Ian Brennan's Blog

Alvin Lucier: Do Something Original

By Ian Brennan
March/April 2019

Alvin Lucier is one of the most influential composers in the post-John Cage era. Having authored over 172 pieces for film, theater, television, and dance companies, it is fair to say that he is prolific. At the age of 87 he continues to produce new works, his latest involving sending his heartbeat to the moon. His experiments and compositions with speech and acoustics over the past six decades have changed the way we hear and utilize sound. His 1969 sound art composition, “I Am Sitting in a Room,” famously utilizes re-recording of a spoken text into a room or space, and continues as the recording quality, speakers, mics, and room resonances mutate the material and sound into something new and fascinating. The piece remains the gold standard for this type of project.

How are you?

I am just sitting here, outside, listening to the wind. It is lovely.

You have an incredibly insightful quote, “The best way to produce variation in the sonic phenomena was to pick a setting and leave the setup alone.”

I was watching a chef on television who said, “Just let the pan do the work.” People are constantly stirring and poking at the dish as they cook. I just let the room do the work. I was working with an engineer to get the setup for my moon bounce piece. He was showing me all the various sounds you can get with pickups and so on. I said, “You’re trying to manipulate it.” The whole point of the piece is bouncing sound off of the moon. It will be hitting different spots as the moon spins around, hitting each location with a huge delay. The sound should change, and I want to let that happen. If I start fooling around with the sound before it even goes up there, the whole piece doesn’t make any sense.

Do you care about microphones, such as using certain types or models?

No, for me they are just a means. When I did my first piece at Brandeis University, they used a special binaural microphone, but I never asked for it again. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in other phenomenon. I don’t have a favorite way of recording.

How much resistance have you run into from engineers who think they know the “right” way to do it?

We did a piece in France for 30 people. We set the speakers all very carefully on the ground throughout the audience, as we wanted it to be like they were listening at home. When we came back from dinner, the engineer had moved and hung the speakers in all four corners of the room to project the sound at people. I had an experience with my sine wave and piano piece [“Music for Piano with Slow Sweep Pure Wave Oscillators”]; the engineer just couldn’t stand it and started tweaking and tweaking things in the middle of the performance. I said, “Why did you do that?” It was all about ego. I had this student once who would always get up in the middle of this big class and change the volume of whatever was playing. It’s power and ego. That was just his idea of what he wanted to hear. I always like to set the volume and allow things to go by themselves, as they are, and evolve.

You have used the body in many pieces, like galvanic skin responses and brainwaves.

I’m not really interested in the body. I just want pieces of music. My brainwave piece [“Music for Alpha Waves, Assorted Percussion, and Automated Coded Relays”] was simply a way to create beautiful, resonant, low thunderous sounds that activate percussion instruments. That piece is more about the response of certain instruments. A big tam-tam needs a lot of energy to make it sound; only the loud pulses really make it work. A smaller drum, a snare drum, is very easy to make resonate. The birth of an alpha is uneven, and it causes instruments to vibrate in different ways. The most important thing about the piece is that I didn’t exert any control. My skin galvanic piece [“Clocker] was that way too. When I make pieces now, I have to make sure that I do not exert personal control. I like the idea of non-control. I had an early piece called “Carbon Copies.” I asked people to listen and play back exactly what they had heard. If a player starts improvising, you can hear it immediately and it spoils the whole thing. I just went and heard a beautiful performance of one of my new pieces. When you strike a pitch on the piano, two strings start vibrating at the same time. I had the piano tuned so each string was slightly off. When one piano plays against the other, there is a beautifully complicated beating. Each pitch has a different cell. While they were rehearsing the piece, the musicians were playing like…

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