Sitting in a Room with Alvin Lucier

Unlearning and Keeping an Open Mind

FJO: In terms of working with players, interacting with them and rehearsing, how much does somebody need to know about the ideas behind the pieces in order to perform them?

AL: It’s what they need not to know. I don’t mean to give a flip answer… A wonderful percussion player was doing Silver Street Car for the Orchestra which is for solo triangle. Right in the middle, not at the concert but in dress rehearsal, he changed his beater. I said, “Why did you change your beater?” He said, “I think it’s more interesting.” But the interest in the piece is not in changing the beater; it’s exploring the acoustics of that folded metal bar. The idea comes from all those percussion pieces where you pick something up every two minutes, you pick up a different beater and you play on different instruments. Usually players, when they’re anxious about something, resort to what they know. What they know is very good, but it doesn’t fit my work. I heard about a player doing a diminuendo in a Morton Feldman piece, which is already quiet and a diminuendo makes it even more quiet. Players will do what they already know; they will make pitches expressive. So the player started his diminuendo at a mezzo-forte, misunderstanding that Feldman was making a philosophically impossible idea. You’re already very quiet and you even get quieter.

FJO: The other night the Bang On A Can All-Stars played with Philip Glass and they did Music in Similar Motion. What I love about that piece is that it’s so relentlessly loud, but they were doing crescendos and decrescendos on it. It was very strange.

AL: The New York Philharmonic players did In C several years ago. It was just terrible. They moved the pulse around from instrument to instrument. They had piano and marimba and xylophone and they would soften and crescendo and it’s just adding something to it that it doesn’t need to have—that’s what you learn in music.

FJO: What should listeners be bringing to this music when they hear it? What’s the ideal listener for you?

AL: They asked Wallace Stevens that and he said “an informed reader.” I don’t care whether my audience is informed, but they should be open to these experiences. I have a friend who is very closed to things. He’ll say, “I hate opera.” And his spouse loves opera. So, I felt like saying to him, “Well, how many operas have you gone to?” Probably one. I should have said to him, “Why don’t you go to an opera every month for five years and then decide if you don’t like opera?”

The idea of closing your mind immediately. I like this; I don’t like this. It doesn’t make any sense to me. My students are very open, but I always say to them at the first class, “I’m not interested in your opinions.” [laughs] And they get a little upset. But I say, “I’m interested in your perceptions. So don’t hear a piece and decide. That doesn’t interest me, whether you think it’s good or not. What do you hear? Tell me what you perceive.” That’s interesting to me. I just want people who are open and take it for what it is.

FJO: Last night I was re-reading through some of your CD booklet notes and came across the story of your confrontation with a music critic who hated Music on a Long Thin Wire.

AL: That was at New Music Miami. There was a panel and one of the critics said, “I don’t like wires.” And I said that in a piano, there are more than 88 of them! It’s amazing. These critics don’t know anything. They’re not educated in any particular way. The ones at The New York Times are; they know what they’re talking about. But there’s not much critical ground in the United States. There aren’t informed music critics that discuss this kind of music.

FJO: Yet, despite that, there seems to be more of an openness among audiences for new music now than ever before.

AL: Well, things are changing. Audiences are listening now. I did a performance the other night at school and we put up a big wall by Sol Lewitt, a big curved wall in this art gallery, and some of the audience was on the other side. We didn’t do that intentionally, but during these pieces the students would go on the other side of the wall, lay down on the floor, and they were just enjoying it.

FJO: What is your own experience as a listener? Do you enjoy listening to your own music? What else do you listen to?

AL: I don’t really enjoy listening to my own music too much. Something’s wrong with my ego. [laughs] I always think, “Why are people interested in what I’m doing?” I have friends that have egos and whatever they do they think it’s the best thing that’s ever been written, and I wish I had part of that but I don’t. But maybe it’s good because it keeps me thinking and it keeps me from getting complacent. Why I’m writing shorter pieces, I think is a courtesy to the audience, trying to make pieces for more conventional audiences in a concert hall.

What do I listen to? Not much. I teach and I listen to all that music that I love from John Cage, through La Monte Young and Bob [Ashley] and on up, younger composers. I listen to European composers that interest me. Helmut Lachenmann, people like that seem to me to be writing extraordinary pieces. I teach a course on Orpheus, so I have the Monteverdi opera, which I play sometime. I have Bach. I have Glenn Gould, his new version of the Goldberg Variations which is very different from his original version. But I don’t play a lot of music.

The NPR station in the state of Connecticut is a complete disaster. They play one after the other of the Baroque-Italian, you know what I mean. It’s just wallpaper. So in my car, I play rock’n’roll.

FJO: And you enjoy that music?

AL: When I’m in my car, sure. It’s got this energy. And I’ve been going to a fitness club and I have an iPod, and I play pop music. It’s wonderful music for exercising. It’s got that energy—you have to move on that treadmill when that music is being played. Eminem. Even Elton John, I’m sorry to say I enjoy. And the Gipsy Kings.

FJO: Do you think it’s going to eventually influence you as a composer?

AL: I don’t think so. [laughs]

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