Brainwaves and other strange sounds from Alvin Lucier’s lab
The composer long ago came to view the institution of the orchestra as alien to an American sensibility. Now he is bringing his experimental sounds to Dundalk Gaol
Alvin Lucier: ‘The reason I went into music was because I loved performing classical music. I found a way to write music for instruments, with electronics or without, that somehow followed my aesthetic ideas’
American experimental composer Alvin Lucier, now 83, is a quiet-spoken man. The inflection of his speech is reminiscent of the actor Christopher Walken. He comes across as matter-of-fact and unassuming, as if the 1960s pieces that were to mark out his musical territory were so obvious that he couldn’t have missed them, rather than ground-breaking works that have given him cult status among musical experimenters.
Until he was in his mid-30s, he wrote neoclassical music. A Fulbright scholarship took him to Europe, where, as he puts it, “I went to all the festivals”. The new music he encountered there by the likes of Nono, Berio and Stockhausen struck him as the work of “native speakers speaking their own musical language”. But that language wasn’t his.
When in Europe he tried to make a tape piece in the electronic studio in Milan. “The sounds were okay, but the narrative of the piece was wrong. It was the old-fashioned thing: low, high, contrast. It didn’t satisfy me. I don’t think I wrote anything for 1½ or two years.”
When he got back home, he decided he would do something of his own. “If I continued doing neoclassical music, or atonal music, I’d be imitating someone, I wouldn’t be truly myself. So I waited.”
He wasn’t the kind of person to have creative blocks, but he waited rather than compose, and he put his energy into choral conducting instead.
The science of alpha waves
“I knew this scientist, who I met in 1965, and he interested me in his brainwave amplifier,” says Lucier. “I made a piece for brainwaves and percussion. The process of making that piece is that you cannot move around or do much activity, when you’re trying to produce alpha brainwaves. So I sat there passively. I thought that was a lovely way to make music, where you’re not forcing things. If you do, nothing happens.”
You only produce alpha brainwaves when you’re relaxed, and it’s the amplified alpha waves of the unmoving, wired-up performer that “play” the percussion instruments in Lucier’s Music for Solo Performer.
“I met the same scientist again in the corridor, and he said, ‘You know, I was at MIT the other night, and a professor there was perfecting his new loudspeakers. The way he was doing it was, he would play something back through the speakers to see if they had a flat frequency response [that is, handled all sounds, whether high, or low, or in the middle, with the same fidelity].’ That’s all he told me, nothing else.
“I was in a room one night, and recorded my voice speaking, on one tape machine. I played it back through a loudspeaker in the same room on another machine, and re-recorded that. I kept doing that, re-recording what I’d just recorded in the room. Pretty soon the resonances of the room started to take over and get louder and louder. The speech disappeared, and all I was left with was the resonant frequencies of the room.”