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Alvin Lucier - An Obituary

Alvin Lucier – Composer

Born May 14, 1931; died December 1, 2021


Alvin Lucier, who has died aged 90, was a pioneering composer, whose boundless curiosity set down a template for generations of sound artists and sonic architects who followed in his wake. His explorations of the physical properties of sound were quietly radical and endlessly inquisitive in his extrapolation of sound from non-traditional sources. These included brain sensors, pencils and teapots.


Key works include I Am Sitting in a Room (1969), in which Lucier recorded himself talking as he explained what he was about to do. Lucier then played back the speech and re-recorded it, repeating the process until his words blur into the void, and only resonant frequencies remain. The influence of a room’s architecture and acoustic properties were key to Lucier’s work, and it was the unpredictability of the end result that intrigued him. In this sense, Lucier’s experimental approach was rooted in science as much as sound.


This was set down four years earlier with his defining early work, Music for Solo Performer (1965). This emerged from Lucier meeting physicist Edmond Dewan, who provided him with a brain-wave amplifier. From this starting point, Lucier’s piece sets up a lone musician sitting onstage doing nothing, but with electrodes attached to their head. The musician’s own alpha waves are then amplified, causing sixteen percussion instruments to vibrate.


Vespers (1968) was inspired by Lucier meeting someone from a company who produced hand-held pulse oscillators used by blind people, and which made urgent clicking noises if they came close to bumping into walls or furniture. Lucier put them in the hands of blindfolded performers as they moved randomly around a room. 


Later works included Nothing is Real (1990), in which a pianist is recorded playing the melody of the Beatles’ song, Strawberry Fields Forever, across a piano’s entire range. The recording is then played back through a small speaker inside a teapot, which acts as a resonant chamber that alters the sound, before the pianist opens and closes the teapot’s lid to further shift the tone of the recording.


Nothing is Real was performed by Lucier as part of a programme of his work at the first Tectonics festival of adventurous contemporary music, initiated in Glasgow by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in 2013. Other works presented by Lucier included Bird and Person Dying (1975), which used amplified feedback to echo and chime alongside a recording of birdsong, as well as the world premiere of a new work with guitars, Criss-Cross. It was a rare chance to see the results of Lucier’s experiments first hand with their creator present.


Alvin Augustus Lucier Jr was born in Ashua, New Hampshire, United States, to Augustus Sr and Kathryn E. Lemery. His father was a lawyer who became mayor of Nashua, and was a keen amateur violinist. His parents met when his father stood in with a dance band in which she was the pianist. They encouraged their son’s interest in music, though he preferred to play the drums rather than take piano lessons. His love of jazz developed into an interest in contemporary classical music after hearing what he thought of as initially shocking works of Arnold Schonberg and others.


Lucier studied composition and music theory at Yale University, graduating in 1954, and did his masters at Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts in 1960. At that time, he composed in a neo-Classical style, before having another epiphany while on a Fulbright scholarship in Italy. This came after seeing a Venice concert by composers John Cage and David Tudor and dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham.


The trio’s used of chance and non-formal techniques initially outraged Lucier, before he gradually recognised their rejection of traditional musical formats as significant, and embraced its unpredictability into his own practice. While on the faculty of Brandeis, Lucier oversaw premieres by Cage and a new school of composers that included Christian Wolf and Terry Riley. Music for Solo Performer followed in 1965. 


A year later, he co-founded the Sonic Arts Union with fellow taboo-busting composers Robert Ashley, David Behrman and Gordan Mumma. The quartet performed alongside each other across America and Europe until 1976.  He joined the faculty at Wesleyan University, Connecticut in 1968, and became the John Spencer Camp Professor of Music. He remained in post until his retirement in 2011


From 1972 to 1979 he was music director for the Violet Farber Dance Company, and in the 19780s was commissioned by the likes of contemporary music ensemble, Bang on a Can All-Stars. Lucier went on to explain his methodology in No Ideas but in Things (2013), a film portrait of him by Viola Rusche and Hauke Harder.


“My main activity composing is to eliminate many different possibilities in a piece,” Lucier said in the film. “When I start, I have so many ideas about how to put the piece together, and I have to work and think hard until I get to the point where only the essential components are there.”


Though retired, Lucier remained as curious as ever. In an interview with the New York Times to mark his 90thbirthday, Lucier talked of exploring what he called “crazy ideas” he had long wished to bring to fruition. These included “a duet with a bat who lives in the belfry of the Wesleyan Memorial Chapel.”


He is survived by his second wife, Wendy Stokes, and their daughter, Amanda.

The Herald, January 3rd 2022




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