AMN Reviews: Alvin Lucier – Orpheus Variations [Important Records IMPREC469]

Orpheus Variations, a recent work for cello and seven wind instruments by Alvin Lucier, is a thirty-one minute piece based on a single seven-note chord. This would seem to be extremely limited material for a work of this length—and it is—but by exploring the timbral and resonant effects of distributing these seven notes across winds and cello, Lucier develops in detail a rich sound world that manages to be both hypnotic and kaleidoscopic at the same time.

Lucier has said that he thinks of this collection of tones primarily as a sonority, by which he seems to mean he imagines them as they would actually be played with the specific timbres and registers appropriate to the instruments for which they’re scored. It is a concern with the concrete qualities of sounds as they are actually played. He realizes this in the way he orchestrates his pitch set: throughout the piece he has the seven notes circulate through the ensemble in a constantly shifting pattern of arpeggiated long tones played with and against various instrumental combinations. Although the piece is long, its recurrent cycling of this closed set of material in changing registers and voices defeats any mundane sense of duration the listener may have; in my own repeated listenings the piece has seemed considerably shorter than its run time as measured by the clock.

The chord that forms the basis for the Orpheus Variations appears in Stravinsky’s score for the first part of George Balanchine’s 1947 ballet Orpheus. A product of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period, the music for the ballet was inspired by Monteverdi. The chord itself is highly unstable, a quality Lucier dramatizes by breaking it down into consonant and dissonant subsets that overlap, clash, float and dissolve at an unhurried pace.

Orpheus Variations was composed for cellist Charles Curtis and was premiered by Curtis in August, 2015 at the Ostrava days; here, it’s performed by Curtis with members of the SEM Ensemble.

Daniel Barbiero

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.

Flux Quartet in New York Reviewed


BargeMusic, Old Fulton Street, Brooklyn 07/17/2009

Here and Now: American Contemporary Music Series:
Don Byron: Thoughts on Marvin Gaye
Iván Naranjo: Vibrating Soundless Hum (World Premiere)
David Lang: Wed
Alvin Lucier: Group Tapper (New York Premiere)
Katherine Young: Inside UFO 53-32 (World Premiere)
Giacinto Scelsi: String Quartet No. 2 (for String Quartet and Metallic Mutes)

Flux Quartet: Tom Chiu (Violin), Conrad Harris (Violin), Max Mandel (Viola), Felix Fan (Cello)

On a muggy, rain-sodden evening in Brooklyn, the Flux Quartet provided a program that seemed to be made for lazy reviewers. The titles, in fact, said it allWhat more do we need to know about Vibrating Soundless Hum. Or Alvin Lucier’s Group Tapper? That’s easy. Some musicians sit around and tap. Even the iconic composer Giacinto Scelsi made things graphic, his string quartet written for four players and “metallic mutes”. If they’re mute, why bother to even listen? When it came to David Lang’s Wed, it would obviously be cancelled, since the concert was on Fri.

But this isn’t the way the dynamic young Flux Quartet operates. The four players not only play, they compose, , they work with stars like Yo-yo Ma and Ornette Coleman, DJ Spooky, Meryl Streep and Tiny Tim, they improvise over radio scripts/ And this afternoon (Saturday), they will be playing music based on drawings submitted by an audience.

In other words, the Flux Quartet is the face of avant-garde music. And their program last night for a full house at BargeMusic was evidence of their fans.

Also, see the review in today’s New York Times.

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