When composer Alvin Lucier began experimenting with electronics in the 1960s, he didn't set out to "revolutionize the concept of music" or "tear down the barriers between art and technology," phrases some music critics have applied to the cumulative impact of his work.
Instead, Lucier compositions with unnatural-sounding titles like "Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas, Parts I-IV" and "Septet for Three Winds, Four Strings and Pure Wave Oscillator" grew out of a composer's quite natural search for his own musical voice.
"I'm very interested in older music: Stravinsky, Webern, Schoenberg," Lucier, 55, said in a telephone interview this week from his home in Middletown, Conn., near Wesleyan University, where he chairs the music department and teaches experimental composition.
Webern and Schoenberg as "older music"? The mind reels.
"I loved those people and that's where I started out. But I'm lucky in that with electronics I found something that was particularly my own. A very decisive thing happened, and I stopped composing in those styles that referred to Western European art or music. I got very interested in these acoustical phenomena as wonderful sound images."
Lucier creates those "sound images" with electronic sounds produced by oscillators, pure wave generators and other equipment similar to devices most people encounter only during hearing tests at a doctor's office.
Lucier will present three works--"Still and Moving Lines. . . ," "Sound on Paper" and "In Memoriam Jon Higgins"--on Saturday at the Newport Harbor Art Museum as part of the museum's ongoing Contemporary Culture Series.
Labeling himself a composer, not a performer, Lucier has presented works in a variety of settings over the last 20 years, including conventional concerts and sound installations at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York as well as a commercial exhibit at Expo '70 in Osaka, Japan, and New Music America performances. He last appeared in the Southland in 1985 at CalArts' annual contemporary music festival.
Although Lucier classifies his sound wave manipulations as "music"--they are, after all, "organized sound"--he readily admits the challenge they present to listeners, since he uses nothing remotely resembling conventional melody, harmony or rhythmic structure.
"I get ideas about beating patterns, rhythms and this and that, but finally nothing ever rings through to me until I scrape it down to its barest essential: a simple gesture of an instrument sweeping from low to high or sustaining a note long enough to hear the beating patterns emerge."
"I have to strip away the musical elements in order to allow the acoustic elements to emerge. So I go through an arduous kind of cleansing process."
For instance, "In Memoriam Jon Higgins" is written for pure wave oscillator and solo clarinet. The oscillator generates a pure wave across the range of the clarinet, while the soloist--in this case, Thomas Ridenour--produces long tones across that wave creating interferences and rhythmic patterns as the two signals diverge and converge.
In "Sound on Paper," commissioned by the Islip Art Museum in New York, six pieces of paper of different sizes and densities are mounted in front of loudspeakers through which an identical signal is transmitted. The vibrations allow listeners to "hear" the different physical properties of each piece of paper.
It is often a very subtle effect that Lucier reaches for, sometimes too subtle for members of the audience who are unfamiliar with listening to pure wave forms.
"I hope first of all that they were able to hear it," Lucier said. "Sometimes they just don't perceive that sound waves are moving--they've never had that experience. They are waiting for a melody. But once they do hear it, I hope they find it very beautiful."
Among those who have connected with Lucier's approach is New York Times critic John Rockwell, who calls Lucier "one of the most interesting composers of the post-John Cage era."
While audiences aren't prone to leaving Lucier's performances humming what they've heard, he has made nearly a dozen recordings of his compositions. His goal, however, is not to document a live performance or win over the pop audience as experimentalist Laurie Anderson has, but to put on record "the components of the installation so anyone can hear it in their own environment."
Ultimately, Lucier sees his work serving a double purpose--both to expose audiences to the physical properties of sound waves and to prompt listeners to examine the way they listen.
"There's an artist in Los Angeles--Robert Irwin--and I like to think I'm on his wavelength. His works make you become aware of how you are perceiving them, instead of just making works you perceive. To change the way listeners listen--I think I'm doing something like that.
"Every composer who does something different adds to the definition of what is music. Certainly (Edgar) Varese did. Stravinksy did. My work is so different, I hope it expands one's idea of what a piece of music is."