Interview with Alvin Lucier

Used by permission of the Publishers from ‘Alvin Lucier’, in The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music edited by James Saunders (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 305–311.  Copyright © 2009

AlvinLucier-teaserI initially met Alvin Lucier in Ostrava at the first New Music Days, organized by Peter Kotik. His work had fascinated me for some time, so it was a great opportunity to find out more in person. Lucier has been central to developments in experimental electronic music since the 1960s, with a focus on acoustic phenomena as the material and subject matter for much of his earlier work. From pieces like I am sitting in a room (1969) in which the continual playback and recording of a text in the same space reinforces the room’s overtones to create a throbbing harmonic drone, to Still Lives (2003), which sets piano notes against slow sliding sine tones to create variable beating patterns, their audibility is framed by his compositional approach. Subsequent work has tended to draw on these techniques and instrumentalize them to various degrees, such as with Diamonds (1999) for three orchestras where the violins replace the sine waves. Whilst in Lucier’s work processes are articulated with extreme clarity, it is music which constantly confounds expectations. It is of course possible to read his scores and gain an understanding of the principles involved, but it is only through the acoustic reality of the sounding result that the music emerges. One of the questions posed by the work of all the interviewees here is a consideration of how we listen, and this is in many ways most clearly exemplified by Lucier.

The interview took place at Dartington College of Arts on 14 November 2007.

To what extent do you still feel your pieces are experiments in the sense that the activities and the compositions that result from that are a means of testing something?

Many of my new pieces are not really experimental because I am making them for instrumentalists. I’m making pieces that explore acoustic phenomena but not in the way that the early electronic pieces did. My early electronic works lent themselves to that description because I used test oscillators and test equipment, but when you use a clarinet, a viola or a violin, then you’re more in the realm of sound producing objects that already have well known acoustical properties. I usually respond when somebody asks me to make them a piece. I accept the offer if I get a good idea but it’s not so much a test or an exploration as making a piece that works as chamber music.

How much do your previous pieces inform your current work?

Many of them are about audible beating which I use as structural material. A solo piece called Charles Curtis (2002), which I wrote for the cellist Charles Curtis, uses oscillator sweeps against which the cellist plays double stops causing beating patterns to occur. The work is in two identical sections. In each, two pure waves draw the letter C. Starting from Middle C one wave moves slowly up an octave, the other down an octave. After a pause, the same gesture is repeated exactly. The double stops were composed to cause simultaneous slowing down and speeding up of the beating patterns. One tone of a double stop, for example, may start in unison with a semitone along a sweeping wave causing the beating pattern to start at zero and speed up. (The farther the distance the faster the beating.) The other may start above or below a sweeping wave and, as the sweep approaches unison with the tone, the beating is caused to slow down. So you get a double counterpoint thing going, one pattern speeding up, the other slowing down. I worked very hard to find intervals that accomplished that. The double stops in each half of the piece are different, producing different beating patterns. I had really old fashioned compositional problems of getting the intervals right, making them varied, and making sure that each one causes the beating patterns to speed up or slow down at the same time. In that sense it’s more of a conventional composition, but what happens is you hear acoustic phenomena and the little artifacts that result from that activity.

In the sine wave pieces there’s often a visual image that is a starting point for the sweeps, and I was wondering how you go about choosing the pitches and the timings of events against them?

There are three pitches you can use to make audible beating against a sine wave, or any other more or less pure wave for that matter. One is the near unison, the second is the near octave below, which has a strong second harmonic, and the third is the octave and a fifth below which has a weaker but still usable third harmonic. So for every semitone along a sweep there are three choices. Sometimes I choose them by ear according to a personal sense of voice leading, more contrary motion, less parallel and oblique. Sometimes I use a simple numbering system that helps me choose among the three. The three possibilities are given to me.

It’s interesting that you mention counterpoint in that you’ve almost developed your own set of rules which you have to follow. I mean you’re obviously bound by those because they are acoustical realities of the pieces.

Sometimes I go against conventional rules of counterpoint. I use parallel octaves and unisons in certain ways, and I enjoy doing that. One thing I loved in music school was writing sixteenth-century counterpoint.

With reference to working with instrumentalists more than perhaps you did previously, how do you feel that has changed your music?

It’s not a complete departure because I’m still focused on acoustics and not on musical gestures. There are no musical gestures in these pieces. I was concerned about the concert on Monday night[1] because so many of the pieces are similar in that they use repetitive or long tones. In Fideliotrio (1987) the strings sweep up and down as the piano plays single tones against them, and in Sestina (2000) for low instruments there are no musical gestures, only long tones separated by silences in various combinations. I worry about audiences’ attention spans with this kind of music. For that reason I don’t let these pieces go on too long. There’s an interview with Feldman and Cage, and Feldman says what the world doesn’t need is another twenty-minute piece. Then John Cage said he was a thirty-minute composer because at that time he was writing pieces about that long. I’m a twelve- or sixteen-minute composer. When I write for chamber ensembles, I’m very careful about making them just long enough so that they do what I want them to do and no more. I have no reason for making Fideliotrio longer than it is. Twelve minutes is short enough to be put on a concert with other pieces. It’s a practical matter and an aesthetic matter too. If I needed them to be long they would be. For example, I recently wrote a tuba piece for Robin Hayward[2] that turns out to be close to 50 minutes long, but I say in the directions to the score that you don’t have to play the whole thing. It’s a set of seven permutations of 63 tones each but you can stop at the end of any phrase. Robin plays it for about 24 minutes (four phrases) which I thought would still be too long for an audience. (It’s a solo tuba piece.) But when he played it in Ostrava and Berlin everyone was focused on it. For the recording he played the entire seven phrases. Listeners have changed.

In a good way?

In a good way. People listen to this music more attentively. I watched the young students at the concert on the Monday night and they were extremely attentive. They didn’t get impatient. They might have been less attentive twenty years ago.

When you’re working with players do you feel the material you use has transformed as a result of that? In addition to the duration and practical aspects, do you feel the actual material of your work is different now?

Well, I am using instrumental sounds. I don’t use extended techniques. I want to hear the natural sounds of the instruments. I love to listen to long, medium loud string sounds lasting for a bow length of eight or ten seconds, then a change of bow direction causing a natural phase reversal; or wind instruments simply blown, producing pure sounds. In a sense they’re like oscillators.

Have they replaced oscillators?

Sometimes I make pieces with oscillators, sometimes without.

How do you deal with the notation of your work? What’s your view on how you present your music to performers in terms of notation?

I’m starting to notate my music conventionally as long as it conveys my intentions to the performer. A long time ago we thought we could develop new ways of notation that players would be willing to accommodate. Players learn conventional notation, in school, they’re very comfortable with it, and if you can write music that’s as close to what they have learned then it makes performance easier. John Cage had all these ideas about making the performer noble – he said that once – giving them certain freedoms and so forth. I don’t think that he accomplished it entirely. If you give them something they know and they feel comfortable with, then they’ll perform well. I usually use black or white round (neutral) noteheads. Black ones indicate semitones along glissandi, white ones indicate instrumental tones of various length. In Still Lives (1995) the white noteheads are written directly under the semitones along the oscillator sweeps but the player is free to play a little earlier or a little later causing variations in the resulting beating patterns. He or she doesn’t have to be exact. The player is not bothered by overly notated music, he or she just sees white notes that can be any length. And if you have the pedal down, on a piano for example, as in Music for Piano (1992) and Still Lives, that takes care of the length of the tones.

Because that’s in contrast to your work from the 1960s and 70s where you used text notation quite a lot?

I use texts when it seems to me to be appropriate. The score of the bass drum piece[3] consists of a set of instructions and a drawing of the set up. There’s no way to notate that piece with conventional notation. A young fellow recently realized a version of this piece and he got it pretty accurately from my score except that he had to use smaller bass drums. Four 36′ bass drums, even in large cities, are hard to find. The problem with playing experimental music now is that players will often revert to those techniques they already know. They think they’re adding to the work by doing something that they have experienced from other music. Percussion players who are used to changing mallets, for reasons of contrast, think that’s a virtue whereas in most of my pieces contrast is not an issue at all, there’s no reason for it. Perhaps they want to participate in the creation of the work in some way.

There’s a little spoken piece that the students are performing[4] here in which they make vocal sounds into found resonant objects. They’re performing it in a room that has a balcony, so they decided they wanted to go up in the balcony. They wouldn’t have thought of it if it weren’t there. They also wanted to perform it in the dark. There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but then the audience won’t see the objects. If an audience can’t see performers, it gives them an eerie feeling, so I had to persuade them to come down and stand up in front of the audience. They were embarrassed about doing that, which is the reason they went up in the balcony and put out the lights in the first place. So while it’s not wrong, it’s something added on to the performance. They loved doing it because it was their idea.

And the piece is about simply presenting that situation.

I think so, yes. There’s a performance practice issue that’s getting dangerous. A few years ago a performance group in California recorded a Feldman piece. They were having problems recording it softly so they simply played it loudly and played the recording back softly. That’s just wrong acoustically. Feldman wanted his music to be played softly. Music sounds very different when played softly. And if they didn’t understand that – and they were intelligent players – then that’s frightening. There is a recording of Christian Wolff’s For 1,2, or 3 People (1964) in which the players planned it out in advance so it sounds like spectacular avant garde European music. Much of Christian’s early work is about uncertainty and professional players don’t want to sound uncertain. They did it because they wanted the recording to be sure and successful. They were well meaning, but…

…it misses the point somewhat. What are you working on at the moment?

I just received a commission from the Mozarteum in Salzburg. It’s a reconstruction of the Requiem of Mozart. In Salzburg they play the Requiem every year and ask a composer to interact with it in some way. For example, George Friedrich Haas composed interludes between some of the movements. I chose the nine movements that Mozart didn’t finish. I put together excerpts from each movement forming a three minute suite. The orchestra, soloists and chorus will play it once, then sit quietly and listen as the sounds are recycled into the space using the I am Sitting in a Room (1970) technique. The missing parts will be filled in by the resonances of the room. The title is Music with Missing Parts.

And recently? You’ve said a little bit about moving away from the initial ideas you had in the 1960-90s and I wondered what direction you feel your current work is taking?

I suppose I could say that I simply ran out of ideas of what to do with electronics, although it’s not inconceivable that if somebody asked me to compose an electronic work I’d do it. But the real reason is that performers keep asking me for pieces. I was thinking about it last night because several visual artists were at my concert and I think that they were more interested in my earlier works than the newer insrumental ones. You can see why. I don’t relate to computer-generated sound although my oscillator sweeps are made with computer. Now if somebody asked me to make an installation for a gallery I would surely come up with an idea. It seems to me electronics goes with installations.

In fact I’m working with the Italian artist Maurizio Mochetti for an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Rome. He’s going to make some sculptures and I will supply sound. Recently I’ve been working with a technique called impulse response (convolution). You simply record a spike of sound in a space (I use balloon pops), then load it into a computer program (Altiverb). Any sound you feed into that program will sound as if it is in that recorded space. When Mochetti’s objects are finished I plan to pop balloons around them and use the recordings as virtual spaces in which to recycle sounds. I’ve collaborated with Sol LeWitt using this procedure, as accompaniment to his massive Curved Wall, first in Graz and again a few years later at Wesleyan. First I recorded the ambient sound of the gallery in which the wall was installed. Then I popped balloons at six points along the wall. Then I recycled the ambient recording into these virtual spaces until the resonances of the room at those points were revealed. One of the conditions is that there’s an instrumental ensemble associated with the Rome project, so I have to write music for their ensemble (Alter Ego). That’s not the first thing I would have thought of doing but I will accept their wishes.

So will the impulse images you create process the ensemble, and is it a piece with live electronics in that sense?

I’m not so sure about that yet. I’ve got to figure out where to place the loudspeakers because I don’t want to violate Mochetti’s visual space. There are so many beautiful small loudspeakers now coming out of computer technology. I’ll just have to see how large his objects are. I’m going over to Rome in March to visit him.

I just finished a piece called Canon for the Bang on a Can All Stars in New York, for electric guitar, cello, clarinet, piano, vibraphone, and double bass. The cello, bass and guitar – I put an E-Bow on the B string – sweep up an down while the other instruments play single long tones. I’m currently writing a piece for an ensemble in Norway.

So if that’s a piece you’re thinking about a the moment, could you say a bit about the stages you’ve gone through with it so far in terms of making it?

The name of the ensemble is asamisimasa. First I looked at the letters in the name and transcribed them roughly into musical pitches as: ABAEABA. The ensemble consists of piano, quarter tone marimba, clarinet and guitar. The electric guitar will sweep through the pitches in four measure segments. The form will be a palindrome using those pitches as signposts. Since the piano and marimba cannot sweep continuously they will step up through the pitches. For example, the piano repeats A for two measures, then alternates A with A# for the next two until it finally arrives at A# by the fifth measure. The marimba will have a similar stepping motion except that it steps twice as fast because it has to move though quarter tones instead of semitones. I designed a simple number system to ensure that the repetitions among the two players were unsynchronized. The clarinet sustains long tones throughout at pitches that produce its own set of beating patterns. I compose by going to the piano and playing two or three notes, then I go away. I think about it until the idea gels. Somehow it’s working in my mind even whan I’m not thinking about it conscously. I don’t sit and work at it for long periods of time. Pretty soon I’m able to see what the notation looks like, and once I get it blocked out on music paper it’s just a question of writing it down.

How do you see the status of a recording of your work?

I love to make recordings. They are a different from performances. I work with sound engineer Tom Hamilton. He knows what I want and we make beautiful recordings at Systems Two, a studio in Brooklyn. We spend a great deal of time editing, and that part’s enjoyable for me. Tom has a wonderful ear and makes wonderful decisions. I love it when a recording is clean with no noises and the effects are vivid.

In some of your pieces where the contingency of the performance is more important than in others, I wondered how you felt about the fixed nature of a recording in relation to that?

In a performance small errors and mistakes can be OK. But in a recording which people listen to over and over again, those things are not as interesting as you thought they were. So we try to make our recordings as perfect as we can.

Looking to the future, where do you want to go with your music?

I just follow my nose. I asked my friend artist Richard Tuttle, how he gets new ideas. He said, “I just follow my nose”. People like to pin you down. I make a spaghetti sauce at home, it’s totally simple, even simple-minded perhaps. No salt, no pepper, no herbs, just organic tomatoes – from a can no less. If there’s a bay leaf in it I take it out. I want to taste the organic tomatoes. People don’t like me to change the recipe. If I add capers or olives they say that they like it out of politeness but prefer the original. Often people don’t like you to change, they think you’ve violated something, but of course you want to keep moving on. Stravinsky did, Cage did certainly, so did Feldman with his extremely long works. I’m 76, not 40. I’m a different person, times change and I am open to different inspirations.

What I’d like to do is to get my scores in order. They’re kind of messy and it’s stressful because people want scores and I have to find them and xerox them, dub a CD and go to the post office. It’s time-consuming and that’s a problem for me. I do have a small publisher in Frankfurt, materialpress. More and more they are taking over these duties.

I don’t answer my emails quickly enough. I’m terrible about that. I get irritated by receiving so many. I should make peace with them. I simply keep going, making pieces for ensembles. I enjoy that a lot. It has been enjoyable to work with the Barton Workshop. They’re good friends, great players. They want to do one’s music right and they work hard and their performances are wonderful. That’s enough for me.

I’m inspired by Christian Wolff. He makes one piece after another, one chamber work after another, hundreds it seems, for any conveivable combination–piccolo and tuba, whatever. As a result his pieces get played all over the place.

Several yars ago I visited the Percy Grainger Museum in Melbourne. You may know that Grainger invented electronic instruments, they’re in that museum. They’re extremely interesting but they never entered the mainstream of music. I wrote my early works not thinking much about being in the mainstream, but they are being played more and more now because a lot of young musicians love technical challenges. Several of them are even making versions of David Behrman’s analogue music on computers. I never thought our pieces were going to go anywhere. But they are because of young performers, sound hackers. You never know what’s going to happen.

[1] The interview took place during a short festival of Lucier’s music at Dartington College of Arts on 14 November 2007.

[2] Coda Variations (2007)

[3] Music for Pure Waves, Bass Drums, and Acoustic Pendulums (1980)

[4] I Remember (1997)

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  1. […] is the interview I did with Alvin Lucier in 2007 at Dartington. He was over for a short residency, with the students playing and installing […]

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