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About the Author
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Director, Center for the Arts, Wesleyan University
On behalf of the faculty, staff and students affiliated with Wesleyan's Center for the Arts, we are delighted to offer this catalog in tribute to the widely acclaimed Alvin Lucier, known affectionately to many of us here at Wesleyan simply as Alvin.
A liberal arts education is the opportunity to expand one's world-view, and at Wesleyan the arts are seen as an essential component of this exploration. Alvin's work on our stages and in our classrooms has played a unique role in this exploration. When the music department invited Alvin to join the faculty in 1968, they dedicated themselves to a curriculum that would celebrate experimentation and innovation, a reputation they have admirably developed and strengthened ever since. Over the past forty years Alvin has taught several thousand undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom he has influenced in immeasurable ways. Throughout an era in which logic, information, competition and ambition hold sway, Alvin has embodied a different set of values. He has been a generous and giving professor, challenging his students intellectually while also giving them the space and the freedom to allow their imaginations to flourish.
Alvin's intellect, his disarming sense of humor and his infectious joie de vivre are widely cherished. Few of us who know him would ever casually pass Alvin in the CFA courtyard. Rather, we are eager to stop and hear about the latest trip, the most recent concert or the witty observation that will undoubtedly send us on our way feeling enriched and fortunate to have crossed paths with him once again.
A gifted practicing artist who has toured the world, Alvin has connected us with the new, the surprising and the compelling. We at Wesleyan University have known for a long time how very lucky we are to have such a historically significant and accomplished artist in our midst, one who has also been a devoted and engaged teacher on campus. Such distinguished figures are more often imported for a one-year residency. Wesleyan has had Alvin "in residence" and active on our campus for four decades, and for this we are so grateful.CHAPTER 2
November 4, 2011 from 12:15pm–2pm
Since the composition of Crossings (1982–1984), Alvin Lucier has devoted much attention to composing pieces for instrumentalists. In all of these works, the actions of the performer serve more to expose the sonic phenomenon that is the central focus of the piece than to enact an expressive gesture. The same sensibility underlies Lucier's prose works, even those that can invite quite theatrical realization. This panel explores the commitment to sounding over shaping, and how it and related issues can inform the performance of music.
Anthony Burr Volker Straebel Daniel Wolf
Moderator: Jane Alden
November 4, 2011 from 2:30pm–4pm
Alvin Lucier's electronic music has always avoided the conventions of electro-acoustic music in various ways, including the amplification of brain waves, the use of small pulse streams physically moved through a space, the repeated rerecording of a sound in a space or the use of a pure tone to resonate percussion instruments. Lucier chooses instead to use electronic and acoustical processes to reveal relations to sound that have not been previously enacted in music. This panel will discuss those processes and the threads they form throughout his oeuvre.
Nicolas Collins Andrew Dewar Hauke Harder
Moderator: Neely Bruce
November 5, 2011 from 10am–11:30am
In the early 1960s, Alvin Lucier departed from his training as a neoclassical composer and became an active participant in the lively community of artists, composers and choreographers that congregated around the Judson Church in New York City, the ONCE Festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan and the San Francisco Tape Music Center. The Performance panel will explore these origins, the pieces he made during that time, and their influences on his subsequent work.
Charles Curtis Ronald Kuivila Richard Lerman
Moderator: Mark Slobin
November 6, 2011 from 11am–12:30pm
This panel brings together close colleagues and younger composers to share their insights and questions relating to Alvin Lucier and his work.
Robert Ashley David Behrman Paula Matthusen Gordon Mumma Pauline Oliveros Christian Wolff
Moderator: Anthony Braxton
No Ideas But In Things Viola Rusche and Hauke Harder, 2012, 96 minutes November 4, 2011 at 4:30pm CFA Hall
This documentary on Alvin Lucier's work and teaching will be premiered in Berlin in the spring of 2012. This sneak preview screening will be introduced by the documentary's makers, Rusche and Harder.
Tribute to John Cage Nam June Paik,1972, 60 minutes November 5, 2011 at 12pm CFA Hall
This tribute to John Cage's 60th birthday features an extended performance by Alvin Lucier as an "expert" on the music of John Cage. John Hanhardt, senior curator at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and formerly at the Whitney Museum, will introduce the screening. Hanhardt was one of the first curators to introduce sound works to gallery exhibitions.CHAPTER 3
One of the peculiar charms of American universities is their warm embrace of the clueless applicant. In most countries, admission to higher education is predicated on one's having a pretty clear idea of a specific course of study. American colleges, by contrast, have a fondness for the applicant who avows passion for physics, poetry and pottery in equal measure. I was one of those typical confused 18-yearold souls when I arrived at Wesleyan in 1972. Alvin Lucier's Vespers saved me.
On an April day midway through my second semester, Lucier presented his composition Vespers as part of his Introduction to Electronic Music course. He handed four of us blindfolds and flashlight-shaped electronic instruments called "Sondols," and dimmed the lights. We shuffled awkwardly through the darkness, the Sondols emitting streams of sharp clicks. Aiming the instruments around the room and listening to the sounds reflect off the walls and furniture, we were told to navigate across the space by echolocation, in emulation of bats. We could switch the devices on and off and change the speed of the clicks, but the output of the Sondol was otherwise unvarying and, to be honest, musically unpromising. Listening carefully, however, I found that the echoes coalesced into a richly detailed, ever-changing, immersive cloud that hung in the air — a stippled sonic portrait of the architecture in which we stood. Most of the electronic music I knew came from a pair of loudspeakers — Vespers came from everywhere. This was more than just the weirdest, coolest music I had ever heard; it changed all my assumptions of what music — and composers — could be.
A native New Yorker, I was no stranger to the avant-garde. My mother still waxes nostalgic about taking me to Stockhausen and Ives concerts when I was a tot, although I displayed a consistent lack of musical talent from grade-school recorder classes through teenage flirtations with electric guitar. I was, however, a fanatical music consumer — mostly pop, blues, some jazz and "world music" — and at age 17, I bought a secondhand Tandberg reel-to-reel tape recorder to dub radio broadcasts and my friends' records. As it happens, this machine contained a hidden, undocumented switch that, when thrown, induced delicious, semi-controllable swoops of feedback. I was smitten by the siren call of electronic sound.
A Moog was way beyond reach, but a simple oscillator could be had for the cost of a soldering iron, an integrated circuit from a touch-tone telephone and a copy of a hobby magazine. I gradually picked up enough electronic technique from books and magazines to accomplish the engineer's equivalent of ordering a beer in a foreign bar. My understanding of Serious Music, however, was hobbled by the fact that I still felt more comfortable at the Fillmore than the Philharmonic. Bach, Bartók and Berio lived on the other side of an ocean, they spoke another language, and I knew I was missing their nuances and jokes. I simply didn't have the intuition for European classical music that I had for the rest of my audio world. So while I worked hard to learn as much music theory as possible, I worried that at 17 I was already too old to become truly fluent.
Thus, my first year at Wesleyan I studied archaeology, linguistics, history of science, studio art, geology and tabla. This academic smorgasbord was an accurate portrait of my mind at the time. My advisor, Jon Barlow, encouraged me to enroll in Lucier's class, promising "he makes music with bats and porpoises." I signed up.
It was my entrée to the work of John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, David Tudor, Terry Riley, LaMonte Young, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Pauline Oliveros, the Sonic Arts Union — serious non-pop voices from my side of the ocean. Even for a smart-ass kid from New York this was an ear-opening experience. But nothing quite prepared me for Vespers.
To perform Vespers is to experience sound as survival rather than as self-expression or mere entertainment. At the same time, in its engagement with fundamental acoustics, the piece evokes the kind of ineffable axiomatic musicality I associate with strict species counterpoint. Earlier in the semester, Lucier had introduced Glass's Music in Parallel Fifths as a "return to the year zero" in Western music: going back to the first rule of counterpoint, violating it, and seeing what kind of music would evolve along this new branch. In Vespers, Lucier reached back even further, to a pre-hominid time before the divarication of music from all other sound, and he invented something that re-connected music to physics, architecture, animal behavior and social interaction — subjects that had intrigued me since childhood, but that I had never directly associated with music. Vespers seemed to tell me that I could make music about anything, not just some finite set of concepts handed down by the European classical lineage, that composition was not an activity bound by five lines, but an amorphous glue that could hold together my disparate interests.
I went on to study with Lucier for six years. Other works of his (most notably I Am Sitting in a Room) had a profound influence on my own style, and I could not have acquired a more thorough grounding in post-Cagean avant-garde than I did in Lucier's introductory class; but Vespers was my watershed. From that moment on, the fact that bats excited me more than Boulez vanished as an impediment. I could be a composer.
This article first appeared in The Wire magazine issue 312 February 2010. Reproduced by permission.http://www.thewire.co.ukCHAPTER 4
Alvin in Albany
I first encountered Alvin Lucier in 1972, as a high school student. I attended a SUNY Albany screening of Nam June Paik's A Tribute to John Cage, celebrating Cage's 60th birthday. One feature in this post-Fluxus vaudeville is an interview between WGBH's Russell Connor and Professor Alvin Lucier of Wesleyan University. In the interview, the professor, introduced as an expert on the music of John Cage, expounds knowledgeably, if a bit pedantically, on Cage's work. However, he makes no effort — whatsoever — to control his considerable stutter. The resultant text/sound composition, which includes many minutes of a sibilants never quite moving on to their subsequent vowels, was a bit terrifying for this untutored 16-year-old. But the sentences, when they would finally arrive, were clear, concise and often witty. And there were knowing chuckles from other audience members. So, I was gradually led to realize that all was not as it seemed and that, while the professor was not pretending to stutter, he was electing to stutter. Legend has it that, at the first screening, Cage turned to Alvin and informed him that he had decided he was the only person who should ever be allowed to lecture on his music.
Of course, this wonderfully compressed lesson in experimental music as actions rather than acting, as a sounding rather than a shaping, went mostly over my head. But it was unsettling, provoking and fascinating, and it left a mark. Six months later, when I found the professor's photo in a college catalog, I decided to apply to Wesleyan. It must be one of the most unlikely stories in the annals of college recruiting. Later, as an "admit," I came down to Wesleyan and attended a session of Alvin's signature course, Introduction to Experimental Music. He lectured on Vespers, his piece titled after bats of the family Vespertilionidae. He described his fascination with the natural sonar of bats as they echolocate themselves around obstacles and towards food and explained that treating the sound of bats as an objet sonore for tape manipulation seemed irrelevant to his real interest in echolocation itself. He then introduced a Sondol, a kind of sonic flashlight that produces a focused stream of sonic pulses at a variable rate. He explained that the device was intended to enable the blind to use a more refined form of echolocation than is possible with a cane. He then described how Vespers is performed: four musicians are asked to use echolocation to navigate from the corners of the concert space to an agreed location. He immediately acknowledged his own anxiety that the performance instructions were "too simple." The originality of the piece and the openness of his disclaimer told a powerful story echoed in just about every other lecture in that introductory course. Those stories have encouraged any number of young composers, artists and choreographers to follow their own paths as artists by asking questions and taking chances.
Alvin's own path into live electronic music was spurred by John Cage's insistence that he contribute a performance of "his brain wave piece" (ultimately entitled Music for Solo Performer) for a concert featuring the premier of Cage's Rozart Mix. Based on that experience, Lucier has always insisted that his students perform their work, irrespective of their level of confidence. It is more important to make discoveries than to avoid mistakes. From such starting points, Alvin has always been a master of providing small, practical suggestions that gently remove the extraneous choices young composers often make. You can see this at work in the new documentary No Ideas But In Things, previewed during this festival.
Viola Farber remarked that the simple humanity of the performers' actions in Alvin Lucier's live electronic music led her to invite him to be the music director for her dance company. She may have been thinking of the hesitant walk of a performer in Vespers guided only by the subtle changes of an echo. Of course, Vespers also refers to evening prayers of the Catholic liturgy. The outward focus of the performers as they listen for their echoes combines with their slow progression through the space to reinforce a vaguely ecclesiastical feeling, as if evening prayer has become a kind of sonic animism. The sly wit he brings to managing these associations can be discovered in other pieces focused on sound as a spatial phenomenon. In Outlines of Persons and Things a microphone appears to be both a sensor detecting the diffraction patterns of a high-pitched pure tone and a censer diffusing those variations as sonic incense. In Bird And Person Dyning the performer searches for feedback in tune with the call of a birdsong Christmas ornament in order to create different tones that appear to fly around each listener. Wearing a binaural microphone tethered to the sound system and garbed in down vest and duck waders straight from the L.L. Bean catalog, Alvin manages to elide a nature walk and lunar exploration in a manner that is vaguely preposterous but utterly effective.
Alvin commented in one seminar, that he "overdid" the editing on the LP recording of Vespers and tried to make the piece "too musical" in a superficial way. This comment captures the creative problem that underlies his work: how to compose musical, but unmannered encounters, with sound. In his live electronic work, this almost invariably involves simple but strikingly original technological configurations or actions. Since the composition of Crossings, Alvin has refocused on writing music for instrumentalists and singers. This makes the unmannered encounter even more difficult to attain as the old allegiances of musical tradition are inescapably co-present. He has found and continues to find a remarkable variety of solutions. In all of them, I detect a trace of Vespers: the music we hear is activated rather than expressed by the performer. Their job is not to shape their sounds so much as to reveal shapes already in the sounds. This is an exacting task that, when done well, reveals to us the simple humanity of devoting one's attention to sound.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Alvin Lucier"
Copyright © 2011 Andrea Miller-Keller.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
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