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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.
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.
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 (composition)|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
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
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.
Lucier was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Arts from Plymouth University in 2007.
- Orchestra Works, New World Records CD 80755-2, 2013
- Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas, 1-12, Lovely Music, Ltd. CD 1015, 2004
- Navigations for Strings/Small Waves, Mode Records, CD 124, 2003
- Still Lives, Lovely Music, Ltd. CD 5012, 2001
- Theme, Lovely Music, Ltd. CD 5011, 1999
- Panorama, Lovely Music, Ltd. CD 1012, 1997
- Fragments for Strings, Arditti String Quartet, Disques Montaigne, 1996
- Clocker, Lovely Music, Ltd. CD 1019, 1994
- Music On A Long Thin Wire, Lovely Music, Ltd. LP/CD 1011, 1980/92
- Crossings, Lovely Music, Ltd. CD 1018, 1990
- I am Sitting in a Room, Lovely Music, Ltd. LP/CD 1013, 1981/90
- Sferics, Lovely Music, Ltd. LP 1017, 1988
- Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas, 5-8, Lovely Music, Ltd. LP 1016, 1985
- Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas, 1-4, Lovely Music, Ltd. LP 1015, 1983
- Music for Solo Performer, Lovely Music, Ltd. LP 1014, 1982
- Bird and Person Dyning/The Duke of York, Cramps, 1975
- Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas, Nick Hennies, Quiet Design CD Alas011, 2010
- "Music for Alpha Waves, Assorted Percussion, and Automated Coded Relays", on Imaginary Landscapes, Elektra/Nonesuch 79235-2, 1989
- "Vespers", on Electronic Sound, Mainstream MS-5010, 1971
- "Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra", Nick Hennies, on Psalms Roeba, CD #8, 2010
- "North American Time Capsule", on Music of Our Time series, CBS Odyssey Records, 1967
- "I am sitting in a room", on SOURCE Record #3, 1970
- "Music On A Long Thin Wire" [excerpt] on OHM: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music, 2000. 3CD.
- "Self Portrait", on Upper Air Observation, Barbara Held, flute, Lovely Music, Ltd. CD 3031, 1992
- "Nothing is Real" on Hyper Beatles 2, Eastworld, 1991
- 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.
- Mailman 2013, pp. 137–140.
- 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, 2013.
- Moore, Thomas. “Alvin Lucier in Conversation with Thomas Moore.” 1983.
- eContact! 14.2 — Biotechnological Performance Practice / Pratiques de performance biotechnologique (July 2012). Montréal: Canadian Electroacoustic Community.
- Alvin Lucier's website (Wesleyan University)
- Alvin Lucier scores published by Material Press
- Lovely Music Artist: Alvin Lucier
- CDeMUSIC: Alvin Lucier
- Volume: Bed of Sound: Alvin Lucier
- Alvin Lucier in conversation with Thomas Moore
- NewMusicBox: "Sitting in a Room with Alvin Lucier" (April 1, 2005). Alvin Lucier in conversation with Frank J. Oteri on February 9, 2005.
- I am sitting in a room (1969) by Alvin Lucier real-time realization by Christopher Burns (2000)
- Alvin Lucier discography at MusicBrainz
- UBUWeb - includes original 1969 recording of "I Am Sitting In A Room"
- Music for Piano with One or More Snare Drums (1990) by Alvin Lucier, performed by Hildegard Kleeb
- Island (1998) performed by The Other Minds Ensemble at the Other Minds Music Festival in 1999 at Cowell Theater in San Francisco.
- Nothing Is Real (Strawberry Fields Forever) (1990) performed by Margaret Leng Tan at the Other Minds Music Festival in 1999 at the Cowell Theater in San Francisco.
- Sferics excerpt at Architectural Association radio program curated by Charles Stankievech.
- I Am Sitting in a Room Recreation, from Internet Archive
- Queen of the South Video performance at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute - Eyestone/McCabe/DeKam
- I am sitting in a room A performance using the acoustics of the Inchindown oil tanks that hold the world record for the 'longest echo'