ALVIN LUCIER'S MUSIC 109 is one of the oddest books about music I’ve ever come across. Lucier has been an acquaintance of or collaborator with nearly every American experimental composer of the past 50 years, a significant avant-garde figure in his own right, and, since 1970, a professor at Wesleyan University. His career coincides with an exciting, fervent period when received notions regarding the use of sound, or even what constitutes music, were being turned on their head. Given Lucier’s credentials and associations, this modest volume is the last thing I would have expected. Written in an extremely casual style and addressed in the first person to an invisible audience of apparent neophytes, Music 109 discusses more than 100 compositions and performances by the likes of John Cage, La Monte Young, Robert Ashley, and Morton Feldman, yet it’s almost completely free of academic jargon. Its unusual title isn’t explained in the text (or the jacket copy) until page 92, when it’s revealed as the course number of one of Lucier’s classes at Wesleyan.
Though the book has much to offer relative experts on the topic, it’s also the perfect introduction — breezy, but not dumbed-down — to the head-spinning innovations and intellectual breakthroughs that took place in the world of contemporary classical music from the 1940s to the 1980s, explained largely through stories and firsthand accounts. (Lucier even tosses in some basic and easily understood music theory.) For those already acquainted with this music, Lucier’s descriptions of how it came to be reveal details of discovery and development that a non-insider could never know. It turns out, for instance, that the idea for Steve Reich’s piece Clapping Music (1972) came to him while he and Lucier were watching a troupe of flamenco dancers in a Spanish restaurant in Brussels.
At first, Lucier’s disarmingly naïve tone (“Can you imagine that?” “You know what a collage is, don’t you?”) can seem forced or affected. But it soon becomes clear that what we’re reading are notes from his introductory lectures at Wesleyan. Well, not notes, exactly. In the middle of a discussion of Young’s Poem for Chairs, Tables, Benches, etc. (1960), Lucier writes: “Let’s all go over to the World Music Hall and experiment”; a chapter on vocal music begins: “It just started snowing outside, so let’s listen to Three Voices by Morton Feldman .” So it appears that some or all of the book’s text was transcribed from recordings of Lucier’s actual lectures, which makes for a refreshing change from the customary approach to this “difficult” subject matter.
One of the great innovations of the late 20th-century avant-garde was the consciousness, and intentional use, of the physical spaces in which music was heard, and made. An early example of this was Lucier’s own tape composition I Am Sitting in a Room (1969), which he recorded himself by reciting a simple text and ping-ponging it repeatedly between two tape machines. On the resulting recording, Lucier’s original spoken text decays further with each tape generation, as the resonant properties of the room where all this was done gradually move more and more to the forefront. (Could Lucier’s decision to transcribe the book fro...read more