BY Nick Earhart in Opinion | 06 DEC 21

A Tribute to Alvin Lucier (1931–2021)

Nick Earhart remembers his former professor and acclaimed experimental composer, Alvin Lucier

BY Nick Earhart in Opinion | 06 DEC 21

Acclaimed composer Alvin Lucier, who explored the material properties of sound, died last week at the age of 90. While the ‘experimental’ label is often overused, Lucier’s poetic yet scientifically inflected work often comprised actual experiments – whether amplifying his own brain waves, producing auditory maps with echolocation or teasing out the resonant frequencies of enclosed spaces. Lucier embraced technology, but was less a futurist than an ecologist, invested in tracing the subtle vibrational interplay between humans and their environments.

With Lucier’s passing, another important link to the mid-century avant-garde has been severed. Having studied neoclassical composition in the 1950s, Lucier encountered John Cage, Merce Cunningham and David Tudor while on a Fulbright Fellowship in Rome in 1960. He took up their radical aesthetic reorientations and, upon his return to the US in 1962, began developing his own musical language, which culminated in his groundbreaking 1965 biofeedback piece, Music for Solo Performer, in which the composer utilized a new device to channel alpha brain waves into percussive sound. (Significantly, Lucier framed this as an act of letting go rather than control; alpha waves are emitted when the brain is in a state of relaxation.) 

Alvin Lucier and Jan Thoren performing 'Bird and Person Dyning' in Kyoto, photograph by Yoshikazu Inoue
Alvin Lucier and Jan Thoren performing ‘Bird and Person Dyning’ in Kyoto, date unknown. Courtesy: © Alvin Lucier and Black Truffle Records; photograph: Yoshikazu Inoue

As part of the Sonic Arts Union – a collective with Robert Ashley, David Behrman and Gordon Mumma – Lucier developed techniques not so much to organize but to locate and transduce environmental sound. His famous, extraordinary 1969 work, I Am Sitting in a Room, sets up an elegant system of resonance and decay: Lucier records himself reading the titular text, which is then played back into the room and re-recorded. With each successive pass, Lucier’s voice dissolves further into a drone of the room’s resonant frequencies. The piece can be seen to efface subjectivity or convey its situated, relational nature. Earlier this year, 90 artists performed the work at New York’s Issue Project Room in a marathon event celebrating the composer’s 90th birthday. Its enduring appeal makes sense: staging in miniature the space of subjectivity within an environmental and technological network, it presciently speaks to our globalized, hypermediated present.

Lucier was also an educator, serving as a professor at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, for more than 40 years. This is where I met him and encountered experimental music for the first time. I was hardly acclimated to this avant-garde sensibility; coming from the suburban Midwest, I took his class because the course description mentioned Cage’s 4'33" (1952), which intrigued me as a kind of conceptual joke. It still strikes me as an enormous, anomalous privilege that the course, ‘Introduction to Experimental Music’, was being taught by one of the luminaries of the field. Wesleyan had an open curriculum and an excellent music department – Anthony Braxton was the other superstar – so I imagine there were many students like me, who signed up for Lucier’s class on a whim  only to have their minds blown, or at least tweaked significantly.

Alvin Lucier performing, photograph by Steve Gunther, 2019
Alvin Lucier, 2019. Courtesy: © Alvin Lucier and Black Truffle Records; photograph: Steve Gunther

In class, he performed one of his pieces – Music on a Long Thin Wire (1977) – which utilizes contact mics, speakers, an oscillator and a wire to produce strange sweeps of undulating sound. The composer Christian Wolff came for a visit. We covered fluxus, phase music, chance-based composition and other approaches that blur genres and challenge conventions of authorship and intentionality. The whole time, I appreciated Lucier for being extremely real about his work, for conveying a passion for music that could be, and often is, written off as obscure, elitist or ‘unlistenable’. He talked about NFL football, and he talked about Cage. He was a little intimidating, but he gave his many students – some of whom were serious musicians and some of whom were not – the same great gift: a capacity to bravely approach unfamiliar art and listen in new ways. 

Lucier will be remembered as a great innovator of experimental composition, someone who bridged disciplines and intuited the transformational impacts of technology. His students, like me, will remember him as a generous guide through the shifting terrain of the historical avant-garde and its legacies. His works betray an intimacy and a curiosity – not just about what music is, but what it can be. 

Main image: Alvin Lucier, date unknown. Courtesy: © Alvin Lucier and Black Truffle Records; photograph: Kris Serafin

Nick Earhart is a writer. He lives in Pasadena, USA.