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Anthony Burr / Charles Curtis - Alvin Lucier

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Artist: Anthony Burr / Charles Curtis

Album: Alvin Lucier

Label: Antiopic

Review date: Jan. 15, 2006

The rich but sparse world conjured by Lucier’s music exists somewhere just beneath pieces like “Continuum” by Ligeti, or George Crumb’s “Ancient Voices of Children,” in which the exploration of sound for its own sake is a metalinguistic concern. For Lucier, who turns 75 this year, sound and the spaces responsible for sound are the major focus of his life’s work and have been so since the middle 1960s. I remember hearing Lucier describe, to a young student, what Cage wanted to prove with his “4:33” of silence: namely, the realization that silence is not simply silence at all. Lucier has been preoccupied with examining similar levels of microdetail in the spatial and microtonal realms.

This new double disc focuses on “beat” pieces, mainly involving clarinet, cello and pure-tone oscillator. By “beat” – and this is my simplified version of physics way beyond my comprehension – I’m referring to the acoustic phenomenon that occurs when two tones approach each other; as they get closer, a palatable sound wave becomes perceptible. As the tones diverge, the beats get faster until imperceptible again. When heard live, or well-recorded in an ideal listening space, the results are mesmerizing, sometimes generating physical discomfort depending on frequency range. A simple example can be heard on this collection’s opener, “In Memoriam Jon Higgins 1987,” written for clarinet in A and slow-sweep, pure-wave oscillator. The oscillator produces a very gradually ascending tone, and the clarinetist, here Anthony Burr, plays and holds a note just above the rising pitch, so that the slowing beats become audible. This procedure is repeated many times as the electronically generated sound climbs several octaves.

All of the pieces contained herein work along similar lines; a recent venture, written for cellist Charles Curtis, uses two oscillators whose pitches begin matched but then travel in opposite directions, and it seems that the cellist then picks two pitches, creating both the afore-mentioned beats and some ghost-tones, making the resulting sound appear larger and fuller than it really is. There’s also one piece without oscillator, “for cello with one or more amplified vases” from 1993, during which the cellist’s sound is magnified and augmented by frequencies generated by the vases as a result of what he’s playing!

Whatever the technical explanations might be, I find this music absolutely breathtaking. It is somehow externally bare, and yet it exposes all manner of hidden relationships and sonic properties so that they are inescapable. That in itself is visceral, at times almost confrontational, and yet also meditative, like some of the best “noise” can be. The space in which I listen is fairly small, and these sounds fill it to capacity, often seeming to emanate from all directions at once, drawing my attention, as is Lucier’s wont, to the most minute details of even the smallest sonic object.

However, in addition to being another testament to Lucier’s accomplishments, this collection speaks to some serious mastery and discipline on the part of the performers. I’ve never been involved in a Lucier performance, but I can only imagine the intense listening that goes into playing these pieces. Curtis and Burr are as staunch a pair of advocates as could be desired, demonstrating full absorption and assimilation of the idiom, and every reading here is a strong one; my only complaint is that the accompanying documentation presents relevant abstract quotations from Varese, Helmholtz and Lucier among others rather than focusing on the pieces themselves, most likely a move to provide some background while letting the music speak for itself. This is a small concern, as several of these works have also been documented elsewhere, most notably on the Lovely Music label, a tireless advocate of Lucier’s work. While this is the first recording of “Curtis,” “Jon Higgins” makes at least its third discographical appearance here.

The main advantage to these new recordings is clarity. While many other readings attempt a seamless blending of acoustic and electronic sounds, this collection is recorded so that every structural component is absolutely clear. Consequently, as with the best Boulez interpretations, familiar works are heard afresh, which alone makes the set indispensable. Such a lavish and well-executed production should not be missed.

By Marc Medwin

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