Saturday, May 14, 2011

Alvin Lucier is 80

Clarity, focus, classicism. Alvin began as a neo-classical composer. "I like my music clean, like gin." A reduction to essences, distractions eliminated, the original minimal impulse.

Pulses, stutters, beats, swarms. Alvin was once a drummer, playing trap set in dance bands or drumming for the Yale Marching Band. Music for Solo Performer is the piece Ionisation ought to have been, composing directly for percussion ensemble without the mediation of fixed notation, specialized players, rehearsal. The composer listens: Bird and Person Dyning.

Breaking down parameters: Pitches becoming rhythms becoming timbres becoming pitches again. Navigations for Strings, Septet. Subverting cause and effect: Music for Pure Waves, Bass Drums, and Acoustic Pendulums or — through a massive increase in physical scale, going far beyond simple classical effects to the non-linear, the chaotic and catastrophic — Music on a Long Thin Wire.

Sounds articulating spaces: "I'm not interested in expression, but I am interested in expressivity." Music as a means of finding ones way in the dark (Vespers). Music made from sounds made visible (The Queen of the South) or the outline of a landscape translated into tones (Panorama.) A voice articulates a space (I am sitting in a room) with all its expressive and individual physical and autobiographical attachments erased in the process, so that the expressivity of the room itself is revealed; or, in The Re-Orchestration of the Opera "Benvenuto Cellini" by Hector Berlioz audaciously using the space in which the voice is produced to transform the timbres of a work by the greatest orchestrator.

Object lessons: Chambers. W.C. Williams: No ideas but in things. Realizations of Chambers tend to one of two extremes: either the most perfect acoustic match between object and sound source or the most perfect, if frequently surreal poetic match, i.e. the sound of the Cologne Hauptbahnhof coming from a thimble (the ideal, one supposes, would be: tempest, teapot).

Risk everything: A fundamental commitment to the experimental music project. Risk failure, risk nothing happening, and try again'n'again to find the optimal means for a phenomena to happen, to express itself, as music. Allow the phenomena to determine the form. Robert Irwin: "Ever Present, Never Twice the Same. Ever Changing, Never Less than Whole." Composing is often a letting-go of the composer's monopoly over composition.

And too: choral conductor, actor of underground legend (Dr Chicago), rider of bicycles, patient fly fisherman, reliable and generous cook of pasta for tired dancers (and impoverished young scholars). I am honored to have been — and still be — Alvin Lucier's student, for his challenges, his clarifications, his purposefulness, his directness and humor. Some teachers of composition try to give you everything, you belong to their "school"; Alvin instead gave polish, to help you be better at what you do, not be second best at what he does, and he gave posture, to help stand up for your work.

A true story: In Berlin, many years ago, with an evening off in-between concerts and Alvin's wife and daughter, Wendy and Amanda, already flown back to Connecticut, Alvin and I ended up in the opera. Arabella, of all things. Not exactly what you'd expect the composer of I am sitting in a room to be watching. A traditional production, with plenty of old-fashioned stage magic, with Lucia Popp and Julie Kaufman as the two sisters. The curtain came up on the second act and it starts snowing on stage — I told you, it was old-fashioned stage magic — and Alvin jabs me with his elbow and says, just loud enough for everyone within a three or four meter radius to hear: "Look at that snow... have you ever seen anything like that? Isn't that terrific?" No, I hadn't, and yes, it really was terrific.

(Photo: Amanda Lucier.)

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