Alvin Lucier on Black Truffle

Thursday 10 September 2020

As well as releasing lots of fine music by new composers, Black Truffle has been preserving the legacy of the old masters. In particular, they have been steadily releasing recent pieces by Alvin Lucier. I went into details last year about a magnificent concert given at the Round Chapel in Clapton by the Ever Present Orchestra. That gig was recorded by the BBC but I don’t think it’s been broadcast. At least, the new ensemble pieces from that concert have been recorded and released a couple of months ago by members of the same group. Works For The Ever Present Orchestra is made up of new recordings of these works that coax iridescent interference patterns from the interaction of acoustic instruments and electronic tones. In this case, the electronics are provided by e-bowed electric guitars, adding another subtle layer of complexity and colouration. The pace here is brisker and the textures sound more transparent than what I remember from the concert: this may be due to the resonance of the Round Chapel, a reduction in personnel or just that my attention is no longer distracted by the theatrical presence of the large ensemble at work in intense concentration.

Lucier doesn’t so much reward attention as demand it. As writer Brian Olewnick observed after listening to String Noise, another release from this year, “Alvin Lucier once again testing my patience. And testing it well.” If I thought Lucier was getting lush and lyrical in his old age, these three hefty pieces for solo and duo violins brought that conceit crashing down around my ears. Tapper is the solo work, from 2004, written for Conrad Harris who plays it here for nearly an hour. The performer repeatedly taps the body of his instrument with the butt end of the bow while moving around the performance space. That’s the piece. No strings involved at all – except, of course they are. As I said, his music demands your attention. It’s no Fluxus exercise in mundanity, and Harris plays with the same combination of rigour and flexibility afforded a Bach partita. Lucier fans will spot the connection to his 60s echolocation piece Vespers and how the sound is shaped by its surroundings, but Tapper removes the extramusical rationalisation and focuses on the sound as music itself. If you don’t listen, you miss the tiny gradations in decay and shading, augmented by the resonance of the violin’s body, as well as its strings.

The two remaining works are played here as duets by Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris. In Love Song, from 2016, they play long tones using only the open E string, while moving in a circular motion around the performance space. Their two violins are joined at the bridge by a long wire, which transfers resonating tones between the instruments. As the players move, changes in the wire’s tension adds to the complex microcosm of tones produced by this minimum of overt activity. A fascinating sound, if you’re paying attention. Halo, composed last year, is similar to Tapper, but requires the violinists to move through the space bowing long tones, making each slight shift in sound less prominent while producing the finest detectable gradations in sound colour. The alchemical qualities of Lucier’s music persist to this day, with less focus on the demonstrative or pedagogical angles and a more assured reliance on their art.

Alvin Lucier at the Round Chapel

Saturday 23 March 2019

Almost ten years ago, I saw Alvin Lucier in one of the most memorable gigs I’ve been to, performing Bird and Person Dyning at Wilton’s Hall. It’s a magnificent piece in the way it leads the listener to consider the act of listening as an aesthetic act, the underlying phenomena and the consequences of this newfound awareness, all in one simple, seemingly effortless gesture. It’s this sort of thing that makes me consider Lucier one of the most important living composers.

He was supposed to be back in London at the Round Chapel in Clapton last week, but had to cancel at late notice due to a health problem that prevented travel. The concert otherwise proceded as planned: a three-hour tour de force that affirmed Lucier’s presence as a composer of superb music.

A couple of his classic/notorious works were presented in the second half, but the focus was on his newest music and was so much the better for it. The evening began with a recent work that signalled intent, Ricochet Lady from 2016: Trevor Saint on a glockenspiel off in a dark corner of the hall, hammering out rapid arpeggios in the highest register. The repeating figures created the psychoacoustic effect of sustained tones – the type that people who have heard early Philip Glass will immediately recognise – emphasised to the extent that the aural effects became the musical material instead of the notes played. A combination of the hall’s reverberation, the instrument’s bright timbre and the overtones of close-spaced high frequencies created a series of metallic buzzing and humming sounds beyond the physical scope of the instrument.

Vespers and I Am Sitting In A Room were each performed live in the Round Chapel. Two of Lucier’s best-known works, each now fifty years old; both pieces still fascinate in the way they reveal fundamental qualities of aural perception taken for granted and complacently disregarded by musical theory. Hearing Vespers performed live reveals the spatial qualities of the sound, as the four blindfolded players traversed the hall by means of echo-location, while the electronic clicks they emitted were subtly transformed by their movements. This is minimal music, in a manner similar to that of a sculpture by Serra or Judd, exposing liminal phenomena of space, mass, sound or light through supposedly undifferentiated material.

The larger part of the concert was given over to four works for acoustic ensemble paired with electronics, all from the 2010s and all with one evident premise. Lucier has long exploited the effects gained from combining pure sine tones with acoustic instruments, allowing interplay of beating frequencies and differences through small differences in intonation and the harmonic spectrum of the instruments. The Ever Present Orchestra was founded for the purpose of playing these pieces and their performances showed just how effectively musical Lucier’s music can be, in the conventional sense, when interpreted with inisght and sensitivity. (Guest performers on the night included figures as diverse as John Tilbury, Jennifer Walshe and Thurston Moore.)

As with Cage, there’s often a didactic quality behind Lucier’s earlier music, those most famous (or notorious) pieces. A phenomenon is demonstrated. As with Cage, a superficial exposure to Lucier’s work suggests that he is more about ideas than music. The late works played at Round Chapel should go a long way to refuting this misapprehension. First and foremost, Lucier composes music – a point that his work has continued to make clearer and clearer over the years. While Vespers and I Am Sitting In A Room are “about” sound, Ricochet Lady is “about” music, treated and filtered without electronics. The ensemble pieces are all ostensibly “about” the same idea, but now this is obviously not the point. Like Cage’s music, the ideas serve merely as a means to an end.

The ensemble is violins, cellos and saxophones, augmented on occasion by piano, vibraphone and e-bowed guitar. As played by the Ever Present Orchestra, when the winds and strings begin, the sounds combined with the sine tones are almost indistinguishable, producing a complex blend of tone that is hard to define. In Two Circles, Semicircle and Tilted Arc (a reference to a Serra’s destroyed public sculpture), the fundamental shapes suggested by the titles are perceptible in the trajectory of the music but subsumed within a broader, compositional form. Musical sense takes precedence over logical intelligibility. In Two Circles, a reduced ensemble of violin, cello, two saxophones and piano slowly interweave, their harmonies growing more distant, opening up into wider registers before resolving to a dense, multiphonic unison. Seimicircle mounts in a glorious ascent, brassier sounds to the fore, only to fall away again in a slow motion landslide.

The grouping of instruments and electronics blend into a complex harmony and tonal colouration far removed from the usual stark palette expected from Lucier. This was felt most strongly in the world premiere of EPO-5, probably the high point of the evening. Using a large ensemble, the usual variations in harmonic intervals moved in ways that couldn’t be anticipated. For me at least, acoustic and electronic voices all seemed to move in different directions and any attempt to reduce the piece to a single concept was futile. It was simply music, lush and dramatic, intricate without becoming opaque, with strangely lingering effects that unfolded at a deliciously languorous pace. Listeners were carried along without feeling pushed. I can’t imagine hearing these pieces played better.

The BBC were recording the event, so hopefully I get to hear it all again soon.

Bird And Person Dyning

Wednesday 24 June 2009

An old man is walking slowly through the room. At one end of the room a bird is twittering. Not a real bird; it’s an electronic bird call. The man walks slowly towards where the sound seems to be coming from. We can hear the bird, but we can also hear what the man hears: he’s wearing microphones over his ears. The sounds he can hear are played through loudspeakers in the room, so that we can hear the bird from our position, and the bird from his position, as projected from a third position. The man can also hear what he hears relayed from those loudspeakers. Inevitably, feedback occurs.

The feedback produced is a high, whistling sound which complements the bird nicely. The man tilts his head a little to one side, or hunches down a fraction. The feedback shifts to a new note, the tone becomes reedier. The slightest adjustment to how the man listens can completely change the sound we hear. Even the bird’s repeated call changes: its chirping amongst the feedback causes heterodyning, creating the illusion of other, differently voiced birds chirping in chorus.

On the weekend I got to see and hear Alvin Lucier perform his 1975 piece Bird and Person Dyning, as part of the Cut and Splice festival at Wilton’s Hall. The above description gives some idea of how a simple setup can create a complex sonic environment. In a single, unified action it reveals how the subtleties of sound depend on how we listen, our position in space, the size and shape of the room. There were some good pieces on the weekend, and more poor pieces, but Lucier’s music still stood out for having both a depth and a transparency that the others lacked.

(Video and audio of Bird and Person Dyning is on UbuWeb.)