Quite simply, Alvin Lucier is a living legend. A pioneer of music, sonic creation and acoustics, Lucier has been pushing the boundaries of what it means to both create and experience sound for over 60 years. He composes experimental music and sound installations that explore acoustic phenomena and auditory perception. A long-time music professor at Wesleyan University, Lucier was a member of the influential Sonic Arts Union, which included Robert Ashley, David Behrman, and Gordon Mumma. Much of his work is influenced by science and explores the physical properties of sound itself: resonance of spaces, phase interference between closely tuned pitches, and the transmission of sound through physical media. It is a true honor to be talking all things sound with him today.

 

Why experimental music and sound installation? What is it about these sound mediums that drive you more than say classical music or film sound?

AL: I am a very practical composer. Therefore, I use whatever medium is necessary to convey my musical ideas. It is as simple as that.

 

When did you first discover a passion for sound art?

AL: 1977, when I made Music on Long Thin Wire.  It was originally conceived as a performance piece. But soon I discovered hat it was more magical as a sound installation.  It could change by itself without human interference.

 

In his own words (1992): "Music on a Long Thin Wire is constructed as follows: the wire is extended across a large room, clamped to tables at both ends. The ends of the wire are connected to the loudspeaker terminals of a power amplifier placed under one of the tables.

 

In your opinion, what are the characteristics of an interesting sound? What about a beautiful one?

AL: All sounds are usable.

 

What are the characteristics of an uninteresting sound?

AL: Ditto.

One of Lucier’s most important and best-known works is I Am Sitting in a Room (1969), in which Lucier records himself narrating a text, and then plays the recording back into the room, re-recording it.

'This is music about listening'. Alvin Lucier performs Music for Solo Performer.

'This is music about listening'. Alvin Lucier performs Music for Solo Performer.

What is your definition of a great sounding room? 

AL:One which gives back any sound that is put into it. Needs to have            reflective surfaces to some degree.  On the other hand works such as still and Moving Lines of Silence need a dry enough space so that the troughs and crests of the hyperbolas may be easily perceived.

 

What is your definition of a poor sounding room?

AL: Too bright, abrasive. My first office at Brandeis, for example.

 

How do you feel about using technology to digitally produce space vs using a natural space for resonance?

AL: I much prefer natural spaces.

 

How did directing a chamber chorus influence your work as a sound artist?

Not much of an influence except that I suppose that I got a sense of the flow of a performance. Also I experienced the need to adjust tempi according to the decay characteristics of the room.

 

In order for your sound art to succeed, which is most important? The speakers in which sound is played? The content? The space? The message?

AL: The space.

A still from Viola Rusche & Hauke Harder's film "No Ideas But In Things: The Composer Alvin Lucier

A still from Viola Rusche & Hauke Harder's film "No Ideas But In Things: The Composer Alvin Lucier

Are there any materials (wall treatments, wood, plastic) you are particularly drawn to when creating your work?

AL: Wood is always good.

 

Are there any tools (instruments, microphones) you use regularly in your work?

AL: Not really. I am not wedded to microphones, In fact I very seriously think twice about using them when they re not needed. Often they confuse the listener as to where the sound is coming from.

Before performing his seminal work, I am sitting in a room, at the CAST symposium in September 2014, minimalist composer Alvin Lucier spoke with Evan Ziporyn, Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music, MIT and Faculty Director of the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology, about his early compositions, his process and his influences.

 

What's the most exciting technological development in sound technology that you've seen in your lifetime?

AL: Electromagnetic tape.

 

Do you remember the first time you heard a binaural recording? What's the power of spatialized sound - narratively, experientially, musically?

AL: I don’t remember. I first used binaural mikes when I recorded Vespers in the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis in 1970. I had borrowed a pair of Envriron-Ears binaural mikes from someone in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The spatial results were as near to real as I have ever achieved in a recording, but not as realistic as in a performance, of course.

 

What is one piece of advice you’d give hopeful sound artists?

AL: Don’t add any visual material that is not directly related to the initial idea of the work. No cosmetics.

 

A big thank you to Alvin Lucier for talking sound with us. You can hear/learn more at his website. And make sure to check out his latest novel "Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music" on here.

 

From One Ear To Another,

Anthony Mattana
Hooke Audio Founder

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