Still and Moving Lines: Wesleyan celebrates the life and career of composer Alvin Lucier

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This weekend, Wesleyan University will host an array of events paying tribute to composer Alvin Lucier, who retired from the faculty in July after 40 years of teaching.

Even if you aren’t familiar with Lucier’s work, you’d be challenged not to want to participate. The event extends beyond music into other realms of artistic inquiry, with two film screenings ("No Ideas But In Things," a documentary about Lucier’s music and teaching by filmmakers Viola Ruche and Hauke Harder, plays on Friday, followed by a Saturday showing of Nam June Paik’s 1972 film "Tribute to John Cage," in which Lucier plays an important role) and no fewer than four symposiums, ending Sunday with a star-studded composer’s round-table, featuring Robert Ashley, David Behrman, Anthony Braxton, Paula Matthusen, Gordon Mumma, Pauline Oliveros and Christian Wolff.

The visual arts aren’t been neglected either. Through Dec. 11, Wesleyan’s Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery houses Alvin Lucier (and His Artist Friends), an exploration of his engagement with other artists, a group that includes composer John Cage, Hartford-born conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, poet John Ashbery, Italian writer Italo Calvino and painter Lee Lozano. The exhibit isn’t just pictures on a wall; images are placed in context with musical installations, with Lucier’s most famous work, I Am Sitting in a Room (1969), acting as the aural centerpiece. (The piece involves a performer recording him or herself reading a text, playing it back into the room while re-recording it, then repeating the process until the words are unrecognizable, “smoothed out,” as it were, into an acoustic reflection of performance space.) It’s surrounded by a number of audio presentations, performance videos, scores, artifacts and memorabilia. Everything bleeds into everything else. (The exhibit opens on Saturday at 2 p.m.)

Then, of course, are the musical tributes, starting on Friday with “Solos,” a program of Lucier compositions written for specific performers spanning the years 1985 to 2002. Two concerts, “Ensembles” and “A Concert of Electronic Theatre Music, May 3, 1968,” run on Saturday; the first is a program of works for orchestra (conventional and gamelan), microphones, amplifiers and loudspeakers, and the second recreates Lucier's first concert at Wesleyan, with works by Mr. Lucier, a tape piece by three former students, John Fullemann, John Pemberton, and Douglas Simon, who’ll be on hand to recreate the piece, Christian Wolff’s Flying, or Possibly Crawling or Sitting Still (Burdocks), Toshi Ichiyanagi’s Distance, and Cage’s Rozart Mix. Sunday’s “Tributes,” finally, showcases pieces composed for Lucier by his friends, some of whom are on that day’s symposium panel.

If you had to boil it down to one statement, Lucier’s career-long focus has been to explore sound-worlds that wouldn’t reach our ears under normal conditions. “My pieces are about exploring sound waves and the natural characteristics of sound waves,” Lucier said, when I sat down with him at his home in Middletown. “And in order to do that in a beautiful way, in my opinion, is to let the waves do what they do normally without a lot of compositional interference.” His training in composition was rather conventional; as a graduate student in the late 1950s, Lucier studied with Arthur Berger, Irving Fine, and Harold Shapero at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., where Neoclassicism was the order of the day, tempered with a dash of serialism. After graduating with an MFA, Lucier headed to Rome on a Fulbright, where he encountered the music of the European avant-garde: Luigi Nono, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

“It was just terrific and exciting at that time,” he said. “But I discovered it wasn’t my music. Those European guys: it was in their blood. Highly technical, emotional, complex music. So when I came home, I had to look around for something that I could call my own, and I discovered acoustics.”

During his final year in Rome, Lucier received a telegram from Fine, who offered him a job as choral director at Brandeis, where he stayed for seven years. But Lucier felt the pull of Cage, Morton Feldman and Earl Brown. “I was sort of out of it as far as the composition faculty was concerned,” he says. “I wasn’t acknowledged as a composer.”

In 1965, Lucier came up with Music for Solo Performer, calling for a performer to attach electrodes to his or her scalp, to pick up on alpha waves, but only after the performer has achieved a meditative state. “It’s the opposite of what any musician does,” Lucier said. “Musicians don’t sit still. They play a lot. “So I had to generate alpha in real time in front of an audience. By letting go of control, I made this piece happen.” Around 1968, Lucier started playing around with echolocation, picking up objects in one’s environment by sensing echoes, sort of how bats get around. He began coming up with ways to use it as a compositional device, steering clear of extraneous musical gestures that would distract from exploring the acoustics of any given performance space. “If you want to explore something,” he said, “you can’t put anything too subjective in. It’s got to be neutral, like a scientific experiment.” The resulting piece, Vespers, was another breakthrough.

Lucier arranged a concert at Brandeis’ Rose Art Museum to try out his new pieces, and he invited Cage, who he met as a Tanglewood student in the late 1950s, to participate. “That was a landmark for me and for Cage,” Lucier said. Finding himself out of sync with the Brandeis composition faculty, Lucier landed a job at Wesleyan when Dick Winslow, the chair of the music department, asked Cage who to hire. “They had formed a very interesting world music department,” he said. “And the last person they hired was me as experimental music.”

After finding his early style, Lucier worked almost exclusively with electronic equipment in the 1960s and 70s. In the 1980s, he started getting requests for pieces from performers. “I had to discover a way to use conventional musical instruments in a way that evoked the kind of poetic exploration of sound waves that I was interested in,” he said. Lucier discovered beating patterns, collisions created when two notes are closely tuned to each other, and he composed several solo and orchestral works exploiting the properties of beating patterns, stumbling, as it were, onto the idea of creating rhythm through tuning.

But adding humans back to the mix caused problems. “Sometimes players with good intentions think they have to be expressive,” he says. “They play a crescendo or a diminuendo. That doesn’t enhance the phenomena at all. Their skill has to be in tuning and control of long notes often. There’s a problem in experimental music as a whole when players with good intentions bring something to the music from other music.”

Pauline Oliveros, who will participate in the Sunday symposium and concert, met Lucier in 1965 at the Case Institute in Cleveland. Oliveros told me that, from her point of view, Lucier’s desire to work with sounds we normally wouldn’t encounter is about “expanding consciousness and awareness of our environment and to live and breathe and do things.”

“I appreciate his work,” she said. “He wanted to do things that others weren’t doing.”

Oliveros also remembers working with Lucier on George Manupelli’s experimental "Dr. Chicago" film trilogy in the late 1960s, where Lucier, who played the title role, improvised stream-of-consciousness, hipster monologues, fighting through his rapacious stutter. “This was in the Joshua Tree National Park,” Oliveros said, “outside of San Diego, where I was still teaching... I was playing the wife of some character in the show... I can’t remember who, but a very cranky one. I would offer dinner of rattlesnake, as I recall.”

Lucier, now 80, still confers regularly with composition students (he’ll start a week-long residence at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in March). He acknowledged that his residency wouldn’t have been possible twenty years ago.

“It took a lot of time and persistence,” he said, “and we didn’t change our music at all. I’ve never changed my music to make it more compatible or more accessible. It’s just taken a long time and it’s just now become part and parcel of musicians’ fare.”

Write to mhamad@hartfordadvocate.com. Follow me on Twitter @MikeHamad

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