Alvin Lucier, Composer At The Intersection Of Science And Sound, Dead At 90
Few artists straddled the line between science experiment and musical composition more often, or more nimbly, than Alvin Lucier.
The composer died this week at his home in Connecticut, where he had taught at Wesleyan University for decades. Lucier was one of the giant figures in experimental, electronic, and electro-acoustic music, known for “making the inaudible… audible.”
Earlier this year, to celebrate his 90th birthday, colleagues held a 27-hour marathon of his most famous piece, “I Am Sitting In A Room.” The piece, first recorded in 1969, is very simple in concept but deceptively complex. It consists of a short passage of text, read aloud in a room. That sound is recorded and then played back into that same room, picked up by the same microphone, over and over, until the room resonance renders the speech otherworldly and unintelligible. In fact, the instructions are the text itself:
“I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice, and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.”
Lucier’s speech was defined by a stutter, which you hear in early recordings. Near the end of his life, that voice had grown weak from more than a decade of Parkinson’s disease. His family told the New York Times that his death was caused by complications from a fall.
Percussionist Trevor Saint was Lucier’s assistant near the end of his life, and is a performer of his works, including another Lucier piece that explores room resonance, 2016’s “Ricochet Lady.” He spoke to Science Friday about the composer earlier this year.
“I think of Alvin as an archaeologist rather than a creator, where he’s just basically making the listeners aware of the world around them,” Saint said. “But you need time. You’ve got to be in the space and let nature do its thing. And then if you’re patient enough, you get to enjoy it.”
Saint, like many people, first learned about Lucier’s music through “I Am Sitting In A Room,” and he didn’t know what to make of it. “I didn’t really know what was going on. Even though it’s so clear in the text, the sounds that were coming out, it was just so wondrous and magical,” he said.
The piece has been performed around the world, and has even prompted a series of adaptations by YouTubers, including one who uploaded his video 1,000 times, resulting in bizarre video degradation over time.
Lucier’s work has been academically studied for years, and presented and championed at MIT’s Media Lab in seminars devoted to the “quality of sound as experience.”
Much of his work since the 1960s dealt with acoustic phenomena and the way the human ear, and brain, pick up signals. In one famous piece, “Music For Solo Performer,” he donned a headset with electrodes to capture alpha brain waves, which he used to vibrate percussion instruments.
In another, “Music on a Long Thin Wire,” he strung a wire attached to loudspeakers and a sine wave oscillator in a New Mexico shopping center. The resulting sound was broadcast on public radio station KUNM-FM for five un-interrupted days and nights.
“He work[ed] a lot with scientific equipment, but he [wasn’t] not a scientist by any means,” said Trevor Saint. But Lucier did have the patience of a scientist, working slowly, constantly and experimenting, even up until his death.
“I think it takes someone who has the patience and interest to discover and he d[id] that,” Saint said, recalling the “simple mystery” of his first hearing of a Lucier piece.
“It’s exploring this material that’s around us all the time, but we just don’t perceive it, because we’re not focused on it,” he said.
“And I think just that approach to life in general is, yeah—it’s beautiful.”
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Trevor Saint is a percussionist and assistant to Alvin Lucier. He’s based in New Haven, Connecticut.
IRA FLATOW: And in other news this week, Alvin Lucier, one of the giants of experimental music, has died. Science Friday’s John Dankosky has this remembrance of a composer known for making the inaudible audible.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Few artists straddle the line between science experiment and musical composition more often, or more nimbly, than Alvin Lucier. One example is 1965’s “Music for Solo Performer” where the composer attached electrodes to his head, using brainwaves to trigger percussion instruments.
TREVOR SAINT: I think of Alvin as an archaeologist, rather than a creator, where he’s just basically making the listeners aware of the world around them.
JOHN DANKOSKY: That’s percussionist Trevor Saint, Lucia’s assistant near the end of his life. We talked to him earlier this year after a 27-hour performance of Lucier’s most famous work, “I am Sitting in a Room.”
TREVOR SAINT: I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now.
JOHN DANKOSKY: That simple piece of text is recorded and played back into the same room until the voice is reduced to ghostly whispers and the room’s resonant frequencies remain.
Trevor Saint says it’s music that requires a lot of patience on the part of the listener.
TREVOR SAINT: You need time. Like you just got to be in this space and let nature do its thing. And then if you’re patient enough, you get to enjoy it. Just that approach to life in general is– yeah, it’s beautiful.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Alvin Lucier died at his home in Connecticut this week at the age of 90. For Science Friday, I’m John Dankosky.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you, John.
John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have four cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.