AMN Reviews: Alvin Lucier – Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music

Alvin Lucier: Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press)

Music 109 is composer Alvin Lucier’s personal tour of some of the highlights of postwar musical experimentalism.

Lucier, a professor emeritus at Wesleyan University, has been at the forefront of sound art composition and performance since the 1960s. His 1965 work Music for Solo Performer employed EEG electrodes to detect brain waves that were subsequently amplified to vibrate percussion instruments; other work has made creative use of technology to create varied sonic phenomena. Many of his compositions are concerned with the acoustic properties of the spaces in which they are realized and the effects of those properties on the listener’s sense of perception. Along with composers Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma and David Behrman, Lucier formed the Sonic Arts Union, which presented advanced works by the four from 1966-1976.

The book is a loosely structured collection of Lucier’s reflections on some of the milestone works of experimental music of the past fifty years or so. Lucier discusses specific pieces by John Cage, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff, as well as work by Ashley, Mumma and Behrman, and others. He offers insights, often based on first-hand experience, into the ways the compositions were written or performed, in many cases demystifying such matters as how exactly to realize graphic scores such as Wolff’s For 1, 2 or 3 People, Brown’s From Here, Cage’s Cartridge Music and Feldman’s King of Denmark. Lucier walks the reader step-by-step through the processes involved first in interpreting the marks on paper, and then in translating them into the appropriate actions. In doing this he draws on his experiences as a performer or conductor of the works in question.

Lucier is perhaps best known as the composer of I Am Sitting in a Room, the creation of which he describes in lively detail. It came about in spring 1969 in what Lucier describes as a “sordid” apartment in Middletown, Connecticut, where Lucier was teaching at Wesleyan. Using two borrowed Nagra tape recorders—state of the art technology in 1969—Lucier read a deliberately unremarkable text into one recorder, transferred the tape to the second recorder and played it back while recording on the first machine. He repeated the process through fifteen iterations, until he got a result that turned his recorded voice into an abstract pattern of sound that provided, in effect, a portrait of the room’s acoustic characteristics. It’s interesting to read that the inspiration for the text, which simply described what Lucier was doing while he was doing it, came from a specific performance by Judson Church dancer Trisha Brown.

Music 109 is adapted from the lectures Lucier delivered for his Introduction to Experimental Music course at Wesleyan. This accounts for the conversational tone—the reader often feels as if he or she is sitting in a room with Lucier, listening to him talk. Plain and direct-spoken and with an uncluttered prose style, Lucier easily blends analysis, anecdote and digression into a reader-friendly first-person account of some of the most interesting music to come out of the postwar period.

http://www.wesleyan.edu/wespress