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Eight Lectures on Experimental Music

Eight Lectures on Experimental Music

by Alvin Lucier

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<P>In this brilliant collection, path-breaking figures of American experimental music discuss the meaning of their work at the turn of the twenty-first century. Presented between 1989 and 2002 at Wesleyan University, these captivating lectures provide rare insights by composers whose work has shaped our understanding of what it means to be experimental: Maryanne Amacher, Robert Ashley, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, James Tenney, Christian Wolff, and La Monte Young. Collected here for the first time, together these lectures tell the story of twentieth-century American experimental music, covering such topics as repetition, phase, drone, duration, collaboration, and technological innovation. Containing introductory comments by Lucier and the original question and answer sessions between the students and the composers, this book makes the theory and practice of experimental music available and accessible to a new generation of students, artists, and scholars.</P>

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819577641
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 11/14/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 160
File size: 2 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

<P>ALVIN LUCIER is an American composer of experimental music. He is the author of Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music and co-author, with Douglas Simon, of Chambers: Scores and Interviews. Lucier was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music and received an Honorary Doctorate of Arts from the University of Plymouth, England. He taught at Brandeis University and Wesleyan University, from which he retired in 2011.</P>

Read an Excerpt



April 12, 1989


I first came across James Tenney in New York in the 1960s. He, along with Malcolm Goldstein and Philip Corner, had organized the Tone Roads Ensemble (Tone Roads is the title of a set of pieces by Charles Ives) that gave concerts of new music. It was wonderful to go to New York and hear the music of John Cage, Edgard Varèse, Henry Cowell, and Morton Feldman. It was the first time we heard this music. Jim played the piano and conducted the ensemble.

Tenney had already made several electronic pieces when he was still in college. One was called Blue Suede, a tape collage of the Elvis Presley song. In the early '60s, Jim worked as a resident artist at Bell Labs, in New Jersey, using their computers and making electronic pieces on tape.

In 1967, he gave an influential FORTRAN workshop for a group of composers and Fluxus artists that included Steve Reich, Nam June Paik, Dick Higgins, Jackson Mac Low, Phil Corner, Alison Knowles, and Max Neuhaus. Among his important writings are the seminal Meta (+) Hodos, one of earliest applications of gestalt theory and cognitive science to music, as well as John Cage and the Theory of Harmony. Nearly a quarter of a 657-page volume of the academic journal Perspectives of New Music was devoted to Tenney's music. He also wrote the in-depth liner notes to the Wergo edition of Conlon Nancarrow's Studies for Player Piano. (Nancarrow, as a favor, punched the roll for Tenney's Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow.) Jim has taught at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and York University in Toronto. He currently teaches at CalArts.

Following the talk, there will be a performance of James Tenney's The Road to Ubud for Javanese gamelan and prepared piano. Both Jim and I deeply appreciate the cooperation of my colleagues Mel Strauss, who is going to conduct; John Barlow, who spent hours preparing the piano and discussing the tunings; Sumarsam, director of the Wesleyan gamelan, who helped us examine the tuning of the gamelan; and also all of the students who have so generously given their time. I am delighted to introduce James Tenney, the first John Spencer Camp lecturer in music.


When I was asked a month or so ago what I would talk about, I couldn't come to any clear decision. I thought I might just talk about recent works. But I think that what I would like to do is talk about harmony, using a few examples from pieces of mine as a kind of elaborate preparation for hearing my piece for gamelan and prepared piano.

When I say harmony, I don't mean what you may think I mean. I don't mean triadic, diatonic, common-practice harmony, although I would like to think that that could be a subset of what harmony might eventually come to mean for us. That would be one particular manifestation of it. I have felt for some time, in fact, I guess for almost twenty years, that a concern for harmony has been important in the music that I was writing in a variety of different ways, and I've also tried to deal with these questions theoretically. Now, it remains to be seen, and we won't know for some time whether I've accomplished anything in this respect, but I have some ideas that I would like to talk with you about before you hear this piece.

One is a view of what's happened in music in the twentieth century, a sort of historical viewpoint. It seems to me that harmony as a functional part of music was evolving, changing quite noticeably in Western music in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. From one period to another, we can hear changes in this respect, and I think the notion of an evolution is not unrealistic. But by the end of the nineteenth century, and certainly by about 1910, the first decade of the twentieth century, something strange seems to have happened. It's as though the more progressive composers got to a point where they felt that the evolution of harmony had reached an impasse, a dead end where, for some reason, it couldn't evolve any further. Now, being irrepressible, creative musicians weren't about to stop making music, so what happened is they went off into a number of different directions investigating other aspects of music: rhythm, tone quality, texture, form, even the social function and aesthetics of music. All of these different aspects began to be investigated in a way that has resulted in an incredible body of beautiful exciting music. The legacy of this century is as rich as any previous century in Western history. But, harmony as such, it has seemed to me for a long time, never got beyond the point it had reached in about 1910.

A few years ago, I decided to go back and see if there were some way that we could take that sense of an evolutionary impasse in harmony as a challenge and move with it without simply regressing to some earlier stage. I don't mean anything "neo" by this, but I am concerned with "can we move on, forward" with this? And I hope I have also made it clear that this is in no way a criticism of music that I would maintain was not doing anything with harmony. All right?

One thing that occurred to me was that maybe our very understanding of the word harmony was problematic. It's very interesting to think about what the word had come to mean and compare it to its earlier historical meaning. Facts arise from that. In early Greece, the meaning of the word that is the root of our word harmony meant something as simple and general as "a fitting together of things," like two stones shaped to fit snugly or two pieces of wood pressed together to form a unit. The Pythagoreans adopted the term and extended it to mean things very broadly philosophical and religious, but still it meant the way things relate to one another in the cosmos. And in their application of that concept to music, it is my understanding that what they had in mind was the way in which different pitches related to each other. It had nothing to do with necessarily sounding those pitches together. In fact, there is some question that they ever considered the sounds together. In any case, that was not primarily what they were talking about. They meant the relationships between different pitches.

The Pythagoreans discovered some wonderful things: for example, that certain strings produced tones that were in simple harmonic relationships to each other. Eventually, the meaning of the word got narrowed, restricted more and more. If you look at current dictionary definitions it will be something about the vertical structure of music. It's even more restricted than that: chords. Even more restricted than that: triads, with maybe a few added notes here and there. It got narrowed down, and to me theepitome of that process of narrowing is something that may not be completely universal terminology in the jazz world, but I have heard it. Certain instruments are melody instruments, others are rhythm instruments or harmony instruments, meaning the obvious thing: a harmony instrument is one that can play more than two pitches at a single time.

This is so restrictive, especially if this is carried even further, simply to mean triads. If we had to accept that idea, it would surely be the case that there was nowhere to go. I wouldn't even be interested in harmony in that sense. But I don't think it is necessary to leave it that restricted. I wouldn't advocate going back to Pythagorean generalities either. They're a little too broad. I think it can usefully be defined as having to do with certain types of relations between pitches.

One of the areas that I first began to investigate in my pieces was the acoustical phenomenon that had to do with the harmonic series. You probably all know something about the presence of the harmonic series in sustained tones. I did a number of pieces in which the composition itself was based more or less directly upon the harmonic series. Now I want to play a couple of tapes of short pieces that explore these phenomena. The first one is called Septet. It's written for six electric guitars and electric bass. You will hear a gradual unfolding, or sort of extension up the harmonic series to a certain point, and then a narrowing down of the range toward the top of that series, at which point it begins to open up again in a different series. It's all very straightforward, but it's kind of fun when you hear it on electric guitars.

Now, with the earlier works in the 1970s, I allowed for some pretty casual tunings. But by this time, I made every effort to get precise tunings from the instruments. The fretted strings of guitars had to be adjusted to get the necessary precision. Because the harmonic series, those natural intervals, are noticeably different from tempered intervals, the open strings of the guitars were tuned in such a way that, when they played the frets needed to get those pitches, the pitches were pretty accurate. The same is the case here with the prepared piano.

There's another work that again uses the harmonic series as a basic feature. No special tuning is involved because I was able to make use of a natural musical phenomenon. It's a piece for viola, cello, string bass, and a tape delay system. The three instruments produce what are called harmonic glissandi on the strings: simply moving the left hand, the finger touching lightly, up and down the length of the string. In the course of the piece, it's actually a canon in three voices, you'll hear the three voices, and if you know it's a canon, maybe you will hear those relationships. The bass is tuned in fifths an octave below the cello. So it's a canon at the octave using harmonic glissandi, beginning on the C strings; then moving gradually up with canonic delays to the G, D, and A strings; and then finally cascading back down. So you have that kind of very consonant sounding situation toward the beginning where everything comes from the harmonic series on C. But pretty soon that gets to be a little more complicated. This is the first movement of a longer work. The whole piece is called Glissade, and this movement is called "Shimmer."

One can't go on indefinitely writing pieces based on the harmonic series, but I learned a number of useful things from this work. Some of them are quite obvious. One is that the lower-order harmonics tend to be easily understood by our ears as consonant. The higher we go in the series, particularly with the prime number harmonic partials, the more complex the relationships become — and in some ways the more dissonant the relationships may be perceived to be. I also learned that when various pitches of a given harmonic series, that is, a series over a given fundamental, are heard together, the ear has a remarkable ability to fuse them into a singular, unified percept. This must be the case because virtually every sustained tone we ever hear, including vowels of the singing voice, are actually complex combinations of the individual pitches. It is because they are in this particular relationship that our ears hear them as a singular thing. And it has seemed to me, for some time, that this is an important insight because any theory of harmony, if it's to be developed, tells us something about how we perceive. It would be a theory of harmonic perception, not of harmonic practice.

Now, this also threw some new light on the historical viewpoint that I was talking about in relation to the evolution of harmony in the nineteenth century and the impasse that was reached in 1910 but by way of another insight, or perhaps a hypothesis. I'll put it to you as that. I think our ears interpret intervals of any kind as though they were the nearest simple interval in this kind of harmonic series relationship. That is, we even hear even intervals that are out of tune as more or less distorted versions of simple intervals. By simple, I should say also "natural," as they occur in the harmonic series. By the way, if we have any part of nature that we can pick to use in our music, that's it. Everything else is culture, style, and psychology. The harmonic series is physics.

Anyway, my hypothesis is that whatever intervals we hear, we interpret them, more or less, as distorted versions of a certain set of relatively simple intervals. This is the way tempered tuning systems are acceptable to us. It becomes important to understand what the twelve-tone temperament, which we have been living with for so long, is. It was a fairly good approximation of a set of important natural intervals. The deviations, the distortions, were considered to be acceptable and worth the price that one had to pay to achieve certain things like endless modulation and so forth, the ability to repeat the same melodic idea in another key region and not move into impossible regions. The impasse that was reached in 1910 was determined precisely by the fact that the twelve-tone temperament was designed to approximate a certain limited set of harmonic relations. Music had been based on those relations for a couple hundred years, and the evolution of harmony couldn't go any further with that tuning system. This implies that if we want to keep going, we have to start looking at other tuning systems.

One of the things that was done around that time was the subdivision of the twelve tones into quarter tones or sixth tones. This didn't get very far, however, because quarter tones don't really get any closer to those important harmonic relations than semitones do. They didn't help much. I think what needs to be done is experimenting with a variety of different tuning systems, and if what we're interested in is harmony, we have to design them to have harmonic effects.

A recent work of mine makes use of another temperament containing equal divisions of the octave into not twelve but seventy-two parts, so that the smallest interval is one-sixth of a semitone. For those of you who know acoustical terminology, about seventeen cents is the smallest interval one can hear. It is for acoustic instruments. The way I did this, if you can believe it, was to get six harps together. (It's a beautiful sight on one stage.) Within each harp, the tuning is the normal tempered tuning, but the harps are tuned a sixth of a semitone apart. The piece was written as though for one enormous superharp. It's extremely difficult because everyone is playing just one-sixth of the whole part. But it worked out. The reason I chose that one is that that subdivision gives extremely good approximations to all of the natural intervals that I was interested in. It does an awfully good job of approximating them. The work is called Changes. It is a series of short studies for six harps, based on a number of lines that make up a hexagram in the I Ching. I used a computer in the composition process. The textures are stochastically generated and controlled. Each of the pieces is named after one of the hexagrams of the I Ching. I am going to play just three of them for you. Each of them is about two minutes long. The first is called "Holding Together," the second, "Duration," and the third, "Difficulty at the Beginning."

One of the implications of our use of any tempered system or any approximation of those simpler, what I'm calling "natural," intervals we find in the harmonic series is that the ear must have a certain tolerance range for those approximations. If we interpret a given interval as something slightly different, then there must be a range in which this interpretation is possible. And that notion of tolerance is an extremely important one that has to be brought into any debate about the use of just intervals, just tuning systems, and so forth. Too often the people who have arguments about that seem, on the one side, to imply that any mistuning at all is unacceptable. But, in fact, we live in a world where we never get anything perfect. As far as I am concerned, these tiles in the floor are perfectly square. But, if we get down there with calipers and measure them very precisely, we discover that they are all slightly different. So, the twelve-tone tempered system is a useful one for certain kinds of music and for certain kinds of harmony.

Now, I am going to claim that the five-tone Pelog scale in Javanese music is also useful for a certain kind of harmony. I don't think there is much precedent for that in the literature. I'm assuming — well, I'd better be careful now, I'm surrounded by musicologists. Don't take whatever I say as a musicological hypothesis, but as a composer's working assumption. I am going to tell you about the piece that you are going to hear tonight. My assumption here was that the Pelog tuning, which for those of you that are not familiar with it, let me let you hear it on one of these instruments. [Plays.] We hear, first of all, three pitches separated by small intervals, then a larger interval, another small interval, then a large one.


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Table of Contents

<P>Introduction<BR>James Tenney<BR>Christian Wolff<BR>Robert Ashley<BR>Maryanne Amacher<BR>La Monte Young<BR>Steve Reich<BR>Meredith Monk<BR>Philip Glass</P>

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"The composer Alvin Lucier makes inventive and absorbing music from anything he touches, whether a traditional instrument or an everyday sound whose qualities are rendered brand new. This important book brings Lucier together in discussion with several remarkable colleagues, permitting the reader a fresh understanding of the varied and chimerical musical languages that surround us."—Tim Page, professor of music and journalism, University of Southern California

"The composer Alvin Lucier makes inventive and absorbing music from anything he touches, whether a traditional instrument or an everyday sound whose qualities are rendered brand new. This important book brings Lucier together in discussion with several remarkable colleagues, permitting the reader a fresh understanding of the varied and chimerical musical languages that surround us."—Tim Page, professor of music and journalism, University of Southern California

"From the revelatory juxtapositions of Robert Ashley, to the roaring stream of consciousness that was Maryanne Amacher, to the crisp vignettes that Steve Reich seems to think in, these incisive lectures sound like the source streams of the musical world we're now busy living in."—Kyle Gann, author of Charles Ives's Concord: Essays After a Sonata

Tim Page

“The composer Alvin Lucier makes inventive and absorbing music from anything he touches, whether a traditional instrument or an everyday sound whose qualitiesare renderedbrand new.This important book brings Lucier together in discussionwith several remarkablecolleagues, permittingthe reader afreshunderstanding of the varied andchimerical musical languages that surround us.”

Kyle Gann

“From the revelatory juxtapositions of Robert Ashley, to the roaring stream of consciousness that was Maryanne Amacher, to the crisp vignettes that Steve Reich seems to think in, these incisive lectures sound like the source streams of the musical world we’re now busy living in.”

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