in conversation with Thomas Moore
I interviewed Alvin Lucier on January 12, 1983, at Marymount Manhattan College in New York. We spoke prior to a concert of his music at the Music for a New Year festival sponsored by Lovely Music.
The beginning of the interview has been lost because of damage to the original tape. The transcript begins in mid-sentence.
I would like to thank Mimi Johnson and Laura Fletcher for their assistance with this interview.
Alvin Lucier: … in ways that I suppose I can’t explain. You know, when I was in Italy, I had an assignment, a composition assignment, to write a piece on a theme of Monteverdi. You know, the composer, Monteverdi. And I was looking at some works of Monteverdi and I discovered the Vespers of 1610, which has instrumental music in there that is in echo form … the idea of echo … an oboe plays a theme, and then it’s echoed in another oboe, in a similar instrument. And I thought that the imitation of echoes in that kind of music, represented on a two-dimensional page, is one thing, but why aren’t we making real echoes as they occur in nature? Which means you send your sound perpendicular out away from you, and it reflects off a wall. I mean, it’s a real echo instead of a simulated echo. So there was something in the charm of the echo idea that got me interested in making real echoes. And I made a piece called Vespers in 1968, in which players really make sounds that echo off ceilings, walls, floors. And that idea was still an imitation of something else, but a crude imitation of the sound-sending abilities of bats and animals that use sound in a real way, and not in a language — sounds not as language with symbolism, but real sounds that do something. So I got interested in that.
Thomas Moore: Vespers was recorded on the Sonic Arts Union album …
TM: … and I understand Lovely intends to be releasing your entire output, or most of it.
AL: Yeah, I’ve decided it’s the right time to make records. They’re a beautiful way to distribute your work. People play them. They’re objects that can be had, held in hand, and for the last three years I’ve made a record a year. You know, it takes a long time to make a record, even if it’s a piece you’ve already made. And the first one I made was Music on a Long Thin Wire, and then I did I am sitting in a room, 1981, and this year, 1982, I made Music for Solo Performer, and tomorrow I’m going to record at the Radio City Music Hall recording studio the third piece on the program tonight, Still and Moving Lines of Silence.
TM: Some of the pieces must be difficult to record. For instance, Vespers does not really convey on record what it does …
AL: Yeah …
TM: … in an environment.
AL: … that’s true. I tried hard on that one. I even used a binaural microphone apparatus, which is supposed to recreate the spatial characteristics better than a pair of stereo mics. That was an interesting project.
TM: Do you feel that some of these works aren’t really recordable, like reflections of sounds from the wall, and so forth?
AL: Well, some of them aren’t, but the ones I’ve been recording of course I think are, (laughs) otherwise I wouldn’t …
TM: Well, some of them come off very well on record, like I am sitting in a room.
AL: Yeah, I think music … well, that’s simply a mono piece, you know. That’s just a mono. And Music on a Long Thin Wire does because the original…the installation of that, you hear the sounds from stereo speakers. And Music for Solo Performer is just a … can be a stereo or mono. Now, Still and Moving Lines I always did in four channels, or I often did it in four channels when I would perform it. But I’ve recomposed it for this concert and for the Lovely Music record, to make sense coming out of two channels. And I think I’m going to succeed in that.
TM: Most of your pieces deal with natural phenomenon, or …
TM: … drawing those out so they’re more perceptible. But some of them don’t, for instance North American Time Capsule and so forth, which seem to be a distinctly different —
AL: Well, that was an early piece, you know.
TM: Yes, it was an early piece, and I was wondering how you look back on those works.
AL: Yeah, I’ve had a series of those pieces that don’t seem to do the … what you just described. And I had another piece, The Duke of York, which had to do with vocal simulation. Memories, it had to do with memories. That you would remember a vocal image. And it was very complex. Somebody would sing, and based on memories. And another person would electronically alter the voice, layer upon layer upon layer, to create a different composite vocal image. That’s similar to North American Time Capsule, where the vocal music is mainly singing and talking, goes through a coder, a vocoder. I’ve had those two ideas. And then there was a piece called The Only Talking Machine of Its Kind in the World, which was another speech piece that used tape delay. I guess it’s the interest in speech. So I’ve made a few pieces like that, off and on.
TM: What interests you about speech?
AL: I have a speech impediment! (laughs) What could be more interesting than that! (laughs) The only thing that could be more interesting is if you couldn’t talk at all, and then you’d probably be really interested in speech, right? (laughs)
TM: I would imagine so!
TM: You’re usually always present when your pieces are performed …
TM: … you tend to travel around with them, for installations and so forth. How do you feel about other people doing your pieces? Is the reason that you’re always there because you’re the only one who knows how to set it up, or do you just feel better about being there?
AL: Well, the pieces aren’t scored in a way that … you know, it’s not like conventional music, where there’s really a well known language for notating what your intentions are. On the other hand, I’m not so sure that composers are pleased with that. I mean, I’m not so sure Stravinsky was so pleased when other people played his music. There’s a wide gap between what performers can understand and what the composer intends. And maybe that’s a reason I’m making these albums. So that they’re at least my definitive performance, or let’s say my performance of these works.
TM: Do you have a fear of someone misinterpreting them?
AL: Yeah, sure. That’s happened all throughout time, you know. I mean …
TM: Yes, I was talking with John Cage a couple weeks ago, and I said, “Some of your scores are very ambiguous, intentionally,” and I said, “Don’t you feel that you might get errors in performance?” and he said, “Well, that happens even to very explicit pieces, so I don’t think we need to worry about it.”
AL: Yeah. The trouble that Cage has is that people don’t take them in the right spirit. You know, there are spirits. There are … It’s like jazz. There are stylistic … Good jazz players can play someone else’s piece in the way that it should be. They understand that sort of … not oral tradition … I don’t know what the word is. But they play so much that they seem to be able to do it right. Now, there are friends of mine I would trust to do my work. Tom DeLio is one.
TM: You do have an installation down at the Corcoran later this month.
AL: Yeah, right.
TM: Or, no, it’s next month …
AL: Yeah, uh-huh.
TM: … which is the Pure Waves, Bass Drum and Acoustic Pendulum piece.
AL: Which I’m playing this evening as a concert piece.
TM: What was the germinal idea for that?
AL: Well that idea, you know, I got that out of a physics textbook, an English book on musical acoustics. And there was an experiment that they used to do, I think in the nineteenth century before there was electronics, trying to figure out where sound comes from. You know, if you hit a table, and you hear a sound, where is the sound? Is it in the table? And they used to do these experiments with bells, and they would hang down light little balls of material, and then they would strike the bell, and the ball would bounce away, and they could then assume the sound was in the material, and explorations of that kind. When I read that experiment — I don’t read physics books too much, but I was just happening to glance through it — it just struck me that that would be a beautiful way to explore the possibility of vibrating of … right away my mind went to bass drums. Bass drums are basic instruments. And I thought it might be beautiful to explore the resonant characteristics of drums by vibrating them with sounds waves, and then hanging … they call these things pendulums, acoustic pendulums. I thought that was just a lovely idea. And I decided to hang ping pong balls on the end of fish lines, down the end, and resonate the drums with pure waves, and then something very beautiful occurs. And that is it’s not just a cause and effect. When the drums resonate strongly the balls just don’t bounce out louder, because sometimes a ball will return to the head of the drum, and the drum is in an inward excursion —
TM: So they’re out of phase.
AL: — and it will stop the ball dead. So there are these beautiful ironic sort of phase things.
TM: So it could stop completely if it hit the —
AL: Yes, well sometimes it does, mm-hmm.
TM: And it’s interesting because in that piece one sees a visual element as well as hears something.
AL: Yeah. That’s another strain of things I’ve been doing, is seeing sound. I’ve been doing a series of pieces that have do to with seeing sound. Music on a Long Thin Wire is one of them. You can see the modes of vibration of the wire.
TM: So are they very clear as you look at it?
AL: Sure. They can be. I’ve done pieces like that. I’ve done pieces with sound-activated lights that show the directionality of sound flow from musical instruments.
TM: I had a question about Music on a Long Thin Wire, which is that it’s eighty feet long …
TM: … so I would assume the tones that we’re hearing would be very high partials. Is that true?
AL: Yeah, I guess so. I guess so, yeah. I don’t know. (laughs)
TM: That would account for why they’re so close together when you —
AL: Yeah, I don’t really know, because physicists have yet to explain that to me in an adequate way. I suppose it is, because the fundamental of an eighty foot string is, well, very low, right?
TM: In Quasimodo you began to — well, at least there’s the possibility of exploring the sonic characteristics of mediums other than air …
TM: … by passing it through whatever you happen to run up against. Have you thought about using water or —
AL: I haven’t really explored that piece much. I did it a couple of times, and I just never went on with it. I just haven’t had the time. I think it’s one of those pieces I’ll come back to.
TM: Is that going to be recorded for Lovely?
AL: I haven’t thought about it. I would have to think of a way to do it.
TM: Your works have been compared by some people to those of Robert Irwin …
AL: Oh, yeah.
TM: … in terms of making … bringing out characteristics or properties of areas.
AL: Yeah. I don’t really know his work that well. I’ve learned about it in the last … about a year. And I’ve seen one of his pieces that was at the Chicago Art Institute, an early piece, really a disc, one of those wonderful discs. But I didn’t see the Whitney piece, the installation at the Whitney several years ago. But I’ve read that book, that wonderful book that someone wrote about him, and I’m just fascinated with his ideas. I’m fascinated also with the works of James Turrell, who’s a light artist. And I think there are similarities between the way I think about sound and the way they think about space and light.
TM: Has the prospect of collaborating with anyone occurred to you?
AL: Well, I don’t know. If someone asked me I would, if either one of those guys asked me … but I think they’ve got their own work, you know. They don’t really … why would they need sound? Well, I don’t know. (laughs)
TM: I understand you have a new orchestral piece.
AL: Yeah! It was played on the new music festival in Chicago, and it was played again at Oberlin, and it may be played next year by the Brooklyn Philharmonic. It explores the same principals as Still and Moving Lines, where players play long tones across pure sounds, and create interference patterns, beats. The interesting things about the beats is they just don’t beat, they spin, you know, they really move in space.
TM: It must be difficult for the performer to be able to do that, because they have to produce a fairly pure tone, don’t they?
AL: Well, they have to be able to play long tones, quietly. But it’s not hard. The Oberlin orchestra, undergraduates, played it rather well.
TM: Throughout your compositional career, you’ve also maintained an interest in teaching…
AL: Yeah, I like teaching. I like to teach. I don’t know, I have a good situation. I’m teaching at a wonderful place, I’m chairman of the music department, if you can imagine that, and the music department has always been very open as to what music is. I mean, it was one of the first places that, you know, had Indian music and Javanese music and things of that kind. So I feel at ease there.
TM: And what are the three works on the program tonight?
AL: Well, the bass drum piece, Music for Pure Waves, Bass Drums and Acoustic Pendulum. And then a tape piece called Sferics. Sferics is a shortened term for atmospherics, which are wonderful clicks and pops and snaps and tweaks and bonks from the ionosphere that are caused by electromagnetic disturbances in the ionosphere. They’re recordings that I made using a pair of … a series of stereo components. I made each recording as a different polar configuration, so the stereo images are different. In other words, what pops out of the ionosphere is different from point to point on earth, so I’ve made a composite tape. It’s just simply a tape. And then the intermission. And then the Still and Moving Lines piece, which I explained a little bit.
TM: And do you have any works in progress right now?
AL: Well, the orchestra piece is not really done. I want to revise that. It’s got some spots in it that I don’t like. And I might be doing a string quartet! (laughs) — if you can imagine, for the Kronos String Quartet. And then I’ll probably do an installation next year at the Whitney Museum right over here on Madison Avenue. I think I’ll do a geography, a sound geography, in the film and video room.
TM: What would be the nature of the string quartet?
AL: I don’t know yet. But I know that they’re interested in asking me to do one. Whether they do or not is another question. But I would deal with it in the same way … the orchestra piece … I dealt with that.