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Alvin Lucier - Sferics / Music for Solo Performer

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Artist: Alvin Lucier

Album: Sferics / Music for Solo Performer

Label: Lovely

Review date: Aug. 26, 2010

Alvin Lucier’s always been a bit of an armchair scientist. Much of his work has investigated facets of physics through conceptual performances and installations that build a rich sound out of a simple idea. Lucier’s best known work, I am Sitting in a Room, transforms four spoken sentences into unrecognizable feedback through the use of natural resonance. Music on a Long Thin Wire uses an oscillator and a magnet to elicit a variety of sounds from a single strand of piano wire. Sferics and Music for Solo Performer, each released in previous incarnations by Lovely in the 1980s, examine different corners of the sciences, but find a thematic unity with the aforementioned works, and much of Lucier’s inventive discography.

Lucier’s work is often the product of his own curiosity, and both of the works on this disc were spawned by his desire to explore phenomenon that he first came upon in the 1960s: atmospherics and the acoustic potential of brainwaves. Having heard a record of atmospherics (naturally occurring electromagnetic energy unheard by the human ear but audible via radio antenna), Lucier made it his goal to cultivate his own recording of the emissions, and two decades later (after at least one failed attempt), he succeeded. Sferics, which sounds like minuscule hail raining down on a metal roof, is a compilation of recordings made over the night of August 27, 1981, in Colorado. The decision to present the recordings edited, but unprocessed, is well-founded, as the magic in this music is that of the natural world, not a man’s manipulation of it.

Music for Solo Performer takes a similar concept to a more performative degree. Using his own alpha waves as a sound source, Lucier excited a number of percussion instruments by placing them on or next to loudspeakers. The cones of the speakers, set into motion by Lucier’s brain waves, are the actual performers, the composer a silent and stationary presence. The experience of seeing the piece performed in 1965 must have been like something out of a science fiction novel, mind-controlled music made with no apparent effort from the performer (save for Lucier’s assistant for the night, John Cage, who adjusted the volume of the speakers and the channeling of the alpha waves in real time).

Presented on this disc is a 2007 realization of the piece, but one can imagine that it exists largely unchanged: an array of percussion instruments sound off in a 40-minute collection of patter that maintains a constant simmer, never boiling, never coming to rest. A snare drum’s insistent rattle often rises to the forefront, like a morse code transmission above the constant, though ever polite, clatter. As in Sferics, the music often mimics precipitation in irregular clusters, coming down on the listener almost constantly over the track’s 40 minutes, never reaching downpour intensity. Hearing the music without seeing its creation certainly eliminates an important aspect of Lucier’s conception of Music for Solo Performer, but even without what the composer deems the piece’s “theatrical element,” the composition is still something to experience, one of the most direct lifelines between the mind and sound in modern music, taking an even more unfettered approach than anything stream of consciousness or improvisation can produce.

Neither of the tracks on this disc is too exciting, at least in a conventional context. Both are full of activity, but of a minimalist sort, making for incidental sound to all but the most attentive listener. To consider them in such a manner, however, misses the point. Lucier’s inventiveness, even at an early stage in his career, is on full display, probing the ideas of how music can be created and the role of the composer and performer in such creation. Even those who have heard it all may find something novel in these decades-old compositions, in the process if not the product, as Lucier puts our ears to sounds that find their beginnings in the ionosphere far above us and the mind within us all.

By Adam Strohm

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