Over many years Alvin Lucier has carved out a unique place in American music and indeed throughout the Western contemporary music scene. His output can be summed up as ‘experimentalist’, deriving from a surprisingly single-minded approach to the wide variety of expressive media found in these recordings; namely targeting as a principal subject the human as listener. His music “can be understood as a detailed, exhaustive investigation into the complexities of the act of listening”, which may on the surface seem like a strangely banal position for a composer, but in fact explores worlds of perception you are unlikely to encounter in conventional musical settings.
The initial impulse for this review was the most recent release in this collection, Orchestra Works
, so this is where we start. It’s probably the best place to start for newcomers in any case, with the familiarity of an orchestral sound providing a point of reference to what might otherwise be an entirely alien expressive world. Alvin Lucier’s pieces frequently have, in common with Morton Feldman, a seeming lack of beginning, development and end. Take Diamonds
, listen to the first minute or so, fast forward, and again, and again, and you might be excused for asking yourself where any real changes take place. The big orchestral sound takes forward a technique we find in earlier works, where slow shifts in pitch on more or less sustained notes between orchestras and orchestral sections create an ever-changing field of dissonances and resolutions. This is not a shy work, and the dynamic maintains quite a high degree of intensity throughout, though it’s hard to define it as forte
since there is no other dynamic against which to compare. The premise of the piece “is not the tracing of a shape, but the framing of the incommensurable. The shape functions as a leverage point from which to launch a listening experience.” There is some separation to define the position of the three orchestras and winds and percussion help in this regard, and there is a more than usually vast sounding string sound. The pitches stretch outwards in contrary motion, the jangly high percussion sounds increasing discomfort towards the middle of the piece while tension and drama remain strangely absent, unlike amidst similar effects by someone like the more overtly theatrical György Ligeti.
is a remarkable musical monolith, but Slices
is more interesting to my mind, taking a 53 note sustained chromatic cluster on the orchestra which represents the range of a cello. This solo instrument “articulates a melodic sequence of the cluster in a measured and moderate pacing”, while each pitch played by the solo cello is removed from the cluster one by one. Silence is reached, and then the process is reversed, the cluster built slowly, note by note as they are introduced by the cello, and then brought back in a cycle which could be as endless as a column by Brancusi.
After all this atonality or textural music, Exploration of the House
hits us with diatonic Beethovenian sounds which are transformed electronically, filtered into haunting echoes of themselves with each repetition. This is done by recording a passage and re-recording its playback so that the artefacts of reproduction and acoustic take over increasingly from the original sounds. The combination of strange feedback-like tones, over-emphasised harmonics and other strangeness results in strange bell-like noises by the end of each sequence, initially sounding like a performance heard from outside the concert hall over a Tannoy but taking on its own distilled and alienating character by the end. These kinds of effects call up associations of death and decay, but might also be heard as tracking Beethoven’s own loss of hearing, making it a moving statement of considerable power.
Moving on, the two-disc set Wind Shadows
is up next. The Barton Workshop has a leading reputation in avant-garde music making, and their recordings include a wide range of composers including John Cage
, founder James Fulkerson, Frank Denyer and many others. The booklet provides this with an umbrella title for the programme, ‘The Poetry of Acoustic Spaces’, and with the opening work In Memorian Stuart Marshall
a strange combination of low, sustained sounds from a bass clarinet and the single note of a pure wave oscillator, we know we are in for an alteration of expectations and an exploration of altered musical space and time.
This opening work creates a deep, low colour and extends it into a dark, horizontal column of sound - a kind of musical sculpture which combines the industrial neutrality of an electronic sine wave with the Aeolian wind of a low reed instrument. 40 Rooms
is more pointillist, the sparing notes of the musicians being picked up on microphones and passed through a digital delay system which simulates 40 different acoustic spaces or rooms. “Pitches exist only for what they divulge through the quality of their decay.” These effects become more striking as the work progresses, resulting in shifting relationships of sound through changing, sometimes long-sustained echoes, or creating comet-like shapes through chords which emerge from silence, their acoustic tails sometimes stretching beyond expectation.
In Memoriam John Higgins
relates to the opening In Memoriam
, this time performed with clarinet and a slow sweep pure wave oscillator, which means the tone is constantly shifting, in this case in a very slow upward curve. The beat-tones between the two sounds are more apparent in this combination, the mid-range of hearing picking up plenty of subtleties in the tonal relationships between the closely related sounds of the duo. The remarkable control of clarinettist John Anderson is mentioned in the booklet, and deserves mention here as well. This kind of work is an understated tour-de-force for the player, and may put demands on the dentures of the listener. This piece could be dedicated to sufferers of tinnitus everywhere.
for violin, clarinet, cello and piano, is a fascinating and expressive investigation of musical/linguistic semantics, spelling out letters in musical codes which are crystal-clear once you’ve read the booklet notes. Of course, this ‘literal’ interpretation takes nothing away from the abstract nature of the music, but returning ‘letters’ and a sort of confiding intimacy in both the music and the way it is performed turn this into a highlight of the set.
CD 2 brings together two oscillators in Q
, their tones and the limited notes of five instrumentalists creating a multi-layered framework. The resulting constantly shifting cluster is another musical ‘object’ which might be comparable to the colour planes of Barnett Newman, the kind which take on their own inner life through the subtleties of the brushstrokes and palette the more you look at them. The oscillators are back again in A Tribute to James Tenney
, this time appearing with a single double-bass player. Five sections see the tones of the oscillators drop an octave, “creating a series of four precipitously large downward steps”, their relationship with the double-bass exploring its entire range and generating some quite spectacular, and by the end subterranean beating effects.
Bar Lazy J
for clarinet and trombone explores close tonal relationships in another process involving almost imperceptible steps, while Fideliotrio
sees a viola and cello move microtonally around a single piano note, which in its turn is constantly varying in timing and attack. To conclude, the title track Wind Shadows
takes the two oscillators and tunes them only 5 cycles apart, which means they are virtually in tune with each other but that the sound moves in a very slow beat. This is enriched with trombone notes which gently tease and occasionally stabilise the electronic tones. These kinds of effects are better suited to three-dimensional live performance, and I fear they lose much through the illusions attempted by mere stereo sound reproduction. With a richness of sonic research and discovery in this 2 CD set which deserves attention, I fear this is the element which bothers me the most in the long run.
Moving back further in time, we greet the Alvin Lucier of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Vespers
is a remarkable piece performed using ‘Sonar-dolphin echo location devices’. These click away, moving around the space and bouncing their highly directional sound off different surfaces. Again this is something which needs to be experienced live, but if you close your eyes and allow yourself to become immersed the effect is still pretty stunning. This intriguing use of space is continued in Chambers
, which takes recorded sounds of voices and daily life - including station announcements, conversations, birdsong etc. - and contains them in ‘packages’, turning them into ‘portable resonant environments’, their sounds in turn given an individual character through the resonance of their container.
North America Time Capsule
is described by the composer as a metaphorical “message to listeners who don’t know about us.” This uses a Vocoder, one of those machines which combines the human voice and combines or encodes it with other sounds. The result in this case is a texture of electronically processed voices which intertwine and dance with each other in a sonic sense, delivering abstraction of sound with the familiarity and infinite variety of speech patterns. (Middletown) Memory Space
reenacts a composition originally called (Hartford) Memory Space
, the place of performance defining the bracketed aspect of the title. The performers record or absorb the sounds of the city, and re-create these sounds solely with their instruments or voice in performance. This results in an independent set of performances heard in parallel, the music appearing in this case with an improvisatory feel, even though the composer’s clear instructions are intended to remove the aspect of improvisation entirely. It is perhaps the preconceived perception of the listener which might lead them to define such music as ‘improvisatory’, but if a musician is imitating the sound of a tram on a bamboo flute it’s inevitable that it will be hard to tell the difference, unless we’re told about it in advance.
Conceptual composing and performing went hand in hand with electronic experimentation in this period, and the final piece, Elegy for Albert Anastasia
, is described as being “for electromagnetic tape using very low sounds most of which are below human audibility”. The expected rumbles are indeed present, but garlanded with strange, air-like pulses. This work is both self-contained and sketch-like, like a track extracted from or prepared for a never-completed edifice.
The music world needs people like Alvin Lucier: without them, our creative pools would become stagnant ponds. While it has to be admitted that not all of the concepts to be found in these collections transfer equally well to the relative sterility of recorded sound when compared to the reality of a live performance, it also has to be acknowledged that there is a great deal here which will stick in the mind and stimulate the imagination. Don’t expect to find anything conventional, but do expect to find new ways of thinking and an uncompromising attitude which has turned these new ways into reality, helping shape and influence Western musical streams for four decades.