Sitting in a Room with Alvin Lucier

Science vs. Art

FJO: What is your compositional process, going from the initial conception to its final realization?

AL: So often, when I’m writing a piece, I have to de-compose, I have to not compose. I have all these ideas about the piece that come from composition that you study. I have to eliminate those things that distract from the acoustical unfolding of the idea. For each piece, it’s a little bit different. I get an idea, usually about a sound that is not realized, you don’t know it yet, like echoes or brainwaves. I’m very interested in that, that’s what gets me started. To reveal it, I have to work hard to put it in a form that allows it to reveal itself and the magical quality it has without the interference of other ideas that don’t fit in.

I had a student once from Germany who wanted to do this kind of thing. He made a piece for several gongs. It was very nice because we’d hear the gongs. And then he came in the next week and he had something else going on. He said, “I felt I needed another layer of form in this piece.” He was very skillful at layering, but he was distracting from the perception of the natural quality of these gongs by putting another thing over it. If you think of La Monte Young’s piece for bowed gong—that’s all it is and you can hear all of the resonance of that. If he would have crescendo-ed, or done this or that, it would have been a different piece. You wouldn’t hear the natural quality of the gong.

FJO: You described your music as “experimental” which already carries with it a scientific connotation. Certainly the model of not knowing how a piece will turn out until you do it is in some ways akin to a science experiment.

AL: Absolutely. I’m not ashamed of that. I was never good in science in school, but when I get interested in these acoustical ideas, I learn just enough to execute the piece. I read a high school book for students by some Englishman to learn about acoustics, the nature of sound: Pythagoras, the vibrating string, echoes, things of that sort. That’s about the limit of my intellectual abilities in that field, just enough to execute the piece. I don’t like to preach ignorance by any means. I think when you do I Am Sitting In A Room, a scientist would say, “I could do that in a minute; that’s easy.” First of all, they don’t. And secondly, I make that piece as an artist. I think about the timing and I think about what I’m saying. So it’s not that I’m an expert in the scientific aspect of it, but I try to use my artistic sense.

In Memoriam John Higgins uses a rising sine wave. It’s inexorable—nothing changes. I remember Fred Rzewski saying, “Why don’t you do something? Change the speed, make it rise and fall.” He wanted the sine wave to be interesting. I want the sine wave to be neutral, to be eliciting information and not giving information. Now, when you have a sine wave going at the same speed from beginning to end, it really isn’t going at the same speed because in each octave the frequencies are doubled. It’s going one speed but the frequencies are gaining speed. And then when you have the players playing long tones across the sine wave, the audible beating—interference patterns—slow down and speed up and at each octave they do it at a faster rate. If I had interfered with the sine wave, those proportions would be lost.

FJO: But it’s clear that you also find these phenomena interesting aesthetically. In fact, your comments makes those neutral sine waves sound extremely interesting. I would dare say, even though you say you’re just letting these processes happen, you choose certain processes which will yield results that are readily identifiable as your artistic work. Music for Solo Performer, your piece for brainwaves, is one of the only exceptions I can think of. Most of your music is slow but this piece is much faster due to the process of how alpha waves trigger the sounds.

AL: That was that piece. I enjoy pieces that do that. I have so many pieces that have sustained sounds and I’m trying to find a way to make pieces without that.

FJO: Slow motion certainly gives listeners a chance to actually hear how these processes play out, like all your pieces where pitches come extremely close together and then move slightly apart. In some ways, it’s the ultimate microtonal music.

AL: My pieces are not microtonal, although I use that word sometimes to describe it. If you try to have a player play one cycle away from a sine wave, he can’t do it exactly. Sometimes he can, but he can’t do it all the time. When you microtune something, you’re getting different intervals of different sizes. When you are closely tuning, as I do, you’re getting rhythms—one cycle away is one beat a second. So it’s the rhythmic quality, not the tonal quality.

Now, in some of the pieces, under certain circumstances when the beats are so close, you hear the sounds move in space. That’s what I’m trying to get after. It very seldom happens, but sometimes it does. There’s a phenomenon which was described to me by a scientist: If one pitch is above the other, the beats spin towards the low sound. So if one pitch goes above and below, theoretically I can spin the beats in one direction and then the reverse. That only happens once or twice in my work, but that’s what I’m trying to get at. The intention of doing it is very important, even if it doesn’t really work. So many of my pieces don’t work.

FJO: Don’t work in terms of what you initially wanted to do?

AL: The intention is important and I always have the feeling that someday they will work, somehow.

FJO: So what are examples of piece in your opinion that work and pieces that don’t work?

AL: Well, Anthony Burr played a piece of mine two nights ago for bass clarinet and low oscillator. I think the low pitch is an F in the score, and he’s not supposed to go more than three cycles on either side of that sustained sine wave low F, and there are symbols for sliding up and down a little bit. If he starts two cycles above and slides across the unison to one cycle below, theoretically when he’s close those beats should spin. If the sound of the clarinet in some way matches the sound wave, you should hear some kind of spinning or some spatial aspect. Well, of course there is a spatial aspect anyway because the sine wave is so pure that, if it’s a stationary wave, the standing waves have a palpable, physical presence in that space.

I didn’t invent that idea. La Monte Young did work with that, so I pay him my respects. If the wave slides around, as in Memoriam, the wavelengths are getting shorter and they’re reflecting in different ways, so that the waves move around the space. In the hall the other night, it sounded as if the engineer was raising and lowering the volume levels, but he never touches them. It’s that the wave crests are moving across you in one point in space. So that’s a physical manifestation of these phenomenon, and they’re not electronic, they’re physical.

FJO: You’ve talked about people not able to execute your music in performance. Early on you worked pretty exclusively with electronics. Yet, since the ’90s, you’ve worked frequently with classically trained musicians: string quartet, pianist, trombone, orchestra pieces. What made you turn to, in essence, classical music?

AL: Very simple—performers started asking me to make them works. There was an ensemble at school, they had seven players and they wanted a piece to inaugurate their first performance. They asked me, and I was delighted because the reason I went into music was because of my love for classical music. So my task was to find a way to use these instruments in my own way. And I think I found it. [laughs] Making those instruments do what they can do without the gestures and the other things that go along with it.

FJO: One of my favorite pieces of yours is Panorama, a trombone and piano piece with no electronics in it at all, but it does the same kinds of things. On the recording, I hear those acoustic phenomenon working. The performers clearly got it.

AL: In Japan I did a piece for four kotos. We recorded it last night, and there’s no electronics in that either. They just pluck their strings. It’s a very simple-minded form. They all start on the same pitch and then over a period of twelve minutes one player moves to an F, one player moves to an E, one payer moves to an F#. They go up at different intervals, slowing down as they do so. Very simple. They fan out into this. And after a while you start really hearing the beats, the plucks, and of course they can’t control their speeds exactly. They don’t use metronomes or anything, it’s all done by innate sense of timing, so you get this sort of random, rhythmic feeling. Beats occur because one player is 30 cents lower than the next player and so forth. The string plucks last about four or five seconds, so when they overlap there’s some little sustains underneath it.

This piece for four kotos has this inexorable form where just one idea goes through the whole piece. They all start in sync and then the piece speeds up very fast because they all move out of phase. By having a simple form that doesn’t change, speeds change within the piece. It starts in sync, it goes faster, and then it slows down at the end. Pieces like Steve Reich‘s Come Out are essentially one process, but unexpected things happen. In Jim Tenney‘s percussion piece [Koan: Having Never Written A Note For Percussion], the directions are simply crescendo, diminuendo. So it looks like a joke. But when you roll on a gong from very soft to very loud, along the way the gong steps into different modes. At a certain point it’s at a level where it’s unstable. So something that’s gradual in a form doesn’t necessarily produce a gradual result. Other composers wouldn’t have had the patience to stay with the process because nothing was happening. But you wait for it and then it does happen. Sometimes in my own pieces I don’t hear the phenomenon at the beginning. I think something’s wrong with the performance or with myself. I can’t prove this, but it takes time to perceive it.

FJO: The time factor is crucial, but it’s interesting that many of your recent pieces are a lot shorter than the earlier ones.

AL: I’m making pieces for performers that are shorter for practical reasons. If it were longer it would take away from some other pieces that would be on the program.

FJO: But for listeners, those other things on the program are probably going to be very different listening experiences than the kind of things you’re doing. Imagine someone going in and hearing, say, a Beethoven string quartet, and then hearing your quartet for Arditti. They require two different kinds of listening. It’s unfair to Beethoven but it’s even more unfair to you.

AL: Well, we can be a little unfair to Beethoven.

FJO: But perhaps it’s ultimately unfair to audiences to make them try to appreciate things that are so different from each other.

AL: I was somewhat anxious [at] the concert at Tonic the other night. Charles Curtis and Anthony Burr have made a double CD of these pieces and they’re almost all sustain pieces. There’s In Memoriam John Higgins, there’s a piece I wrote for Charles, there are two pieces from Still and Moving Lines. And I thought, my god, this is about an hour and a half of music, you’re in a club downtown, how are these people going to sit and listen, because each piece is so similar in certain ways. And everyone was very attentive, except me. I had this funny idea on the way back home that I was a little bit ahead of the curve, at least my own curve, in making these works where players sustain long tones and they tune closely and the beats speed up and slow down. But now I’m behind the curve because I need constant change and contrast whereas audiences, at least that audience, just sat and shared the whole thing. I was very surprised.

FJO: It’s curious that much of your music is site specific, yet a lot of the way it reaches people is through recordings where you have no way of knowing what the listening environment might be.

AL: You know people say, “Well, why do you do those? You can’t get the same effect.” Well, you do something else. In pieces like Still and Moving Lines of Silence, and In Memoriam John Higgins, the stereo is set up in such a way that an instrument is on one channel and the oscillator is on another channel, and in your own room you hear not a performance of the piece but you’re hearing the piece in your own room and the physical phenomenon are happening in your room. They’re not a document of what happened in some other room.

FJO: The way people listen to music at home is very different than the way people listen to music in a concert hall or in a gallery setting where they’re just walking through. At home, most people are doing other things when they listen to music.

AL: There’s a wonderful CD that the Wandelweiser people in Germany did of Christian Wolff’s piece Stones. Five players chose stones, something very minimal, and over a period of an hour and ten minutes those sounds are heard. There could be one or two minutes between sounds. So I play the CD in one room and I’m in the other room and I forget it and all of a sudden I could hear xhock, this little sound that I don’t associate with the sounds of my environment. And then a minute after that I hear xhockxhock [laughs]. It’s beautiful. It’s a different thing. It’s just wonderful.

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