In 1965, with the premiere of Music for Solo Performer, Alvin Lucier began the career that has distinguished him as a world-class artist. He’d been composing for more than a decade by then, but that piece set him on a path that has transformed the universe of contemporary classical music and sound art.
Lucier had developed the idea for Music for Solo Performer after becoming friendly with Edmond Dewan, a physicist who taught alongside him at Brandeis University. Dewan was conducting research on human brain waves for the air force, and the subject intrigued the young composer, who borrowed his colleague’s EEG equipment and began experimenting. In the completed piece, the performer (originally Lucier) tries to achieve a meditative state, in which the brain produces alpha waves. Those pulsations, picked up by EEG electrodes and heavily amplified, are fed into loudspeakers, whose low-frequency output (at seven to thirteen hertz, well below the threshold of human hearing) rattles an assortment of drums, cymbals, and other percussion instruments placed on or near them.
Music for Solo Performer liberated Lucier, who’d been struggling for ways to move beyond the traditional vocabulary of classical music. Since then he’s consistently composed pieces that explore acoustic phenomena with the curiosity of a child and the discipline of an artist. His famous 1969 work I Am Sitting in a Room is one of several that explore the sonic qualities of a specific space—the performer reads and simultaneously records a text, then plays back the recording while simultaneously recording the playback, and so on. The text begins by describing what happens: “I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed.”
Lucier’s work as a composer is driven by such lucid and elegant explorations of acoustics. Conventional melody, harmony, and rhythm have rarely concerned him, but few composers or sound artists (a term that might as well have been coined for him) have allowed listeners such direct engagement with how sound works. In 1966 Lucier founded a collective called the Sonic Arts Union with fellow composers Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma, and David Behrman, all of whom shared his interests; they toured as an ensemble, playing their own pieces at a time when no one else would. A couple years later he began teaching at Wesleyan University, where he remained a professor until 2011.
In the 80s an increasing number of musicians began commissioning pieces from Lucier, and he used the opportunity to explore many of his long-running concerns using conventional instruments instead of electronics. Last year New World Records released the terrific collection Orchestra Works, which demonstrates his ongoing engagement with both. Exploration of the House (2005), for example, asks an orchestra to play a series of passages from Beethoven’s The Consecration of the House overture, which are recorded and played back a la I Am Sitting in a Room.
This weekend the International Contemporary Ensemble will perform a broad selection of Lucier’s work at three concerts in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s resonant fourth-floor atrium—as far as I know, this five-decade overview of his output is the most comprehensive ever presented in Chicago. Lucier will be present for the concerts, and as part of Friday’s program he’ll perform I Am Sitting in a Room. On the eve of his visit I had a short chat with him.
Can you tell me a bit about how you were thinking about music before you headed to Europe in 1960 on the Fulbright?
I was a neoclassic composer. I had written a partita for flute, harpsichord, and string orchestra when I was a student at Yale in 1954. I was trying to write music inspired by Stravinsky, mostly. Even then I thought that was a dead end for me, somehow. I had trouble writing pieces after that one—which was quite a success. So I went to Europe, and things changed radically for me.
Did you feel isolated or out of place with that interest in neoclassical music, before you left the U.S.?
It wasn’t that I felt out of place. I just didn’t feel I was good enough at it.
You saw a concert by John Cage and David Tudor in Venice, and that made a strong impact on you, right?
I remember that concert distinctly. I’d heard of John Cage—he’d come to Yale and gave a concert at one of the residential colleges, but I didn’t go.
I was shocked by the performance. It was so beautifully done, so you knew something was good about it. You were hit by this chaos and randomness and loud noise and so forth, but somehow you knew that something was good—it was very important, but you can’t put your finger on it. I thought about it for a long time.
I had several years where I didn’t do anything. I was trying to figure out what to do. I went home to Brandeis, where I was a choral director, and I was very busy doing that—my first academic job. I was very serious about making the chorus as good as I could.
But that Cage concert stuck with you, kept you thinking about it?
Every once in a while I would work with Cage and Tudor in New York. I remember Charlotte Moorman played a series at Judson Hall on 57th Street, and Cage and Tudor were there performing—I remember helping them at that concert. There was a new scene going in New York at that time. I met David Behrman, Richard Maxfield—people like that. It was exciting, it wasn’t the academic university scene that I had come from. It was a different energy level.
So you spent several years without publishing any pieces in the early 60s. Wasn’t Music for Solo Performer the first performance after Italy?
I think so. I did some electronic sound work in Milan at the Studio di Fonologia when I was in Italy, but that didn’t amount to much. Music for Solo Performer was the breakthrough. The years are hard to distinguish, but I remember that Cage and Tudor gave a concert at MIT—it was probably before Music for Solo Performer, probably in the early 60s—and I remember going to that with a bunch of students from Brandeis. It was influential for me too. It was influential because my colleagues and teachers at Brandeis were sort of bitter. Nobody was playing their music enough.
I went to this concert in the middle of a big snowstorm, and Cage and Tudor were playing their own music, from scratch, and they didn’t have any sophisticated technical stuff. David would go to Lafayette Radio and get little battery-operated mixers. They did a piece with a bunch of LPs, and John had to scrounge around Cambridge to get records to use for the piece. I was very impressed with David Tudor’s table of electronics. The main thing is that those two composers weren’t waiting for established musical institutions to play their music. They had their own little electronic orchestra onstage, with tables and wires. That was very inspiring.
And didn’t you finally debut Music for Solo Performer because Cage insisted that you include a piece on a concert you organized for him?
I invited him to Brandeis, to the Rose Art Museum—a wonderful museum that’s still here. It had directors from New York who were up on the latest things, buying works by Jasper Johns and Bob Rauschenberg. But the music department at Brandeis thought Cage was a joke. So I went to the director of the Rose Art Museum, and we did the concert there and not in the music department. It was a wonderful success. He did a piece called Rozart Mix and I did my Solo Performer. I had been planning to do the piece, but I hadn’t gotten it together.
You had met Edmond Dewan—was it just happenstance?
Yes, and he lent his brain-wave amplifier. He said, “You should make a piece with brain waves.” I went into the Brandeis electronic-music studio and I started trying to generate alpha waves by myself. I wasn’t clear what form the piece would take.
A lot of my colleagues suggested I make a tape of the alpha waves and then manipulate the tape in the studio. I said that wasn’t a smart idea—you might as well make sounds in the studio and make a tape piece. I thought it would be much more exciting to try to generate alpha waves in real time in front of an audience. That was Cage’s idea too. They were proponents of live electronic music, not tape pieces. Back then in Europe you’d go into a concert hall, the lights would dim, and sounds would come out of the loudspeakers. That was OK, but John Cage and David Tudor, even when they used tape in performances, it was always live, the manipulation. I was influenced by that idea.
How long did it take to you to come up with the idea of using the sounds to trigger the percussion instruments?
All of a sudden, I guess. I was in the Brandeis studio producing the alpha waves, and I saw the cone of the loudspeaker moving in and out. You’re not supposed to see cones moving like that. I thought, these are like pistons, or performers. The speakers weren’t the end result to producing work, so I connected that with percussion instruments, and that’s how I got that idea working.
Is that where you developed your interest in sound waves and acoustic spaces?
Yeah, I think so. It’s hard to explain, but at that time I wanted to get rid of European musical language. The idea of acoustics, pure acoustical investigation, got me out of imitating any other models of music. I read a book about bats and developed a piece called Vespers, which was about acoustical orientation in space—that was an important piece for me. And I Am Sitting in a Room came around the same time.
When you mentioned the inspiration you drew from Cage and Tudor not waiting around but taking matters into their own hands, I thought of you doing the same thing with the Sonic Arts Union.
Absolutely. David [Behrman] had a piece called Runthrough, which needed four players. I did Bob’s [Robert Ashley’s] Wolfman quite a few times. Gordon [Mumma] had his own piece called Mesa for bandoneon, although when we went on tour he played harmonica. It was all practical considerations, just finding ways to make the pieces work.
We started in 1966 and played through the 70s. We played in Europe a lot. I never thought that these pieces would have a life other than when we played them. But there are young people who are redesigning these pieces. I know Bob’s first opera has been re-created by a bunch of young people in New York. Even though the works had specific technical needs, people are learning how to re-create them, so that’s been wonderful.
I read an interview with you where you said, “I believe you should just execute whatever ideas you get.”
Yeah, that’s the only way you should work. I remember Cage said once that he did pieces sometimes against his better judgment. I remember teaching composition students who would come in with this idea or that, and I would say, “Don’t give me any more ideas—just do something.” Ideas are easy to come by—you have to execute them.
There’s a strong scientific element to a lot of the early pieces—did you read a lot about scientific developments and keep up on them?
No, I was never very good at science in school. I just happened upon the book about bats and a few textbooks for high school students that dealt with sound and acoustics. I don’t do that much anymore. I’m making new pieces for instruments now, because people have asked me to make them. I’m a practical composer. There are wonderful ensembles now that can play anything, and they’ve been asking me to write work for them.
After so many years of writing pieces that didn’t use conventional instrumentation, was it a challenge to start composing those pieces?
It was a challenge, but I enjoyed it. When I was in college I learned about instrumental music. I don’t do anything special with the instruments. I don’t use extended techniques. I use the pure sound of the instruments, with alterations in tuning to make audible [acoustic] beating. I always need some phenomenon to go for in these pieces. It’s been wonderful. I have a publisher in Germany—a former student—and people buy the scores and play them. When I do sound installations, I don’t work with instruments.
How many of these early pieces were designed as experiments? Did you want them to be open-ended?
Even now I’m never sure if a piece is going to work. That’s my anxiety. I just did a piece in New York based on a text by Lydia Davis—she’s a writer whose work I like—and I made a piece with Joan La Barbara. It’s based on I Am Sitting in a Room, except Joan reads the text once, and then as it’s played back she reads it again over itself. She keeps doing that. During the rehearsal I got beautiful effects because of the room, but then at the concert with an audience there the acoustics changed, so the outcome was very different. It was still good, but very different than the piece played in the empty hall.
Considering how your pieces change every time they’re performed, I wonder if you have the same antipathy toward recording as Cage did.
No, I love recordings. He did too, before he died.
You stopped teaching a few years ago—do you miss it?
No. I taught 50 years. I loved teaching; I had a wonderful job. It’s just that I’m so busy I can barely keep up with things. I travel so much—I’m going to Iceland, Chicago, Holland, Ireland, Israel. It’s hard for me to keep going. I’m almost 83.
You’re performing I Am Sitting in a Room in Chicago—I’m curious, how many times in your life have you done that piece yourself?
Many. I like to do it. You don’t want to keep doing the same pieces over and over, but people seem to want that one. I’m afraid sometimes I’m going to fall asleep.