and the Foundations of the Digital Arts. Edited by Hannah Higgins and Douglas Kahn. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.
  • Lucier, Alvin. “Reflections: Interviews, Scores, Writings 1965–1994.” Köln: Edition MusikTexte, 1995.
  • Lucier, Alvin. “Origins of a Form: Acoustic Exploration, Science and Incessancy.” Leonardo Music Journal 8 (December 1998) — “Ghosts and Monsters: Technology and Personality in Contemporary Music,” pp. 5–11.
  • Mailman, Joshua B. "Agency, Determinism, Focal Time Frames, and Processive Minimalist Music,” Music and Narrative since 1900. Edited by Michael L. Klein and Nicholas Reyland. Musical Meaning and Interpretation series. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012.
  • Moore, Thomas. “Alvin Lucier in Conversation with Thomas Moore.” 1983.

Further reading[edit]