Call it what you will. For decades, the experimental music titan and John Spencer Camp Professor of Music, Emeritus has charted the hazy, unknown seas of sound itself, using its inert physical properties as his weapon of choice. He has used space, brainwaves, and magnets to bridge the gap between music and science, sound and art.
In his most famous work, 1969’s “I Am Sitting in a Room,” Lucier began reading the eponymous text while, well, sitting in a room. He recorded it then played it back into the room, recorded it again, then played it back. As his soft speech deteriorated into sonic artifact, the point of the whole endeavor became clear: his voice wasn’t the instrument here, but the room itself.
For some, it was just noise. For others, the exploration of very resonant properties of space was a breakthrough. And you thought Animal Collective was weird. To put it bluntly, Lucier was, and continues to be, a pioneer, a visionary, and an idol for many students at Wes.
Although he retired at the end of last spring, this weekend, in recognition of Lucier’s 80th birthday, the Music Department and Center for the Arts commemorates his work and legacy with “Alvin Lucier: A Celebration.” Featuring exhibitions, discussions, and a series of concerts, this weekend offers an extraordinary opportunity to delve into the rich, mysterious, sonic world of one of experimental music’s defining voices.
Known to students as the man behind the perpetually popular “Intro to Experimental Music,” (now taught by Assistant Professor of Music Paula Matthusen), Lucier was born in Nashua, N.H. in 1931 and received his education at Yale and later Brandeis. After a two-year stint as a Fulbright Scholar, Lucier returned to Brandeis to teach and conduct the Brandeis University Chamber Chorus from 1968 to 1970.
Since then, he’s taught at Wesleyan, exploring new sonic territory and changing the way many students think about the intersections of music and sound. Other than “I Am Sitting in a Room,” Lucier’s works have included early uses of a prototype vocoder in “North American Time Capsule,” manipulating a piano wire with magnets and oscillators in “A Long Thin Wire,” and implementing biofeedback (the conscious control of one’s unconscious bodily functions) in “Clocker.” In 1994, Wesleyan held “Alvin Lucier: Collaborations” in honor of his compositions, for which he presented 12 new pieces, including theatrical collaborations. Throughout his nearly six decades of music and discovery, he’s toured the globe with a variety of performers and installed works worldwide.
Fittingly, “Alvin Lucier: A Celebration” doesn’t confine itself to one event or medium—it’s spread out over three days and features discussions with writers and musicians, artistic exhibitions, and a string of concerts featuring Wesleyan ensembles, old friends, and even Lucier himself.
It all began earlier this afternoon with a pair of symposiums focusing on the major dynamics of Lucier’s work. The first, “Notations,” explores Lucier’s conception of composition and features discussion with clarinetist Anthony Burr, pianist Daniel Wolf ’85, and musicologist Volker Straebel, and moderated by Associate Professor of Music Jane Alden.
The second, “Processes,” dives into Lucier’s unique electro-acoustic techniques and how they relate to the central sonic themes running through his body of work. The discussion includes composers Nicolas Collins ’76
(MA ’79) and Andrew Dewar ’04 (PhD ’09), and Brown contemporary artist Ed Osbourne ’87, moderated by Professor of Music Neely Bruce.
From 4:30 to 6:00 p.m, Viola Ruche and Mr. Harder present a preview of “No Idea But In Things,” their upcoming 2012 documentary on Lucier’s teaching and work before it premieres in Berlin next spring. Friday night ends with the first of four concerts, with instrumentalists playing several of Lucier’s works for solo performers, each pushing the conventional limits of what music can be: whether it’s resonance and triangle (“Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra”) or sine waves and clarinet (“In Memoriam of John Higgins”), resounding weirdness will be guaranteed.
Saturday morning opens with another symposium at 10 a.m., this time discussing the pain-staking endeavor of making Lucier’s sonic projects come to life: “Performance” will feature Lucier collaborator and cellist Charles Curtis, University Professor of Music and Chair of the department Ron Kuivila ’77, and sound artist Richard Lerman, moderated by Richard K. Winslow Professor of Music Mark Slobin.
At noon, the celebration soldiers on with a showing of groundbreaking visual artist Nam June Paik’s 1972 “Tribute to John Cage,” a definitive vision of the experimental musician, capturing the energy of both Cage and Lucier’s performances.
The night ends with back-to-back concerts: the first, at 7 p.m. in Crowell, features Wesleyan student ensembles—the Wesleyan University Orchestra, the Gamelan Ensemble, and the Collegium Musicum—playing some of Lucier’s most exciting and recent work.
The second, beginning at 10 p.m. in the Memorial Chapel, arguably stands as the capstone of the weekend celebration: first held in the spring of 1968, Alvin Lucier’s first performance at Wesleyan, “A Concert of Electronic Theatre Music,” will be reconstructed in its entirety, featuring Lucier and the student performers who joined him on stage over four decades ago. As with Lucier’s inaugaral concert, the reunited group will perform originals by Lucier along with classic works by Christian Wolff, Tochi Ishiyanagi, and, of course, John Cage.
The final seminar begins Sunday morning at 11 a.m., pulling together a mix of young composers and celebrated minds of the avant-garde, including the aforementioned Wolff, Robert Ashley, Kyle Gann, Gordon Mussa, and Pauline Oliveros, as well as Professor Matthusen. It will be moderated by avant-jazz maestro and Professor of Music Anthony Braxton. The fourth and final concert begins later in the afternoon, at 2 p.m. in Crowell: a tribute to the life and work of Lucier, the concert will feature performances by close friends and colleagues of the musical legend.
Running all throughout the weekend and through December, the exhibit “Alvin Lucier (and His Artist Friends)” opens at the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery at the CFA with a reception at 2 p.m. on Saturday. The exhibit paints a portrait of Lucier’s nearly six decade long career, highlighting his collaborations and engagements with fellow musicians and artists, including Cage, Ashbury, and many others. Juxtaposing Lucier’s sonic compositions and instillations with the work of his influences, “Alvin Lucier (and His Artist Friends)” also explores, for the first time, the massive influence of “I Am Sitting in a Room” and features nearly two dozen audio presentations, including an instillation of Lucier’s “Chambers” recreated as a tribute by his former students.
Though he is no longer lecturing on aleatoric composition or minimalism on campus, Lucier’s work continues to inspire sonic experimenters worldwide—this weekend offers the rare opportunity to delve into the impossibly rich fringe world of experimental music, a world where the beloved Lucier still stands tall.