If Alvin Lucier had chosen to be a painter or sculptor, I suspect that he would now be established as one of the greats of post-abstract expressionist American art. His work would sell for six figures a pop and be visible in every contemporary art hangar in the developed world. Sound being the reluctant, intangible commodity that it is, people are still trying to figure him out, though the figuring has lately shown signs of approaching some sort of consensus.
There are times when I regress to the figuring stage. Do we describe him as a composer, whatever that word now means, even though many of his works resist interpretation by others? Pivotal late 20th century works such as I Am Sitting in a Room, or Bird and Person Dyning, can be produced by others for audiences or recordings, yet they are so bound up in Lucier the person that only he can bring them fully to life. These are bid idea works, memes that cna be transposed, as in Berhnard Gal's I Am Shitting in a Room; the danger, clearly, is that homage can reduce them to one-liners. Other pieces feel simultaneously elegant and unique, and dry as dust, but that response may be born of my own subjectivity as a musician and music lover: the desire for a musical sensuality where, like mathematics, there is a beauty of ideas, the revelation of natural phenomena.
Of ideas, no shortage: located in an odd place somewhere between the lightworks of Dan Flavin and James Turrell, art and technology hybrids of the 1960s like Robert Rauschenberg's Mud-Muse, the 19th century physics of Hermann Helmholtz and John Tyndall, and ancient, arcane acoustic experiments unearthed by Joseph Needham in his Science and Civilisation in China (not that any of these analogies are quite right), they are susceptible to analysis. The possibilities were demonstrated by Stuart Marshall, in his meticulous, intellectually expansive essay for Studio International in 1976, "Alvin Lucier's Music of Signs in Space", yet there's a mad science aura that can leave the listener little on which to dwell.
This uncertainty of placement within an existing context shifted with the compositions for pure wave oscillators and instruments. In liner notes written for a previous CD collection of such works, Still Lives, Lucier justified the reason for the switch in pragmatic terms. He had observed what he described as "betterness and frustration" among his teachers and colleagues, who composed a piece and then waited for an enremble to work up a peformance. In response to requests for pieces from players of conventional instruments he began to explore the possibilities of audible beating frequencies, by pairing the steady pitches generated from pure sound waves with the less constant, but more flexible tones of instruments such as cello, koto and clarinet.
The seven examples performed here by Anthony Burr on clarinets and Charles Curtis on cello are consistent in their apparent simplicity. Like a lot of post-war art, they pursue one idea with a persistence that may be obligatory for a full examination of the initial principle, but still demand a lot of stamina and patience from the listener. Their means are rigorous -- pure sinewaves sound throughout the performance, either fixed or sweeping up or down, and the instrumentalist micro-tunes or maintains fixed tones to draw out interference patterns.
Slow to evolve and intensely concentrated on psychoacoustic phantoms, they should be appreciated as precursors of contemporary sonic minimalism (Ryoji Ikeda and Richard Chartier come to mind). As Stuart Marshall suggested many years ago, the spatial component is central to Lucier's work. Whereas the humanly generated acoustic sounds can be located in a ampa of place defined by recording mix and loudspeaker placement, the hemispheric patterns of sine tones change amplitude according to the position of the listener within the playback environment, as well as appearing to spin through space and even within the listener's head.
Simple these pieces may be, but they are far from easy. Both Burr and Curtis play with extraordinary control and finesse, their virtuosity channelled into the sublimation of human frailty. Given the difficulty of matching human movement and breath control to the pure harmonic motion of sinewaves, the apparent plainness, scientism even, of the conception is compelled to admit bigger themes of human-machine relations. At a microscopic level another form of complexity is revealed, an auscultation of the stange phenomena that intensive listening provokes. The tiny disturbances that can be heard during Music For Cello With One Or More Amplified Vases, for example, become erruptions as the resonant frequency of a vase encounters the pitch of the cello and is the amplified by microphones inside the vessel.
Lucier's work could be regarded as music stripped of stories, but I'm not so sure. there are tributes amd memoriams here, and In Memoriam Stuart Marshall, for bass clarinet and pure wave oscillator, aligns the gravity of dispassionate process with the emotional gravity of loss to forge a piece that is powerfully affecting in its restraing. Poetry flickers at the edges. the title of On The Carpet of Leave Illuminated By The Moon, orginally written for koto player Ryuko Mizutani, comes from Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveller, a passage in which the narrator wonders if it might be possible to distinguish the sensation of each single gingko leaf from another, as they fell onto the lawn like rain from their boughs, "as the number of leaves spinning in the air increases further, the sensations corresponding to each of them are summed up, creating a general sensation like that of silent rain ... "
The eroticism of this chapter, perceptual games deriving from the keen observation of natural phenomena shading into sexual desire, and Calvino's role in Oulipo, the literary movement through which strange beauty emerged out of the observance of strict forms, might encourage us to reconsider Lucier as a clandestine Oulipian, or 'Pataphysicist'. His fantasy of being a 19th century French Canadian fur trapper, memorising nocturnal wilderness sounds before sleep in order to match them with subconsciously heard predatory anomalies, is poetic enough to leave the question in no further doubt.
It is strange timing indeed that these two releases representing the American composer Alvin Lucier have appeared almost simultaneously. Lucier is best known for minimalist process works such as his epochal "I Am Sitting in a Room" (1970). In that simple yet astonishing piece, a recording of Lucier reading a paragraph that begins with the work's title is played back and transformed by successive re-recordings such that Lucier's stuttering speech is eventually transformed into the abstract sounds of the room's resonant frequencies. As Lucier explained, "Every room has its own melody, hiding there until it is made audible." This task of making art out of heretofore obscure acoustical phenomena—usually dealing with sound in space—is a thread that connects much of Lucier's work. He is a composer for whom recordings have only intermittently done justice, and his music often demands to be experienced in the space in which it is created.
With these two releases, Lucier has found nearly ideal interpreters who have selected works with an ear towards their being represented in the form of a recording. Clarinetist Anthony Burr and cellist Charles Curtis have assembled a fascinating collection of Lucier’s works for solo instrument plus oscillator, with the exception of the album’s concluding piece, “Music for Cello with One or More Amplified Vases.” Many of these pieces are based on slowly changing relationships between an oscillator’s drone and a solo instrument played with exquisite attention to microtonal detail. “In Memoriam Jon Higgins” features the slow upward glissando of an electronically-generated sine wave; the clarinet part consists of a sequence of held tones, and the two instruments create beating patterns as their pitches move into and out of unison with one another. Both Burr and Curtis are first-rate performers of this music; in Curtis’s case, this should be little surprise, given that he has performed La Monte Young’s music for almost two decades. The selection of works on these CDs amounts to an argument for Lucier as a precursor—or at the very least kindred, preexisting spirit—to much of the music of Sachiko M, Otomo Yoshihide, and Toshimaru Nakamura. This particular project ran the risk that by grouping together a host of similar works, the impact of the individual pieces is diluted. I didn’t experience this to be the case. Listeners approaching this music for the first time might find the differences between these works slight—sweeping oscillator versus the fixed pitch of an oscillator—but there are numerous subtle pleasures to be had when encountering these works as a family.
Like most artists whose work has a strong conceptual component, Lucier’s
music has suffered from the preconceptions of listeners who think by reading
a description that they already “get” the music. Burr and Curtis have done
an interesting thing in the accompanying booklet, which neglects descriptions
of the individual works—there’s no “getting” these works without listening—in
favor of excerpts from writings by Kepler on the glissando, Helmholtz on
beating patterns, Edgard Varèse on sirens, and Adorno and Horkheimer on the
Sirens. When Lucier is quoted, it tends be something along the lines of "One
of my fantasies is having been a French Canadian fur trapper in the 19th
century in the American West." Alvin Lucier is a rewarding listen, a
compelling read, and among the most distinctive releases of the year.
Honed radiance marks seven Alvin Lucier pieces for pure-wave oscillator and either clarinet or cello, composed over twenty years and shimmering and pulsing on this recently released double CD, a fine package that includes a booklet of authoritative essays. The CD opens with clarinettist Anthony Burr's rendering of Lucier's 1987 In Memoriam Jon Higgins. After ten faint but rousing minutes, he moves on above a mid-range oscillator pitch, then drops to a lower note after almost half a minute. The aural scope shifts into splendid rupture, a vividly etched burst that teems for another half minute and falters abruptly when he drops out. The pitches and Burr's note continue to scale up, generating a hyper-rhythm as subtly organic as it is compulsive.
Lucier's pieces are explorations and reconsiderations of sound at its most precise and evocative - the sheer, vivid relations of solo instrument to electronic pitches. They sounded even more delicate and challenging when clarinettist Burr and cellist Charles Curtis played them in a February, 2005, recital at Tonic, the downtown New York experimental music venue. The musicians and their laptop full of Lucier's aural skeins took two pieces from Still and Moving LInes of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas as jumping-off point - or make that their vibrating locus, with clarinet following cello in tracking protracted unisons along the slow-sweeping electronic component. Lucier originally released these pieces on Lovely Music LPs in 1984; they constitute mid-career work, situated between his founding of the Sonic Arts Union with Gordon Mumma, David Behrman, and Robert Ashley in 1966, and 2005's The Exploration of the House, which received its world premiere in March as part of Petr Kotik and the S.E.M. Ensemble's thirty-fifth-anniversary celebration at Carnegie's Zankel Hall.
Curtis's insistent delicacy in the first piece on the program at Tonic held through to 1993's In Memoriam Stuart Marshall, Burr's concluding foray on bass clarinet. Each instrument's timbre generated striking effects within hovering moolting electronic fields, the cello resounding as if ensconced in the accompanying tones, while the clarinet seemed to ride or straddle Lucier's drones. Whether it's the cello's body or the wind instrument's reed that predicates these sensations, Curtis and Burr played with laudatory concentration, typically at the threshold of audibility. A 2002 piece named for cellist Curtis (former principal of Hamburg's NDR Symphony Orchestra, whose New York premiere of La Monte Young's concert-length Just Charles late this year is eagerly anticipated) was the one excursion into bolder dynamics, its note sets bowed with a limpid muscularity before the piece paused midway, then resumed.
After the Tonic recital, Curtis mentioned another of the Lucier pieces which he gradually plays up the scale, accompanied intermittently by a set of miked vases when he reaches their respective resonant frequencies - Music for Cello with One or More Amplified Vases, which concludes the CD. The fact that it's difficult to conjure the eerie theatrics that the piece must produce in performance is no fault of the release's lucid sound.
How wonderful to see Alvin Lucier honoured with a deluxe two-disc release where the presentation so seamlessly complements the musical content. On the cover, abstract blue-grey patterns overlap, generating an op-art effect not dissimilar to the resonating effect of the music's paired tones. The accompanying twenty-page booklet mixes Lucier's own words with illustrations and writings by Homer, Kepler, Varese, Helmholtz, Adorno, and Horkheimer, making the book a satisfying document unto itself. Enticing passages illuminate the listening experience (the beating interference patterns generated by two slightly different tones is likened to intersecting ripples created when two stones are dropped near to each other in a pond) while poetic excerpts from The Odyssey nicely offset the scientific character of others.
Listeners new to Lucier's work should know, however, that the work is uncompromising and severely minimal (born in 1931, the composer is best known for classics like “I Am Sitting in a Room,” composed in 1970, and 1977's “Music on a Long Thin Wire,” work that explores the physical and psychic effects of sound). The seven pieces are typically long but their duration isn't arbitrary; time is needed for the 'parabolic' beating effects of the tonal pairings (cello and pure wave oscillator on three pieces, clarinet and pure wave oscillator on three also) to be heard. By restricting the focus to close tunings and pure tones, the instrument pairs generate slowly unfurling, wave-like shapes (interestingly, the 'spinning' reverberations are most pronounced on the concluding piece, 1993's “Music for Cello with One or More Amplified Vases”). With their rigorous adherence to the works' demands, cellist Charles Curtis (director of La Monte Young's Theater of Eternal Music String Ensemble and Professor of Contemporary Music Performance at the University of California, San Diego) and clarinetist Anthony Burr are Lucier's ideal interpreters.
Details accompanying the compositions' titles intimate what one will hear. The twenty-minute “In Memoriam John Higgins” (1987) is scored for “clarinet in A and slow sweep, pure wave oscillator” and, not surprisingly, the oscillator maintains a steady presence throughout with the extended tones of Burr's clarinet (and faint traces of his breath) intermittently merging with it. The description oversimplifies the case, of course: when the tones are paired, the sound waves vibrate and spin, moving in and out of sync with one another, and the pitches shift, gradually moving higher as the work progresses. Though they're of similar character, the pieces differ subtly from each other too: while Curtis plucks his cello throughout “On the Carpet of Leaves Illuminated by the Moon” (2000), thereby establishing a tempo that's absent elsewhere, he adopts a more aggressive bowed attack in “Charles Curtis,” a 2002 piece Lucier created especially for the project.
A childhood anecdote by Lucier ends the booklet memorably, with the composer recounting a boys' camp owner who instructed children to walk back to their cabins at dusk along unfamiliar routes, and thereby sensitized them anew to the forest's wealth of natural sounds. According to Lucier, “You would take a journey, and these things would open up to you. That was, for me, a very strong experience”—much like the experience of listening to this valuable collection.
time out new york
Top Ten Recordings, Classical:
1. Richard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde - Plácido Domingo et al., Antonio Pappano conducting the Royal Opera, Covent Garden (EMI Classics)
2. J.S. Bach - The Sonatas and Partitas - Gidon Kremer (ECM New Series)
3. Osvaldo Golijov - Ayre; Luciano Berio - Folk Songs - Dawn Upshaw and the Andalucian Dogs (Deutsche Grammophon)
4. Joseph Haydn - The Paris Symphonies - Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting Concentus Musicus Wien (DHM)
5. Esa-Pekka Salonen - Wing on Wing; Insomnia; Foreign Bodies - Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)
6. and 7. Alvin Lucier - Wind Shadows - The Barton Workshop (New World) [more], and Alvin Lucier - Charles Curtis and Anthony Burr (Antiopic)
8. Jordi Savall - Du temps & de l'instant (Alia Vox)
9. Matthew Welch - Dream Tigers - Flux Quartet, Andrew Sterman, Matthew Welch with the CSU Percussion Ensemble (Tzadik)
10. Pierre Boulez - Le marteau sans maître; Dérive 2; Dérive 1 - Pierre Boulez conducting the Ensemble InterContemporain
night after night
More recently, Curtis and clarinetist Anthony Burr issued an utterly engrossing 2-CD set of Lucier's music on the outstanding Brooklyn-based electroacoustic music label Antiopic. That set followed hot on the heels of another rich lode of Lucier, by the Barton Workshop on New World Records -- which I have to thank Molly Sheridan of NewMusicBox for bringing to my attention, and for reviewing so admirably in TONY.
Alvin Lucier's music offers an intriguing paradox: Based on all manner of daunting scientific theorems and mathematical schemata, his pieces rightly sound like processes of nature. It's as if Wagner had scrapped the entire Ring cycle in order to more fully explore the acoustical implications inherent in the opening chord: An enveloping world of sound and event is revealed in the simplest and subtlest of gestures.
The New World set does an outstanding job of presenting Lucier's music, but the Antiopic release goes a step further, extending the gestalt to include the packaging in which the sounds are presented -- yet without stinting on first-rate annotation. (See for yourself -- the CD booklet and notes are here.) This is a first-rate model of presentation -- and how unsurprising it is that this should have come from a label at the periphery of out-rock, as opposed to avant-classical.
january 15 2006
The rich but sparse world conjured by Lucier’s music exists somewhere just beneath pieces like “Continuum” by Ligeti, or George Crumb’s “Ancient Voices of Children,” in which the exploration of sound for its own sake is a metalinguistic concern. For Lucier, who turns 75 this year, sound and the spaces responsible for sound are the major focus of his life’s work and have been so since the middle 1960s. I remember hearing Lucier describe, to a young student, what Cage wanted to prove with his “4:33” of silence: namely, the realization that silence is not simply silence at all. Lucier has been preoccupied with examining similar levels of microdetail in the spatial and microtonal realms.
This new double disc focuses on “beat” pieces, mainly involving clarinet, cello and pure-tone oscillator. By “beat” – and this is my simplified version of physics way beyond my comprehension – I’m referring to the acoustic phenomenon that occurs when two tones approach each other; as they get closer, a palatable sound wave becomes perceptible. As the tones diverge, the beats get faster until imperceptible again. When heard live, or well-recorded in an ideal listening space, the results are mesmerizing, sometimes generating physical discomfort depending on frequency range. A simple example can be heard on this collection’s opener, “In Memoriam Jon Higgins 1987,” written for clarinet in A and slow-sweep, pure-wave oscillator. The oscillator produces a very gradually ascending tone, and the clarinetist, here Anthony Burr, plays and holds a note just above the rising pitch, so that the slowing beats become audible. This procedure is repeated many times as the electronically generated sound climbs several octaves.
All of the pieces contained herein work along similar lines; a recent venture, written for cellist Charles Curtis, uses two oscillators whose pitches begin matched but then travel in opposite directions, and it seems that the cellist then picks two pitches, creating both the afore-mentioned beats and some ghost-tones, making the resulting sound appear larger and fuller than it really is. There’s also one piece without oscillator, “for cello with one or more amplified vases” from 1993, during which the cellist’s sound is magnified and augmented by frequencies generated by the vases as a result of what he’s playing!
Whatever the technical explanations might be, I find this music absolutely breathtaking. It is somehow externally bare, and yet it exposes all manner of hidden relationships and sonic properties so that they are inescapable. That in itself is visceral, at times almost confrontational, and yet also meditative, like some of the best “noise” can be. The space in which I listen is fairly small, and these sounds fill it to capacity, often seeming to emanate from all directions at once, drawing my attention, as is Lucier’s wont, to the most minute details of even the smallest sonic object.
However, in addition to being another testament to Lucier’s accomplishments, this collection speaks to some serious mastery and discipline on the part of the performers. I’ve never been involved in a Lucier performance, but I can only imagine the intense listening that goes into playing these pieces. Curtis and Burr are as staunch a pair of advocates as could be desired, demonstrating full absorption and assimilation of the idiom, and every reading here is a strong one; my only complaint is that the accompanying documentation presents relevant abstract quotations from Varese, Helmholtz and Lucier among others rather than focusing on the pieces themselves, most likely a move to provide some background while letting the music speak for itself. This is a small concern, as several of these works have also been documented elsewhere, most notably on the Lovely Music label, a tireless advocate of Lucier’s work. While this is the first recording of “Curtis,” “Jon Higgins” makes at least its third discographical appearance here.
The main advantage to these new recordings is clarity. While many other readings attempt a seamless blending of acoustic and electronic sounds, this collection is recorded so that every structural component is absolutely clear. Consequently, as with the best Boulez interpretations, familiar works are heard afresh, which alone makes the set indispensable. Such a lavish and well-executed production should not be missed.
This fabulous double CD, lodged in an elegantly sober digipack complete with intriguing booklet, confirms what many people have been thinking for a while: Alvin Lucier is THE master of psychoacoustic minimalism, no question about it. And when the performers are as good as clarinettist Anthony Burr and cellist Charles Curtis, there's not even the slightest chance of failing to appreciate these explorations of vibrating particles and translucent matters. "In Memoriam John Higgins", for clarinet in A and slow sweep pure wave oscillator, rises from the marrow of the bones to the very centre of the eyes, dematerializing the burden of silence through its gradual evolution, as Burr picks the most luminescent spots to let his clarinet shine over the slowly ascending oscillator, finally setting it free to get lost in the ionosphere. "On the Carpet of Leaves Illuminated by the Moon" pits Curtis' plucked cello against the pure wave oscillator. It's like the leakage of mercury from a thermometer forgotten for decades in a drawer. The breathtaking mid-air floating that any sentient being experiences upon listening to "Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas" (a major breakthrough in Lucier's career) is best represented by "Part III Number 11", whose juxtaposition of slow arco movement murmuring against the equally effective presence of a more obscure oscillator really makes the nerves quiver. "Part I Number 1" is almost passionless, but no less interesting, an icy timbral microfibre in which the clarinet starts out looking for a better place to be and ends up remaining hidden behind the flow of the pure wave. Charles Curtis opens the second disc with the piece that bears his name, which is probably the high point of the whole set; against the will of the slow sweep (which itself causes an unbelievable sense of disequilibrium between the ears depending on the position of the listener's head), he layers plangent combinations of strings in excruciating suspension amidst non-existent tonalities, a wonderful emotional escalation often recalling Nikos Veliotis' rainy melancholy. On "In Memoriam Stuart Marshall" Burr's bass clarinet (great instrument for Lucier's impalpable structures) sounds like it's breathing life into the moribund engine of a distant aeroplane - the resulting powerful beating of frequencies is totally mesmerizing, its grip on the back of the head even stronger than the sorrowful memories the piece evokes. The closing "Music for Cello with One or More Amplified Vases" is a call to prayer in the backyard of an abandoned country church, with Curtis' cello responding to the slow ascending glissando with its own lamentation to the infinite. And while our eyes look for distant points of reference on the horizon, quiet finally returns to put an end to the kind of thought process that could almost become dangerous if you trusted it blindly.
signal to noise
The pick of this trio of discs and some of the most gorgeous music I've heard in recent months, comes courtesy of Burr's pairing with cellist Charles Curtis in a 2-disc tribute to the music of Alvin Lucier. Most of these pieces are of recent vintage, ones Lucier has written fro presumably a wide variety of instruments (all are accompanied, however, by pure wave oscillators) but which work fantastically well with Burr's clarinet and Curtis' cello (and in fact, Lucier wrote one of these pieces specifically for Curtis). None of the pieces are concerned much with "events", but rather have the character of things or space or times slowly opening up to you as you listen, becoming submerged in the lush blankets of sound. The overtones are intense, and the pieces at times well up to assume almost physical properties. Only occasionally can one detect a plucked string or some other instrumental thumbprint. And equally rarely is there a change in pitch, as most of the activity is focused on--you guessed it--the oscillation and vibration of tones. The package is gorgeous too, as is the case with Antiopic's Sigma Editions imprint. And the liners consist almost exclusively of rich--and carefully selected--texts on the nature of sound (everything from Homer to Lucier himself).