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.”
With the resulting piece, I Am Sitting in a Room, the pattern of his life’s work was set. He would be a composer who would follow one idea at a time, very purely, seeking out its essence. But, as he sees it, that was just the way things turned out.
“You just work, you know? Things were happening in the 1960s. It was wonderful in New York: John Cage, David Tudor, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Things were chaotic. You loved this work, but you didn’t know quite what it was all about. Which is fine. I think that is the way it always is when you’re making something.”
He came to view the institution of the orchestra – the division of musical works into movements – as alien, too European for an American sensibility. “And then in the early 1980s, performers said, ‘You’re doing all this electronic music and sound installations. Why don’t you write us a piece to play?’ I thought, well, that’s a good idea. Because 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.
“That’s my exploration of the natural characteristics of sound waves. I’ve made a whole bunch of pieces involving audible beating – two tones sit together and their wave forms bump and you can hear them as rhythms. It’s a very simple idea. It seems to me when I have that acoustical task, I’m interested. If I don’t, I don’t know what to do with it.”
Lucier will perform I Am Sitting in a Room in Dundalk Gaol on Friday. It will be the first time he has performed the work in a prison, and the programme will also include For Charles Curtis (for cello and pure-wave oscillators), 13 Degrees of Darkness (for flute playing with another flute, or flute and recorded flute), and Navigations for string quartet, in which the players begin on four notes that are close to one another and shift gradually on to a single, shared note. John Cage’s Ryoanji and Eliane Radigue’s new OCCAM XVI complete the programme.
“I was thinking the other day, I never do extended techniques [those techniques that involve the unorthodox use of instruments]. I hate that. It’s very conservative of me. Instruments were made to sound in a certain way. To start distorting that just doesn’t interest me at all. My instrumental playing is always clear, long tones. I use harmonics every once in a while. Hardly a pizzicato. The connection is to the purity of the instruments, I guess, but not to the narrative.”
Cage’s helping hand
Lucier’s music will feature again on Saturday in an afternoon performance of John Cage’s Musicircus, a kind of happening in which anything goes.
Lucier called up Cage in the 1960s to ask him to do a concert. The great man agreed on two conditions, one of which was that Lucier himself would contribute a piece.
“I said, ‘I have this piece with a brainwave amplifier, but it doesn’t work.’ He laughed and said, ‘It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work, it’s the intention which is important’. That’s a wonderful way to look at things. If I waited until I got that piece working perfectly, I’d have never done it. And he assisted me in that first performance.”
Sounds in Space, the unique musical visions of Alvin Lucier and Eliane Radigue, is at Dundalk Gaol on Friday. A House Full of Music featuring John Cage’s Musicircus is on Saturday at 2pm, louthcms.org
WEIRD MUSICAL LANDMARKS: FROM THEREMINS TO CHOPPERS
- The theremin, developed by Lev Termen in the 1920s, is an electronic instrument (much used for spooky effects in 1950s movies) that exploits capacitance effects, and is played in the air, without any physical contact from the player.
- In 1923 the German piano company August Förster built a quarter-tone piano for the Czech composer Alois Hába, with two keyboards one on top of the other, offering twice as many notes in the scale as a conventional piano.
- American composer Harry Partch experimented with scales involving up to 55 notes, and invented instruments to play them on, with names such as chromelodeon, diamond marimba, cloud-chamber bowls, bloboy, and spoils of war.
- John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No 4 (1951) is scored for 12 radios, whose dials are turned by 24 performers following directions governed by the tossing of coins. The piece is likely to become unperformable after the switch-off of analogue radio broadcasts.
- Gérard Grisey’s Le Noir de l’Étoile (1989-1990) is a spatial work for six percussionists and loudspeakers surrounding the audience, and incorporates the live relay via radio telescope of the sound of pulsars.
- Helicopter String Quartet by Karlheinz Stockhausen was first performed in 1995 and is part of his opera Wednesday from Light. The musicians fly in four helicopters, co-ordinating through headphones, and their playing is relayed to an audience on terra firma. A planned Belfast performance was dropped for security reasons.