Alvin Lucier Has Found the Music in the World Around Him for More than 50 Years

Last Monday night in New York, Alvin Lucier sat on a salmon-colored couch in a tan jacket and green button-down. The 85-year-old composer, balding and endearingly folksy, fielded questions about his quietly illustrious career in sound. A young crowd clung to every word and waited patiently through his stutter, listening as he recounted tales of John Cage, David Tudor, Philip Glass, and other friends and colleagues that sit with him at the top of the experimental music pantheon.

To the initiated, Alvin Lucier is a name that needs no introduction. He stands tall as one of the premier names of the 20th century avant-garde. And his pieces, succinct explorations of the physical properties of sound, are more than mere vestiges of a mid-century boom in experimentalism. They are integral to the development of everything that came after. He was one of the first to allow nature and space a hand in his creations—an innovation well known to the people gathered at the Red Bull Music Academy for this talk.

Indeed, the Q&A at the end of the event revealed the room to be filled with young artists inspired by Lucier’s work. Hipsters, artists, and intellectuals—not necessarily mutually exclusive groups—were gathered to glimpse a bygone era of unfettered experimentalism, and to pay homage to a man that has been giving them permission to explore for more than 50 years.

In 1965, Lucier put himself on the map with a performance of a piece called Music for Solo Performer. Using equipment borrowed from the scientist Edmond Dewan, the New Hampshire-born composer amplified his Alpha brainwaves and used the signals to operate 16 percussion instruments over eight loudspeakers. John Cage, helming the mix, mindlessly maneuvered from channel to channel, and indiscriminate drum sounds flooded the room, freely and formlessly.

In 1978, Lucier conceived a piece called Clocker , in which a galvanic skin response sensor sent a small electrical current through a performer’s body. Minute changes in skin resistance, influenced by the person’s thoughts and emotions, controlled the pace of a ticking clock, giving the audience the perception that the performer was affecting the passing of time.

In Lucier’s most famous piece, I Am Sitting In a Room (1969), the composer sits in a room, records himself narrating a text about sitting in a room, and then plays it back and re-records the recording. He does this 32 times in total, and with each subsequent playback, we hear the sound quality diminish, steadily transforming into unintelligible frequencies and drones over the course of 45 minutes.

The physical world, in essence, is Lucier’s creative medium, the vehicle for his inventions. And each one, after conception, is deftly peeled bare until it reveals some distillate of the cosmic laws that govern our bodies and the spaces around them.

One of the definitive attributes of I Am Sitting In a Room is Lucier’s stutter. He stumbles over the beginnings of a couple words, and, in the final phrase of his text, we learn that the gradual loss in quality is actually intended to fix his impediment. “I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact,” he recites, “but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.”

Alvin Lucier / Photo courtesy of Red Bull Music Academy

“I wrote that text in real time,” Lucier told me on the phone a couple days before his RBMA appearance. “I remember [composer] Bob Ashley once made me a piece called Fancy Free [or It’s There] where I spoke on cassette recorders. Whenever anyone noticed a little hesitancy in my voice, they could rewind the tape. The idea was that everyone has irregularities that you can notice to a certain degree, so that was kind of a whimsical thing I stuck in my text.”

As a fellow stutterer with a higher degree of “irregularities” than most, I know that the notion of “smoothing” them out is elysian in nature, and the fact that Lucier found a way to deliver that idea while combining central tenets of early minimalism—tape delay and drone—and exploring the quality degradation caused by creating electronic transcodes—a phenomenon called generation loss—is nothing short of brilliant.

On our call, I paid special attention to his speech—it’s not often a stutterer gets to interview another stutterer. Immediately I recognized the same techniques that I use to elude the stammer: pausing mid-sentence, improvising on the fly, exchanging the still unspoken word with a more easily uttered synonym. It was all there, unnoticeable to the layman, perhaps, but to the afflicted, it was as clarion as the speech of a well-seasoned orator.

When I asked him if his stutter influenced his art, he admitted that it probably did on a subliminal level, but not so much that he could claim that it did. If you look closely, though, there are myriad connections. His work with time and speech and delay all challenge the way we listen—each similarly, in fact, to the way a stutterer must challenge the listeners around him. And by seeking simplicity—paring an idea to its pith until it can operate in harmony with the physical world—Lucier demonstrates a lifelong dream of any stutterer: simply to do the same.

When challenging the way we listen, then, Lucier isn’t interested in using arduous complexity or extended instrumental techniques as so many of his contemporaries in the avant-garde have done. On the contrary, his musical language is rooted in clarity and often so simply wrought that it feels as though it were discovered rather than composed.

Lucier’s language is 50-plus years in the making, dating back to a post-university Fulbright in Europe. At the Darmstadt Summer School, during the height of serialism—a post-tonal compositional technique in which series of values manipulate musical elements—Lucier snuck into David Tudor’s piano class and witnessed Tudor reprimanding Karlheinz Stockhausen and Theodor Adorno after they argued about the meaning of this music. These were “native speakers speaking their own musical language,” Lucier felt, and he left serialism to the Europeans. “I figured, if I wrote that kind of music, I’d be speaking a foreign language with an accent, with a dialect.”

Instead, Lucier began exploring his own musical language. Prevailing trends have never jibed with the composer anyways, and in fact he actively avoids them. “I know my pieces are not working quite right if I’m forcing. I have all these things I learned in school about how to make a piece. I have to toss all that stuff away if it interferes with my basic idea,” he told me. “If I get that basic idea of a piece, purely and clearly, I think people understand that even though they can’t articulate it.”

Perhaps our own musical upbringing—one that’s taken us through “metal bands, guitars, pedal effects, and noise”—makes us “better prepared to listen to electronic music than other generations.”

For someone who struggles daily with articulation, it’s not difficult to understand why clearly articulated expression is so important to his art. What’s more curious is the young demographic for whom it appears to resonate most strongly. In past interviews, and in the RBMA interview as well, I heard Lucier note that today’s young people attend his performances in large numbers—and that they even have greater attentions spans than the youth of 20 years ago. I was happily surprised to hear Lucier suggest that our generation might not be so lost after all.

Still, I wondered, what makes this true? Perhaps it’s Lucier’s half-century of experience as a college professor that allows him to connect with young people. Or perhaps, as he suggested to me, it’s our own musical upbringing—one that’s taken us through “metal bands, guitars, pedal effects, and noise”—that makes us “better prepared to listen to electronic [and experimental] music than other generations.” And perhaps the internet itself has allotted young artists the opportunity to rediscover people like Alvin Lucier, to lift him from the esoteric recesses of experimental sound art and insert him into our musical generation—one that borrows and blends existing ideas more deliberately than any has ever done before.

It’s probably all of these things, but more than any of them, I think it’s an appreciation for art that curries no favor. Especially in our internet era, the truth, communicated purely and without pretense, is remarkably salient. And Lucier has always stayed true to himself, distilling his own ideas until they are the most him they can possibly be. He sticks to a language he can speak without an accent, refusing to cheat his own tongue.

The composer recently wrote a blurb for a book called Whale Song, which explores animals that use echolocation as a means of survival. “It affected me very strongly because whales and dolphins and bats—any creatures that echolocate—those beings cannot cheat when they’re looking for food,” he explained. “They cannot add a flourish.” If they did, of course, they wouldn’t eat, and they wouldn’t survive.

Stuttering, while not a matter of life and death, certainly affords a greater appreciation for sonic phenomena like these that function so flawlessly. We stutterers all wish we could function this way, too. But perhaps we shouldn’t try to cheat our stutters with tricks and flourishes. The languages in which we humans communicate—to survive, to connect, to make art—are already filled with irregularity. So perhaps our irregularities—in speech and otherwise—are also perfect demonstrations of a physical fact.

Keagon Voyce is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.

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