passages

Alvin Lucier (1931–2021)

Alvin Lucier, 1986. Photo: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images.

ALVIN LUCIER DID THINGS QUIETLY, without fanfare. He made a piece for cello and wind, which I played outdoors at the Mimm’s Ranch amphitheater in Marfa in 2016. I sat maybe a hundred yards off from the listeners, almost out of sight, and the soft sweeping tones of the cello were to be borne back to the listeners by the soft west Texas wind. In place of any explanation or score, Alvin sent me in advance a photocopy, by mail, of the first page of Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil. Sounds from the shore of Brundisium, “a sound of life, a hammering or a summons,” are blown by a “soft, scarcely perceptible cross wind” across the Adriatic to the approaching Imperial fleet, reaching the ears of the ailing poet. This was apparently all Alvin needed me to know. The very first piece he ever made for me, in 2002, he sent in a plain manila envelope without announcement or comment, just his name written beneath the word “Cordially.” Telephone calls, and conversations generally, were pleasant for the silences accorded to Alvin’s stutter. One waited for the words to arrive, and reflected, during the gaps, on what had been said, and what might yet remain to be said.

Alvin Lucier died peacefully at home in Middletown, Connecticut, on the first day of last December, in the morning. His daughter Amanda had arrived the night before; the passage into another world was expected, everyone was prepared, even (I hope) Alvin. He had turned ninety the previous May, an event that was widely celebrated, to his delight and satisfaction. He was composing straight through the summer, at great effort, despite difficult rehab for the aftereffects of a fall, as well as severe, age-related physical limitations.

The works from this last phase are remarkable, and surprising. In “Same and Different,” commissioned by bassoonist Dafne Vicente-Sandoval for the Darmstädter Ferienkurse and premiered in August, a sine wave sustains at the standard A frequency used universally by orchestras when tuning up. Against this, Vicente-Sandoval plays 126 different “unison” fingerings of A, each one near in pitch but not identical to the sine wave, each one pulsating at an infinitesimally different pattern of interference. Over thirty minutes, the experience is confounding, a seemingly unending series of slight variations on a single “note.” Like so much of his music over decades, the outer reserve, the reduction in means, the austere formal framework, give way to a kind of opulence, a world of marvels radiating outward from the givens of note and instrument.

Alvin Lucier, “Twonings” from the album “Almost New York” (2010). Performed by Charles Curtis (cello) and Joseph Kubera (piano). Courtesy of Pogus Productions.

His very last piece, made for the thousand-year anniversary of the Basilica of the Holy Apostles in Cologne, and premiered there by the Ever Present Orchestra in October, is called “One Thousand Years of Resonant Joy.” With a title like that, one wonders if he knew it was to be his last piece. A seven-note “motto” plays out in stringent canon, the seven instruments rigorously restating the constantly re-ordered phrase at unison, each instrument following successively at a delay of one second. Alvin claimed there was no historical basis to his choice of the seven notes, but the unmistakable resemblance to plainchant takes one directly to his youth as a student at Portsmouth Priory, singing every day with the Benedictine monks; and to his early career as a choral conductor.

I met Alvin in the winter of 2002. He entered my office at UC San Diego snapping his fingers and making clicking sounds with his tongue: he was testing the resonances of my room. I had asked him to check out the altered cricket clickers, aimed through tube extensions to increase directionality, that my students and I had prepared for our performance of Vespers. We clicked, searching for flutter echoes. We also mounted Music for Cello with One or More Amplified Vases, and Anthony Burr learned In Memoriam Jon Higgins for the first time. The work on these pieces, the newness of the demands and implications, and especially the quiet, long, exhaustive, open-ended rehearsals with Alvin, brought recognitions that altered my understanding of music.

For a period of years, Alvin and I spoke on the phone every Sunday to compare the successes of the New England Patriots with the failures of the San Diego Chargers. Once in a bar on First Avenue, we watched a Patriots game together, drinking Coke and eating burgers. I was astonished at the astuteness with which Alvin called out defensive formations, quietly predicting plays and outcomes. He could have been a betting man. He once expressed mild regret at having kicked a young Bill Belichek out of his classroom at Wesleyan for showing disrespect toward experimental music.

Alvin Lucier and Charles Curtis backstage at Wesleyan University, 2011. Photo: Raha Raissnia.

In Detroit, after we performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art, we went out for Coney Island Hot Dogs somewhere in the outlying districts. The hot dogs came recommended, and they were very good. After settling into a booth to eat them, the man from behind the counter came over and began a combined magic and comedy show. It must have been two in the morning, and he performed for us with élan and virtuosity for a good twenty minutes. Alvin seemed to attract magical elements. It was easy to imagine a reversal of roles, with Alvin performing Opera with Objects or Bird and Person Dyning for the assembled employees.

Heartbeats to the Moon was another piece involving magic, or science, or subterfuge. I’m not sure which. Alvin performed this at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, 2018. If I understood the principle correctly, the pulses of his heart were sent in real time as radio waves through two radio telescopes (one in Italy and one in the Netherlands) to the moon; his heartbeats were to bounce off the surface of the moon and return to the sound system of the concert venue as echoed impulses. There were indeed sounds, but I would be at a loss to precisely identify what I was hearing. The people in charge said that “it worked perfectly.” Currently two scientists in Perth are using Alvin’s stem cells to make a biochemical replica of him. They interviewed me last year via teleconference, but I could not glean much more than their desire that this homunculus would continue to compose indefinitely, and possibly perform from time to time. Anyone who has seen Alvin’s roles as actor in Nam Jun Paik’s “Tribute to John Cage” or in the George Manupelli “Dr. Chicago” films must hope that these performances too will be revived, or added to.

Lucier is probably most widely known, and celebrated, for his work with brain waves, and with the resonant frequencies of rooms. All of his work plays on increments of distance, and the interchange between carrier medium – room, space, environment – and signal. But probably the largest part of his work is devoted to an incredibly detailed investigation into the phenomenon of acoustical beating. In most musical settings, this phenomenon is a mere side effect best ignored or covered over with vibrato, and in any case made inaudible through the rapid pitch changes and the obsession with the attack points of sound that are taken for granted in Western music. When beating is made audible, it is heard as a chafing, a marker of dissonance or discordance.

Alvin Lucier, “In Memoriam Jon Higgins” (1984) for clarinet and slow-sweep pure wave. Performed by Anthony Burr.

But in Alvin’s hands, beating becomes the herald of infinitely varying inner pulsation—a relational physics of delicate reciprocity, an exact indexing of the in-betweenness of two wavefronts. When set forth with the care and exactitude that were his, incommensurably powerful sonorous and spatial consequences come about. In effect, the basic structuring principle of Western art music is turned on its head: “notes” are supplanted by their epiphenomenal emanations, taking us from discrete points to the continuum. Hence the many pieces with frequency sweeps from the late ’80s on.

The project is at once alchemical and pataphysical; alchemical in the transforming of “base” dissonance into pure spectral energy, pataphysical in the locating of artistic matter in the exception, the only-here and only-now. The pieces also figure as an exhaustive exercise in inframince, Duchamp’s principle of attentiveness to marginally perceivable intervals of difference. Yet Alvin never made reference to such concepts; he was simply following his curiosity.

More to his liking was the poetic mode. How characteristic that Alvin would have found just those phrases in Hermann Broch’s novel. Looking back now, I guess that single page from The Death of Virgil was the score of the piece; the piece itself was a memorial to Alvin’s friend Morton Feldman – its title was I Remember Morty; and cello and wind meant something about dispersing and disappearing. The gentle airborne hammerings perfectly describe the pulsations of phase interference. Sound carried by the air, action at a distance, sound that we must lean toward “with straining ears,” all capture Alvin’s way of being in the world, and his music. The music is “a sound of life… a summons,” issued softly but clearly, for us to answer.

Charles Curtis is a cellist. His long associations with Alvin Lucier, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, Éliane Radigue, and Tashi Wada have brought into being numerous new works fashioned around his musical persona. He is Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of California, San Diego.

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