Alvin Lucier, the groundbreaking composer who focused on acoustics and natural phenomena, died on December 1, 2021 at his home in Middletown, Connecticut of natural causes. He was 90. Lucier is survived by his wife Wendy Stokes and daughter Amanda.
“Observing the world of nature is for me, as it has been for countless composers and artists for centuries, often a source for a piece. Echoes from mountains, ripples on a pond, waves hitting a beach, even puffs of wind have given me material for such works as Vespers, Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas, Self-Portrait, the Lullaby for my daughter, and other works having to do with the movement of sounds. Mine was a New Hampshire childhood of creek-floats, canoe trips (pungent experiences of wave motion), mountain hikes and woodland walks… As soon as I understand the basic principles behind the phenomena upon which the work is based, (the) need for complexity vanishes and the redundancies can be eliminated. The work may now exist in its purest form.”
Alvin Lucier was born May 14, 1931 in Nashua, N.H. to a musical family. His father, Alvin Sr. was mayor of Nashua and an amateur violinist and his mother Kathryn E. Lemery was a pianist. As a young person Lucier was interested in jazz, picking up the drum set instead of a classical instrument. He would join the marching band as an undergraduate at Yale University, recalling later that the reverberations of the band in the Yale Bowl tunnel remained a vivid sonic memory. He received his master’s at Brandeis University in 1960 studying with Arthur Berger and Harold Shapero, composing in a neoclassical style. He also spent two summers at the Tanglewood Music Festival studying with Aaron Copland and Lukas Foss.
In the summer of 1960 Lucier arrived in Italy on a Fulbright Scholarship. He set to work on a commission for trumpet and harpsichord but soon came to an artistic impasse. Spotting an advertisement in Venice, he attended a concert by John Cage, David Tudor, and Merce Cunningham and was jolted by the theatrics and indeterminacy—”I stopped writing music for a year.” Although he would go on to work with tape and electronics at Studio Fonologi in 1961, he found that “no amount of splicing or mixing could change my old compositional habits and I failed to come up with even a short piece that I felt was worthy of this exciting new medium.”
Upon returning from Europe, he reflected that although he admired the contemporary music trends he encountered there, it was not for him. “It was too European. If I imitated it I would only be talking in a dialect. My mind was a blank, which was good because then I could let ideas come into it unobstructed by previous notions of what music should be.” He joined the faculty at Brandeis University in 1962 to teach theory, conduct chorus and direct the electronic music studio.
Lucier’s breakthrough was sparked by another chance encounter, when he met physicist Edmond Dewan in 1965. Dewan was engaged in brain wave research for the Air Force, and lent Lucier the apparatus for monitoring alpha waves, electrical impulses produced under an attentive state without visual stimuli. Struck by the piston-like excursions of loudspeaker cones when he amplified brain waves in the electronic music studio, he decided in Music For Solo Performer to use speakers to drive a battery of percussion instruments directly without further mediation. The piece required performing in a state of meditation—“it completely changed my conception of composition and performance and led to the attentive rather than manipulative attitude towards materials which typified most of my subsequent works.”
In 1966 Lucier formed The Sonic Arts Union with composers Robert Ashley, David Behrman and Gordon Mumma. They performed in each others’ works, shared equipment, and organized tours. Lucier pointed to Cage and Tudor’s performances as an inspiration. By using equipment that was either homemade or commercially available, they bypassed traditional music institutions with their self sufficiency.
A series of works exploring acoustic characteristics of natural and architectural spaces followed Music for Solo Performer. Chambers (1968) treated found objects such as conch shells and teapots as portable environments in which other sounds were inserted. Vespers (1968) asked performers to learn echolocation, navigating the space with portable pulse generators while blind-folded. In I Am Sitting In a Room (1970), Lucier’s best-known composition, a description of the piece was spoken and repeatedly played back and recorded in an iterative process. With each playback, the resonant frequencies and nulls of the room reinforce themselves, transforming speech into a cascade of tones. Lucier noted that he chose speech as the sound source because it was common to most people, as well as being extremely personal. As a stutterer, he had come to accept irregularities of his speech as interesting patterns which are smoothed out over the course of the Room process.
Lucier was a pioneer in the burgeoning art form of sound installations. Music On a Long Thin Wire (1970) began as a physics demonstration in a class on musical acoustics. Whereas a lab apparatus showing the interaction between a current-drive wire with a fixed magnet strives to eliminate imperfections, Lucier’s wire was purposely long so that changes in temperature, air currents, and other environmental factors alter the vibration of the wire in unpredictable ways. In Music for Pure Waves, Bass Drums and Acoustic Pendulums (1980), loudspeakers playing a slowly rising sine tone causes the bass drum heads to vibrate sympathetically. Ping-pong balls suspended in front of each drum bounce against the heads in ever-changing rhythmic patterns, propelled further when the head is in its outward phase or damped, sometimes to a dead stop, when the head moves inwards. Seesaw (1983) consisted of two speakers playing sine tones, one fixed, while the other slowly swept from just below to above the reference frequency. The beating patterns of the closely tuned waves generate spinning movements, where the direction and speed of the motion varied with the rise and fall of the tone.
After nearly two decades away from writing for instrumentalists, Lucier returned to composing for soloists and ensembles beginning with Crossings in 1982. Explaining the shift, he said that it was “very simple—performers started asking me to make them works.” He added that he was “brought up with (instrumental) music, so I became nostalgic for composing works for instruments. My first piece was a Sonatina for three woodwinds.” In Memoriam Jon Higgins (1984) most clearly demonstrates Lucier’s approach in these works. A clarinet sustains pitches that cross a steadily rising sine tone, creating beating patterns that accelerate or slow down depending on the difference in frequency between the two. Movement of sound, similar to the effect created in Seesaw, can also be vividly perceived. In the following decades Lucier produced a wealth of chamber and orchestra works for forces ranging from solo bagpipes (Piper), two electric guitars (Criss-Cross), to an orchestra combined with the I Am Sitting In a Room process (Exploration of the House). Collaborations with artists he admired included works with director Robert Wilson, poet Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge and sculptor Richard Tuttle and conceptual artist Sol Lewitt.
Lucier joined the faculty at Wesleyan University in 1968 and taught there until 2011 as John Spencer Camp Professor of Music. In lectures he often drew from personal encounters with post-war developments, interspersing history and analysis with anecdotes. A voracious reader, Lucier was just as likely to assign an Italo Calvino novel to his composition seminar as readings in contemporary music. The lectures for his introductory course were collected in Music 109: Notes On Experimental Music (Wesleyan University Press).
Lucier was an avid cook. Among the interviews and scores collected in the anthology Reflections (MusikTexte) are recipes for pasta with tomato sauce and soba. Characteristically, both dishes are simple but treated with great attention to detail. Lucier and his wife Wendy often welcomed students to their home. Seminars often took place in the living room as the scent of Lucier’s baked beans emerged from the kitchen. Lucier’s other hobby, fishing, also found its way into his work. Outlines of Persons and Things (1975) was performed by Lucier in fishing gear, with microphones scanning the space to reveal acoustic diffraction around objects and bodies.
Discussing his decision to use conch shells for the first performance of Chambers in 1968, Lucier remarked: “what a wonderful origin of a musical instrument, to have it be made for a functional purpose, to protect some animal. When the animal dies, it is a reminder, there it is, it’s left in the world, and it’s such a beautiful thing it should be put to some use.” Lucier’s body of work continues to urge us to listen and pay attention to the natural phenomenon all around us—”careful listening is more important than making sounds happen.”
- James Fei
There will be no services. In lieu of flowers, donations in Alvin’s memory may be made to Foundation for Contemporary Arts, 820 Greenwich Street, #4, New York, NY 10014. To read full obituary or leave condolences, please visit www.doolittlefuneralservice.com.
In memory of Alvin Lucier
b. May 14, 1931 – d. December 1, 2021
Physicists tell us death
releases a person’s energy
that remains forever in space.
Imagine that energy
merging with the wind
whipping up Autumn leaves,
across the ocean’s face.
I wonder if Alvin,
the man who made music
from ordinary sounds,
ever thought he might
join, in death,
the extraordinary hum
of the universe.
To send flowers to the family or plant a tree in memory of Alvin Augustus Lucier, please visit our floral store.