Monday, February 18, 2013

Lucier Introduces

Overthe course of four decades at Wesleyan University, Alvin Lucier taught an open-enrollment undergraduate course, an Introduction to Experimental Music, coded for the catalog as Music 109.* Wesleyan University Press has just published a book titled just that, Music 109, collecting Lucier's lecture notes for the course.  It's a highly personal guided tour through an exciting repertoire, with Lucier's notes more or less in their rough-but-ready-for-extemporaneous-elaboration original form, organized by a series of intriguing topics (from Indeterminacy and Graphic Notation to Repetition, Long String Instrument, and Words) and made more compelling for the lay reader by being told as much in the form of stories and anecdotes as in historical or analytical prose.  He doesn't attempt to analyses anything in great depth, but instead picks a feature or two from each work discussed, piquing curiosity and giving the new listener a handle onto music that might otherwise escape, and, through the course of lectures, these handles accumulate into a rich collection of listening tools.  A real advantage to such an approach is that one can acquire a feel for the scene around the music and its aesthetic without having to bring heavy technical prerequisites.   There is much of Lucier's own musical autobiography here, but that's merely the surface over which I believe he is making a more substantial argument about listening to music as an opening to the world rather than an inward turn to a received culture — and how the skill of listening can be extended far beyond the conventional assumptions about the nature, extent, and limits of the musical.

Much writing about music hovers around in a dull middle ground, in which neither individual trees nor the forest as a whole gets accounted for and I think we're in real need of more writing that deals either in deepest detail with trees — yes, I sometimes do want to learn where each and every tone came from — or in broadest overview, with forests — as Lucier does here —, in both smart and sensitive ways.  

It would be valuable to have more documents like Music 109 around.  Alvin Lucier has a number of colleagues who taught their own courses of legend in their own institutions.  For example, one of the highlights of my own undergraduate years in Santa Cruz was Gordon Mumma's History and Practice of Electronic Music course, which was perhaps more general and technical than Lucier's Music 109, but did cover certain topics reflecting Mumma's unique experiences and expertise, especially with regard to live electronic music, music for dance, and Latin American electronic music. Mumma's lectures certainly should be published.  It does seem, though, that it is experimental music which has been getting its due documentation-wise** and though I'm of the experimental party myself, I'd certainly appreciate being able to read a similar account of recent music history from the viewpoint of someone from a more academic avant-garde or from the quietist mainstream.  Just where are the lecture notes that make the historical and aesthetic case for the new music programming at the Baltimore Symphony or at Tanglewood?

 * I wasn't a Wesleyan undergrad, so did not attend Lucier's course myself.  But one of the reasons I chose to go to Wesleyan as a grad student was the course description for the grad course he taught: 508 GP Contemporary Music. Study of selected works of Robert Ashley, John Cage, Phil Glass, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, Alvin Lucier and others with emphasis on scale, chance, phase, coincidence, task, meditation, and the exploration of natural phenomena. Mr. Lucier.
** I have an argument about why this is the case — music history being made by the innovators, those who question the extent and limits of the musical, not the conservators — but that's a polemic for elsewhere. 

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