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Alvin Lucier, inquisitive and innovative composer, has died at 90

From music made from brain waves to gamelan instruments reworked for amplifiers and loudspeakers, Alvin Lucier rewired how we heard sound.
Kris Serafin
Courtesy of Black Truffle
From music made from brain waves to gamelan instruments reworked for amplifiers and loudspeakers, Alvin Lucier rewired how we heard sound.

Alvin Lucier, the groundbreaking American composer and educator, died Wednesday at his home in Middletown, Conn. after a long illness. He was 90. Lucier changed the way we think about sound through monumental works like I Am Sitting in a Room and Music on a Long Thin Wire. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease a little over a decade ago; NPR confirmed the news of his death with Amanda Lucier, his daughter.

Lucier was born May 14, 1931 in Nashua, N.H., to a musical family, an environment that, in time, led to his studies in music theory and composition at Yale University and later Brandeis University. Studying under Aaron Copland and Lukas Foss, Lucier initially favored a neoclassical style, but discovered the avant-garde works of Luigi Nono, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen while in Rome on a Fulbright Fellowship. And once he saw performances of John Cage and David Tudor, Lucier knew this was not only the music he was meant to make but the sound he was made to study, alter and explore.

But it wasn't until 1965 that Lucier premiered his new way of thinking, literally letting his mind do the music-making. He'd been teaching at Brandeis when Edmond Dewan, a physicist who designed a brainwave control device, offered his instrument to experiment. With electrodes attached to Lucier and connected to timpani, gongs, bass and snare drums, Music for Solo Performer was the result – a marriage of science and sound generated from Lucier's own alpha brain waves. In his 1995 collection Reflections: Interviews, Scores, Writings, Lucier reminisces on the revolutionary work of "live" electronic music: "To release alpha, one has to attain a quasi-meditative state while at the same time monitoring its flow. One has to give up control to get it."

Shortly thereafter, Lucier formed the Sonic Arts Union with Robert Ashley, David Behrman and Gordon Mumma. The four likeminded composers (along with Mary Ashley, Shigeko Kubota, Mary Lucier and Barbara Lloyd) would tour and share equipment – the collective existed to share innovations in tape music and music technology.

"Our performances explored aspects of music and performance that were outside the bounds of what contemporary music generally accepted," Behrman told Perfect Sound Forever in 1997. "Partly that had to do with homemade electronics, partly with exploration of the nature of acoustics, partly with crossing the lines between theater, visual arts, poetry and music."

I Am Sitting in a Room first recorded at Brandeis in 1969, then again in his Middletown, Conn., home in March 1970 – is a study in resonance, decay and time. On it, Lucier recites the following monologue as its instructions and score:

"I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice, and I am going to play it back into the room again and again, until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed."

It's a piece of music – sometimes called sound art – that reinforces its premise not through repetition but experience. Each subsequent playback of his taped voice degrades in texture, acclimating and fighting against the space into which it exists.

"What may initially seem intolerably arch and arty (not to mention dull) metamorphosizes into a listening experience that is, in fact, deeply engrossing and, ultimately, eerily and arrestingly beautiful," music critic Tim Page wrote in his 2002 book Tim Page on Music. "Words become music, sound becomes shimmer, and the natural process of acoustics is demonstrated in the most elegant manner. There is nothing like I Am Sitting in a Room and Lucier's own recording is a definitive version of a modern masterpiece. Definitive, that is, unless you make your own performance — which is, of course, quite possible and would likely be welcomed by Lucier."

Several more compositions – including, but not limited to the proto-vocoder piece North American Time Capsule (1966), Vespers (1968) and the amplified oscillator and piano-wire piece Music on a Long Thin Wire (1977) – speak to Lucier's early innovation, but he never stopped working. He installed solar sound systems, wrote solos for acoustic performers and orchestras, scoped radio signals, vibrated the strings of a piano and reworked gamelan instruments for loudspeakers.

"I must confess that I am executing crazy ideas I have had in my mind for years but never have had the courage to realize," he told the New York Times in May, mentioning a piece inspired by David Tudor's "luxurious eyelashes" and "a duet with a bat who lives in the belfry of the Wesleyan Memorial Chapel."

He counts composers Arnold Dreyblatt, Nicolas Collins and Ron Kuivila among his students at Wesleyan (where Lucier taught for more than 40 years) but also fans across the music spectrum. His music has been performed by Charles Curtis, Yo La Tengo, Barbara Held, Claire Chase, Yarn/Wire, Sunn O)))'s Stephen O'Malley, Oren Ambarchi and Sarah Hennies, who tweeted, "This man is responsible for every note of music I've written in the last decade." For his 90th birthday in May, the Issue Project Room presented a virtual performance of I Am Sitting in a Room with 90 performers, including Lucier himself (with withered voice), surrounded by Fender amps and long, sustained tones that whispered as much as they squealed through the space.

Alvin Lucier's music resonates and echoes because he just wanted to know – the effects of time, the boundaries set and expanded, the eroding lines between sound and science. Most of all, he just wanted us to listen. "Careful listening," he once wrote, "is more important than making sounds happen."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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