An Interview with Alvin Lucier

The Declaration – scene – September 21, 2006

By John Ruscher

This weekend was a very special moment for U.Va.’s music department. World-renowned composer Alvin Lucier came to visit and participate in a festival dedicated to his own work and influence. You probably saw or heard his installation piece, “Music on a Long Thin Wire”, when you were on your way to class in Cabell Hall on Friday. That evening, Lucier and many of the members of U.Va.’s Composition and Computer Technologies program came together to present a concert of groundbreaking experimental music. Pieces by Lucier included his famous “Music for Solo Performer”, in which an EEG machine is used to amplify brain waves and control percussion instruments that are set up around the room. U.Va. professors and graduate students also performed pieces of their own. Saturday morning, before Lucier headed back to his teaching position at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Dec writer John Ruscher got the chance to sit down with him and ask a few questions.

The Declaration: Do you have a favorite performance of “Music on Long Thin Wire” and how important is the environment for the piece?

Alvin Lucier: I think the one I remember is at the Custom House in Lower Manhattan, many years ago, a recording of that piece in that space. It was a rotunda way up on the third floor, and there was an oval space in the middle. I just strung the wire up in there. That piece requires an interesting space because the sounds from the speakers feed back through the microphones, so you need reinforcement for it.

How did you feel about The Lawn as an environment?

I was surprised by the way it worked, because there were no reflections. There were no walls nearby to create reflections. But I thought it worked very well.

What is your perspective of popular music?

I listen to pop music. Every music has its place. I love the energy of pop music. The optimism of it, somehow. I like a lot of different kinds of music.

Do you see any sort of intersection between experimental music and pop music?

Yeah, I guess so. It’s very complicated, the relationship. Sonic Youth did a recording of pieces of Jim Tenney and Pauline Oliveros, but they always add something to it to make it more accessible, and they sort of dilute the idea somehow. But then it’s a different thing, and you have to accept it as a different thing.

Do you feel like your music needs to be taken absolutely seriously for people to fully appreciate it?

They have to listen. I don’t know how serious they have to be, but they have to listen and try to perceive what’s happening. In that sense, they have to take it seriously.

You talk about the separation between American music and European music. Do you feel like experimental music is more on the fringe in America than in Europe?

Well it’s more on the fringe because European music is very avant-garde. Which means it comes from the past. Avant-garde is a wedge into the future, but it takes from the past. Whereas somebody like Jim Tenney and myself, even La Monte Young in may ways, or Robert Ashley, our music really doesn’t come from those sources. My music comes from acoustics, often. Bob’s speech pieces, his operas, are a totally different genre. You can’t place it. If you looked at [British composer] Brian Ferneyhough’s opera “Shadowtime”, it’s really an extension of what came before it, whereas Bob’s pieces are totally different. He has this background of electronic sounds, synthesizers, almost a pop music style. And then he talks in this beautiful way, inflecting his speech in a musical way. Using speech in that simple inflected way, whereas the Europeans, when they use speech, they really distort it and explore the psychological aspects of it.

Do you feel like the American tradition of music will continue in this non-tradition-based way?

That’s hard to say. There was a wonderful piece I saw in Switzerland. An artist did a piece in the 19th century. A German baron, I think, wanted to woo a woman and he had his bird trainer teach the birds on the estate to sing a certain song, and he got these birds to sing part of a love song, so when the woman came she was very impressed by that. And that was a long time ago. Orthonologists even today can hear remnants of the song in that species of birds. And I’m thinking remnants of our ideas are going to stay. You never know.

How do you feel about the internet? Do you feel like it’s going to have a drastic effect on any aspect of music?

Yeah, I think it already has. I mean, the downloading of songs and the iPod and iTunes. I think that’s interesting by itself. It means anybody can be a composer now. All these little software programs where young people can have accompaniments and drum beats and things like that. I think that’s a good thing. On the other hand, composition with that, too, is interesting. The only thing is that the space is virtual. My work is so closely associated with real spaces. However, I’ve done a series of pieces with impulse response, which is when you make a sound spike in one room and then store that reading. You can then put any music you want into that room, that virtual space. So the lines between real space and virtual space are going to disappear.

If you had not become a composer, what would you have wanted to do instead?

A writer. I would love to be a writer.

You work in a field that is very scientific, but you don’t seem to be that concerned with science.

I was never very good at science in school, and there are certain things I just still don’t understand. You know, somebody said that—this is not true all together—sometimes for composers to succeed they need a failing. A failing in one thing. Now that doesn’t apply to Mozart or Bach. But a lot of composers are not good at one thing, so that’s a resistance they’ve got to overcome, which is interesting. So I intuitively go into these things. On the one hand I don’t understand resonance exactly. On the other hand, I don’t believe what scientists say sometimes when they make models of resonance. I explore it and I get my sounds and I do it that way.

So it’s more about the singular result.

Yes.

How do you react to the reception of your music? For instance, if someone doesn’t like it, what would you say?

Well, I don’t hear about people who don’t like it. It doesn’t bother me that much, because I’m happy with my music. I remember I went to Aspen once and I was at a party with these composers. They were these Pulitzer Prize-winning composers, and they were all nervous and anxious and bitter. One of them said, “Nobody’s playing my pieces anymore.” I thought, gee, I don’t feel that way. Maybe I’m an idiot savant but I am happy with it, you know what I’m saying? They were concerned with what orchestra was going to play their next piece and so forth. I thought to myself, maybe composers have always been that way, but it’s not a happy way to be an artist. When somebody doesn’t like a piece, I feel that they don’t have the right attitude about openness.

To my students in my introductory class, the first thing I say to them is that I’m not interested in their opinions, but I am interested in their perceptions. Because opinions don’t have any meaning to me—I like this, I don’t like this. I have a friend, he said, “I don’t like opera,” and he was very self-satisfied having said that. And I felt like saying “How many opera’s have you heard? Go to an opera every month for five years and then tell me you don’t like it.” I can understand not appreciating opera completely—it’s an old form—but to close yourself off from that completely seems to me a mistake. The reason I like teaching is because it opens those students’ minds. They don’t know something, then they know it. They think one way, and then they can see a different way of thinking. I like that idea. I think that’s very important. Because that’s how my life has always been. Having an opinion about Stravinsky in his middle period, I thought it was awful. “What is this music? It sounds like salon music.” Then by listening and playing records and thinking about it, then I started to understand it. And I think that’s really very important.

Have you enjoyed your visit to U.Va.?

Yes, I have. I can’t believe these students have worked so hard to make this concert work. And I’m beginning to really love these music departments. There are several now that I’ve visited where you have a group of graduate students, who are doing mainly computer music, and there seems to be a camaraderie among these people where they enjoy working with each other. There’s excitement and creativity, and the faculty gives generously of their time to the graduate students. I think they are wonderful little enclaves of creativity.

Did you enjoy the graduate student pieces?

Yes I did. Very much so.

Did any of them really strike you?

Well, I liked them all. I’m trying to think of the composer who used the internet—

Peter Traub.

Peter’s was a very nice piece. Also, Troy’s piece was very interesting, with the motion detectors. Burtner’s was a very beautiful piece. I liked them all.

What advice would you give to people starting off in the field of experimental music?

That’s a hard one. I guess the first thing is that they should listen to a lot of music, and know as much as they can about what other people are doing, so that they don’t reinvent the wheel. The other thing is they don’t have to take what is given to them. They don’t have to take that without thinking about it. My pieces have always gone against or are different from the prevailing trends. I remember when I was first teaching and the synthesizer came into being. I felt badly that I wasn’t interested in it. As a teaching device it’s very valuable, but I never was interested in it. Then when MIDI came in I just never responded to that. I was interested in room acoustics and finding equipment like oscillators, EEG amplifiers, and echo-location devices. I moved away from the mass-produced objects. So I think when all of these young composers use Max/MSP and things like that, they have to be careful that they don’t redo what other people have already done.

John Ruscher is a fourth-year English major who is usually sitting in a room.

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