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Alvin Lucier, Probing Composer of Soundscapes, Is Dead at 91


Alvin Lucier, an influential experimental composer whose works focused less on traditional musical elements like melody and harmony than on the scientific underpinnings of sound and of listeners’ perceptions, died on Wednesday at his home in Middletown, Conn., where he had taught for decades at Wesleyan University. He was 90.

His daughter, Amanda Lucier, said the cause was complications after a fall.

Unlike composers who have the goal of painting an aural picture, evoking particular emotions, creating a dramatic narrative or exploring carefully plotted rhythmic interactions, Mr. Lucier seemed to approach his works as experiments that might yield unpredictable soundscapes.

A finished work could sound like howling feedback, electronic crackling or — in the case of his best-known piece, “I Am Sitting in a Room” (1969) — a spoken text that with repetition becomes increasingly distorted and overlaid with reverberation until it is transformed into a symphony of dancing overtones.

And though his music was rooted in the physics of sound, variables like the size and shape of the performance space or the alpha wave patterns a performer generates made his pieces sound different from one performance to the next.

Mr. Lucier began many of his projects by wondering what kinds of sounds would emerge from a specific process, like tapping a pair of pencils or detecting brain waves. He would then reduce the variables into a single focus.

“My main activity composing is to eliminate many different possibilities in a piece,” he told the producers of “No Ideas but in Things,” a 2013 film portrait of him by Viola Rusche and Hauke Harder. “When I start, I have so many different ideas about how to put the piece together, and I have to work and think hard until I get to the point where only the essential components are there.”

In “I Am Sitting in a Room,” Mr. Lucier began by quietly reading a short statement describing what he is doing. “I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now,” the text begins. “I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed.”

The room’s acoustics, as well as audio distortions that occur when a tape is rerecorded over and over, yields a gradually changing sound in which, after 10 minutes, the spoken text is buried in reverberation and overtones, and unintelligible. During the final section, high-pitched overtones coalesce into eerie, slow-moving melodies.

Other works are tempered by a wry sense of humor. In “Nothing Is Real” (1990), Mr. Lucier has a pianist play the melody of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” scattering the song’s phrases throughout the piano’s range. The performance is recorded and immediately played back through a small speaker inside a teapot, which works as a sound-altering resonant chamber. Mr. Lucier then has the pianist open and close the teapot’s lid to further manipulate the tone of the recording.

Alvin Augustus Lucier Jr., was born in Nashua, N.H., on May 14, 1931. His father was a lawyer who was elected mayor of Nashua when Alvin was 3. Alvin Sr. was also an amateur violinist who met his future wife, Kathryn E. Lemery, when he filled in with a dance band in which she was the pianist.

The Luciers encouraged their son’s interest in music, but although he picked up the rudiments of piano playing from his mother, he refused to take lessons, preferring to play the drums. His principal interest at the time was jazz, but he became interested in contemporary classical music when he found a recording of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Serenade.

“I bought it and it was shocking,” Mr. Lucier said in a 2005 interview with NewMusicBox. “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.”

He studied composition and music theory at Yale University, where his teachers included Howard Boatwright and Quincy Porter. He received his bachelor’s degree there in 1954 and his master’s in 1960 at Brandeis University, where he studied with Arthur Berger and Harold Shapero. During those years he composed in a neo-Classical style, a preference reinforced by his studies at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts with Aaron Copland and Lukas Foss during the summers of 1958 and ’59.

Mr. Lucier’s change of heart occurred during a two-year stay in Rome as a Fulbright scholar, from 1960 to 1962. Attending a 1960 concert by the composers John Cage and David Tudor and the choreographer Merce Cunningham at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Mr. Lucier was at first outraged by the chance processes that Cage and Tudor were exploring. But as he thought about the concert in the days that followed, he began to understand Cage’s and Tudor’s rejection of conventional musical formats as both important and necessary.

“Something about it was so wonderful and exhilarating, I decided that I wanted to involve myself in that,” he told The New York Times in 1997. “I was literally exhausted by the neo-Classic style, and I had a couple of teachers that were at an impasse. They were getting bitter, and they were sort of losing their enthusiasm. And I was just at that age where I was ready for something new. But I didn’t know what to do.”

He found an answer in 1965, when he met Edmond Dewan, a physicist who had invented a brain wave amplifier. Mr. Lucier was by then on the Brandeis faculty and had won considerable attention in new-music circles by presiding over programs, both at Brandeis and in New York, that included premieres by Cage, Earl Brown, Christian Wolff and Terry Riley. Dr. Dewan offered the use of his invention to Mr. Lucier, who explored its possibilities in what became the breakthrough work in his new style, “Music for Solo Performer” (1965).

For that piece, the performer sits before an audience with sensors strapped around his forehead, closed eyes and a clear mind. The waves are amplified and sent to loudspeakers, the vibrating cones of which cause percussion instruments to sound.

The brain wave amplifier gave way to other high-tech gadgetry. Mr. Lucier created “Vespers” (1968) using echolocation devices — pulse oscillators used by the blind and others to determine distances. He had the gear operated by blindfolded performers moving through a space, the devices clicking at different speeds and intensities as they approach walls and other objects.

In 1966, Mr. Lucier formed the Sonic Arts Union with a group of like-minded avant-gardists, among them the composers Robert Ashley, David Behrman and Gordon Mumma. The group toured in the United States and Europe, with each composer performing his own music, until 1976. They were joined at times by visual artists, including Mr. Lucier’s first wife, Mary Lucier. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1972.

Mr. Lucier later married Wendy Stokes, a former dancer and a psychiatric advanced-practice registered nurse. She survives him along with their daughter, Amanda.. In addition to their Middletown home, Mr. Lucier and his wife owned a studio apartment in Manhattan.

He joined the Wesleyan faculty in 1968 and taught composition there until his retirement in 2011. Starting in the mid-1980s, he devoted himself increasingly to instrumental and ensemble works. The Bang on a Can All-Stars, Alter Ego, Ensemble Pamplemousse and ICE are among the groups that commissioned works from him.

“I don’t really enjoy listening to my own music,” Mr. Lucier told NewMusicBox. “But maybe it’s good because it keeps me thinking and it keeps me from getting complacent.”

Maia Coleman contributed reporting.


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