Sitting in a Room with Alvin Lucier

Not Fitting In

FJO: Here we are in this lovely little apartment in Tudor City. Usually we visit composers and there’s a grand piano over there and a synthesizer there and a pile of scores. None of that’s here.

AL: No, I have a piano at home which I use to compose these pieces with single pitches, but I don’t have a studio, I don’t have loudspeakers set up downstairs. I think I’m a post-studio composer. I never wanted that. I have two CD players. I have a cassette recorder. I have an Otari 5050B beautiful reel-to-reel recorder. I never use it; it’s in the basement. My sine waves, I compose the values for those and I send them to an engineer who executes them.

FJO: How do you compose those values?

AL: Well, time and frequency, I exactly notate them.

FJO: Now is this something you’ll hear in your head in advance?

AL: Yeah. For instance, a piece for singer and the oscillator sweeps from one pitch to another pitch, goes down and up and does various things, say D at 296 cycles going up to so-and-so in so many seconds. Thankfully my sine wave sweeps are fairly simple so I don’t have to do a lot of calculations, but I get them exactly and then I notate them on a page for the singer. He sees the sweeps, he sees the chromatic pitches, where they are timed, and then he has his own notes to sing. But I don’t want to spend my life learning how to do that on a computer. I would rather get somebody to do it for me.

FJO: You work out ideas on a piano, but most of your musical ideas seem beyond the piano.

AL: If it’s for a singer or instruments and they’re playing, for example, In Memoriam John Higgins, all the pitches are chromatic pitches, there isn’t any microtuning. The oscillator does that. In Still and Moving Lines there is microtuning. So obviously I can’t play those, but I do go to the instrument and hear it. I hear something.

I was watching a videotape of Robert Craft talking about Stravinsky. After Stravinsky had died, Craft goes into Stravinsky’s studio and he plays a chord on the upright piano. It’s totally out of tune, totally. And I thought, of course, Stravinsky’s dead, nobody’s gone in and tuned the piano. Craft says that Stravinsky didn’t care whether his piano was tuned or not. Now, then my mind went to the chord in Orpheus which is two trombones, B and C’s semi-tone, and then B-B-B octaves, F, B. That’s the sonority—C-B-B-B-F-B—and no one in a million years would have chosen that sonority; it’s so beautiful. It doesn’t make sense. I’m thinking that Stravinsky used the out of tune piano to give him the idea. I mean, it could be that it was a C major chord out of tune, the C’s have slipped to B’s, because the B is the leading tone, the F is the subdominant. It may have generated those wonderful sonorities. It’s hard to believe that a composer wouldn’t have a tuned piano.

Now I have my piano tuned, but before it gets tuned—you know it’s in the cold weather and things go—I hear beats in the single tones because one of the strings has slipped a little bit. There’s more to that [for me] than in the Stravinsky case.

FJO: So, in a way Stravinsky is still a role model for you. [laughs] He seems to have been a role model for every composer once upon a time.

AL: I was very impressed by Igor Stravinsky, as we all were in those days. And I had professors in school that took from Stravinsky.

FJO: I’ve often wondered if there was a secret Lucier sonata for violin and piano that you wrote in the ’50s lurking around in a drawer somewhere. Thumbing through a catalog of your work I see that there are works that could be considered part of that tradition. But you’ve withdrawn that work.

AL: [My professors] were frustrated and enraged that their music wasn’t getting played; they were very skilled composers but it seemed like the musical establishment had not much interest. Somehow, I thought, I can’t go on with this if that’s the result.

FJO: What other music you were exposed to growing up?

AL: My father was an amateur violinist and my mother played piano. There was a lot of popular music in our house. My father liked serious music, but I would have to say it was more Gershwin and things of that kind. There was a music store in my small town. I went there once and there was a recording of Schoenberg‘s Serenade, of all things. I bought it and it was shocking. It didn’t make any sense, but there was something about it that kept my interest. At that point I decided I was interested in challenging things.

FJO: What you wound up doing musically seems to be a complete break from the music of the past.

AL: It strikes me that experimental music is totally different from European avant-garde music or American avant-garde music that comes from there. It’s made out of totally different stuff. It has different ideas that don’t come from the music of the past. They come from another source. For example, Vespers is based on physical echoes in the environment, not echoes that you hear in Monteverdi, which are instruments imitating each other, but actual physical echoes. So it doesn’t fit in.

Somebody used that term “fit in” the other day with me. The composers in America who are successful with orchestras write work that fits in and sounds like other music that is written for orchestra. It doesn’t challenge anything. He didn’t think it was going to last that long either because it was made to fit in. We have a building at Wesleyan, where I teach, that was put in between two 19th century buildings and it’s made of glass and steel. Some people say that it’s bad architecture because it doesn’t fit it. But if it fit in, then it wouldn’t be good architecture because the architect would have had to relate to this other architecture. Years ago we performed in Arizona where there was a frank Lloyd Wright auditorium. People hated it when it was put up. Now you go and there’s a tour guide who says, “This is our frank Lloyd Wright building.” They love it now. Anyway, I think a lot of us are making work that doesn’t come from that other source. I’m thinking of Bob Ashley‘s works. They’re a genre of their own, but he thinks they’re operas.

FJO: But clearly this had to come from somewhere.

AL: I was lucky to go to Europe on a Fulbright in 1960 and I heard all the wonderful European avant-garde pieces. I think I heard the first performance of Luigi Nono‘s Canto Sospeso. It dawned on me that this was their music and they were good at it. It was in their souls. Structuralism, serialism—I was incompetent in that field. I could imitate it, but it would be that, an imitation. So I was at an impasse. Then I went to the Fenice in Venice where Cage and David Tudor and Merce Cunningham did an event. That just stopped me dead in my tracks. After that, I decided to do something totally different that would seem to be something my own.

FJO: So what makes American experimental music different from classical music and modern European music? How did it become something else?

AL: It’s hard to actually pin that down. I think a lot of it came from Cage, the early tape pieces where he ecologized. He would record sounds of the city, sounds of the country. He made these works that mixed these found sounds and environmental sounds. Then there was 4’33” which was about hearing the sounds around you and the idea of non-intentionality—whatever you do, you don’t control. When I was in Milan, I had access to work in an electronic music studio and everything was controlled. People like Luciano Berio were in there. Control and possibility were the words they used to use a lot. We’ve got all the possibilities and we control them. The idea of Cage is that you have all those possibilities but you don’t control them, and if you don’t control them something wonderful is going to happen.

I was at an improvisation concert the other night and it just didn’t interest me at a certain point. It reminded me of a misconception of Cage’s ideas about chance. Two things happen simultaneously and something really special occurs that you can’t get if you plan it; you can’t get that if you react to someone else. And the improvisers were reacting. They were hearing the other players and deciding to do things. It’s got the randomness of the six players improvising, but they’re all reacting to each other so nothing special happens. It drives me crazy to hear performances of Christian Wolff‘s For 1, 2 or 3 People—which is based on coordinations and uncertainty, anxiety, accidents—[but some] players plan in advance what it’s going to be like. The result is a spectacular performance but it doesn’t have that quality. That’s what they miss. I don’t know why they don’t understand that quality.

FJO: But all of the training for classical musicians is predicated on having a score with lots of details. If those details aren’t there, what is the musician supposed to do? And if it’s a large ensemble, that control goes even one step further—you follow a conductor who tells you how to interpret that music.

AL: Oh, don’t talk to me about conductors! [laughs] I was a conductor of the Brandeis Choral Society and I did Morton Feldman‘s The Swallows of Salangan. That piece is for a huge orchestra and a four-part chorus. You give a down beat and then everybody proceeds at their own speed, so you get this beautiful phasing thing. The singers do the same, even though they’re following a single part. When I did it in Town Hall, and Morton Feldman was sitting there, I gave a downbeat and that was the performance. [But] I heard of a performance in Europe where the conductor would give a downbeat at turns of the page to keep everybody together, which is anxiety about letting it happen. I had an argument with another conductor who wanted to conduct the choral parts because they were single parts.

FJO: So I imagine you don’t really like writing for the orchestra.

AL: I’m doing a new piece for the Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble. It’s based on an overture by Beethoven called The Consecration of the House which he wrote for the reopening of a concert hall in Vienna in 1823. I’ve done these acoustic experiments like I Am Sitting In A Room and so forth, and I thought of a piece called The Exploration of the House where I would have an orchestra play in a concert hall, preferably a new one, and use the recycling technique of I Am Sitting In A Room to explore the acoustics of that space. I thought about what I would have the orchestra play, and for the life of me the idea of composing something didn’t ring a bell for me, so I finally decided to take the Beethoven overture by itself.

It’s a dangerous thing I’m doing. I chose seventeen fragments from that overture. The conductor conducts one fragment, seven seconds perhaps, nine seconds, and it’s stored in the memory of a computer in digital delay. Then he stops the orchestra and it’s played back again and again and you start to hear these beautiful resonances, and then he’ll conduct another fragment. So I’m using the Beethoven as a found object, but the process transforms it so much that it seems to make no sense.

FJO: Do you know what the sound resulting from this process will ultimately be?

AL: No.

FJO: That’s part of the excitement for you?

AL: Sure. I don’t know how fast it’s going to happen. There are seventeen phrases, some of them are up to thirty seconds long. The mock-up version I made of the piece, with ten iterations of each fragment, is about fifty-seven minutes which is a little long for a concert. But in a place such as Zankel Hall, which is a live space, I have the feeling the transformation is going to be a lot faster, maybe four or five iterations, which is O.K. I don’t really care. The conductor can decide how many iterations. I just told you I hated conductors but here I am making a piece for a conductor! So he could conduct one fragment, it may go six times, and transform itself into something very nice, and then he may decide to move on. We can also eliminate some of them. I’m not wedded to the idea of seventeen. That’s just what I chose as material.

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