Alvin Lucier, composer and explorer of soundscapes, died at 90

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Alvin Lucier, an influential experimental composer whose works focused less on traditional musical elements like melody and harmony and more on the scientific foundations of sound and listeners’ perceptions, died Wednesday at his home in Middletown, Connecticut, where he had taught for decades. at Wesleyan University. He was 90 years old.

Her daughter, Amanda Lucier, said the cause was complications after a fall.

Unlike composers who aim to paint a sound image, evoke particular emotions, create a dramatic narrative, or explore carefully crafted rhythmic interactions, Lucier seemed to approach his works as experiences that could produce soundscapes. unpredictable.

A completed work may sound like a return howl, an electronic crackle, or, in the case of his best-known piece, “I Am Sitting in a Room” (1969), a spoken text which, with repetition, becomes more and more distorted and covered with reverberation until it turns into a symphony of dancing accents.

And although his music is rooted in the physics of sound, variables such as the size and shape of the performance space or the alpha wave patterns generated by a performer made his pieces different from performance to performance. ‘other.

Mr. Lucier started many of his projects by asking himself what types of sounds would emerge from a specific process, such as tapping a pair of pencils or detecting brain waves. It would then reduce the variables to a single focus.

“My main activity in composing is to eliminate many different possibilities in a room,” he told producers of “No Ideas but in Things,” a 2013 portrayal of him by Viola Rusche and Hauke. Harder. “When I start out, I have so many different ideas of how to put the part together, and I have to work and think hard until I get to the point where only the essential components are there.”

In “I’m Sitting in a Room,” Mr. Lucier began by quietly reading a short statement describing what he is doing. “I am sitting in a different room from the one you are in now,” the text begins. “I record the sound of my speaking voice and play it back around the room over and over again until the resonant frequencies in the room get louder so that every semblance of my speaking, except maybe be rhythm, be destroyed. . “

The acoustics of the room, along with the audio distortions that occur when a tape is re-recorded over and over again, produce a gradually changing sound in which, after 10 minutes, the spoken text is drowned in reverberation and overtones, and unintelligible. In the final section, the high overtones merge into strange, slow melodies.

Other works are tempered by an ironic sense of humor. In “Nothing Is Real” (1990), M. Lucier asks a pianist to play the melody of “Strawberry Fields Forever” by The Beatles, scattering the phrases of the song throughout the range of the piano. The performance is recorded and immediately played back via a small speaker inside a teapot, which functions as a resonance chamber that modifies the sound. Mr. Lucier then asks the pianist to open and close the lid of the teapot to further manipulate the tone of the recording.

Alvin Augustus Lucier Jr., was born in Nashua, NH on May 14, 1931. His father was a lawyer who was elected mayor of Nashua when Alvin was 3 years old. Alvin Sr. was also an amateur violinist who met his future wife, Kathryn E. Lemery, when he replaced a dance orchestra of which she was the pianist.

The Luciers encouraged their son’s interest in music, but although he learned the basics of the piano from his mother, he refused to take lessons, preferring to play the drums. His main interest at the time was jazz, but he became interested in contemporary classical music when he found a recording of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Serenade”.

“I bought it and it was shocking,” Mr. Lucier said in a 2005 interview with NewMusicBox. “It didn’t make sense, but there was something about it that caught my interest. At that point, I decided I was interested in challenges.

He studied composition and music theory at Yale University, where his professors included Howard Boatwright and Quincy Porter. He obtained his BA in 1954 and his MA in 1960 at Brandeis University, where he studied with Arthur Berger and Harold Shapero. During these years he composed in a neoclassical style, a preference reinforced by his studies at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts with Aaron Copland and Lukas Foss during the summers of 1958 and 1959.

Mr. Lucier’s change of mind occurred during a two-year stay in Rome as a Fulbright Fellow, 1960-1962. Attending a 1960 concert by composers John Cage and David Tudor and choreographer Merce Cunningham at Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Mr. Lucier was initially outraged by the haphazard processes Cage and Tudor were exploring. But thinking about the concert in the days that followed, he began to realize that Cage and Tudor’s rejection of conventional music formats was both important and necessary.

“Something about it was so wonderful and exhilarating, I decided I wanted to get involved in it,” he told the New York Times in 1997. “I was literally exhausted by the neo style. classical and I had a few teachers. who were at an impasse. They were getting bitter, and they were sort of losing their enthusiasm. And I was just at that age when I was ready for something new. But I didn’t know what to do.

He found an answer in 1965, when he met Edmond Dewan, a physicist who had invented a brain wave amplifier. Mr. Lucier was then a faculty member at Brandeis and had garnered considerable attention in new music circles by chairing programs, both in Brandeis and New York, which included premieres by Cage, Earl Brown, Christian Wolff and Terry Riley. Dr. Dewan offered the use of his invention to Mr. Lucier, who explored its possibilities in what became the revolutionary work of his new style, “Music for Solo Performer” (1965).

For this piece, the performer sits in front of an audience with sensors strapped around his forehead, eyes closed and a clear mind. The waves are amplified and sent to loudspeakers whose vibrating cones make the percussions ring.

The brain wave amplifier has given way to other high tech gadgets. Lucier created “Vespers” (1968) using echolocation devices – pulse oscillators used by the blind and others to determine distances. He had the equipment operated by blindfolded artists moving through a space, the devices clicking at different speeds and intensities as they approached walls and other objects.

In 1966, Mr. Lucier formed the Sonic Arts Union with a group of like-minded avant-garde artists including composers Robert Ashley, David Behrman and Gordon Mumma. The group toured the United States and Europe, each composer performing their own music, until 1976. Visual artists were sometimes joined, including Mr. Lucier’s first wife, Mary Lucier. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1972.

Mr. Lucier later married Wendy Stokes, a former dancer and registered advanced practice psychiatric nurse. She survives him with their daughter, Amanda. In addition to their Middletown home, Mr. Lucier and his wife owned a studio in Manhattan.

He joined the Wesleyan faculty in 1968 and taught composition there until his retirement in 2011. From the mid-1980s, he devoted himself more and more to instrumental and ensemble works. The Bang on a Can All-Stars, Alter Ego, Ensemble Pamplemousse and ICE are some of the groups that have commissioned works from him.

“I don’t really like listening to my own music,” Lucier told NewMusicBox. “But maybe that’s good because it makes me think and it keeps me from getting complacent.”

Maia Coleman contributed reporting.

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