A Master Class in the Avant-Garde: Alvin Lucier’s “Music 109”

March 2, 2013   •   By Dave Mandl

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 [1982].” 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 from recordings of his lectures rather than written notes stem from the same fascination with the human voice?) Lucier describes how he chose the words for the piece and decided where to place the two tape recorders — fascinating, nuts-and-bolts details of what turned out to be an important moment in the history of experimental music.

Similarly, in discussing a performance of Young’s Poem for Chairs, Tables, Benches, etc. that he staged, Lucier recounts a conversation he had with Young regarding the material comprising the floor where the concert would be happening, adding, “I never thought I’d be talking about floors in a course on music, but you have to because that’s where the sounds are made.” Possibly the ultimate development in consciously incorporating the environment into a piece of “music” was Cage’s 4’33” (1952), in which the pianist plays nothing at all, the final product consisting solely of the sounds surrounding the audience, which are entirely different from one performance to the next. Lucier describes Cage’s earliest scores for the composition (which are also a focus of Kyle Gann’s recent book on the piece, No Such Thing as Silence) and playfully relates an apocryphal story about its first performance: “Someone drove his automobile into the concert hall and left the motor on. I don’t think it’s true but let’s pretend it is.”

Another new development in late 20th-century composition was an increasing awareness of the underlying components of sounds — their waveforms, overtones, and vibrations — which in turn inspired efforts to make these attributes directly audible, and to manipulate them. This was aided by technology that hadn’t been available to earlier generations of composers, and required previously unnecessary knowledge of electronic circuitry, the structure of sound waves, or both. In a section on David Behrman’s piece Runthrough (1967-1968), Lucier discusses Behrman’s use of sound generators and modulators to create tones purer than anything that could be produced by nonelectronic means. The way these sounds were made also meant they weren’t subject to human limitations: Unlike, say, notes blown on an oboe, they could effectively be sustained forever. They could also be altered with extreme precision, though Behrman and others also introduced elements of chance and agency that allowed performers to manipulate them spontaneously and unpredictably in concert. (In Runthrough this is done using flashlights, which are pointed at light sensors that in turn trigger the sounds.) Other composers dispensed almost entirely with traditional instruments. As a resident artist at Bell Labs in the 1960s, James Tenney created some of the earliest pieces that used computers to realize sonic possibilities well beyond the capabilities of early synthesizers. These works still relied on tangible components like wave oscillators and filters; computer “instruments” were completely virtual, and the sounds they made could never have originated in the physical world.

In the same period, figures associated with minimalism and ultraminimalism shifted the emphasis in musical compositions away from movement and development, or even melody and harmony, to the notes themselves, which changed at a snail’s pace, if at all. Young took these studies to their logical limit; the brief verbal “score” for his Composition 1960 #7 (1960) stipulated that the two notes comprising the interval of a perfect fifth were “to be held a long time.” (Young didn’t dictate how the sounds were to be generated or sustained.) This forced the listener to focus on the quality of this interval and the relationship between the notes, which inevitably fluctuate ever so slightly over time. The level of micro-detail that could be heard while listening to such a simple interval for so long could never be perceived in a normal situation, where single notes and chords from any one instrument fly past quickly and interact with other sounds. As Lucier puts it: “In order to fully perceive an interval, you have to stay with it a long time. There’s no device in the world that can give you a perfect 3:2 ratio [the mathematical relationship between vibrations that creates the sound of a perfect fifth], no oscillators that can be tuned that precisely.” Young also worked extensively with alternative tuning systems in which relationships between notes (2:1, 4:3, 5:4) were more exact — “purer” — than in the equal temperament system used on pianos today, creating the kinds of harmonics and vibrations that can’t be achieved otherwise. For his composition The Well-Tuned Piano (1964), which Lucier calls “one of the first pieces of music in which the tuning is the score,” Young used a system he called extended just intonation. After he spent months making the ratios between the notes absolutely precise, Young’s piano had to be kept exactly where it was, as the smallest movement could throw it out of tune.

Other mini-revolutions Lucier discusses include the experimental use of tape recorders, with which composers like Pauline Oliveros and Steve Reich altered the gap between a machine’s record and playheads to create delay effects, or formed “combination tones” between notes using slightly out-of-sync recorders; and Conlon Nancarrow’s radical player piano rolls, which prefigured digital recording by “programming” hand-punched sequences of notes that were often too fast or complex to be played by humans. (Decades later Frank Zappa, similarly frustrated by musicians’ inability to play his scores, began programming his most difficult compositions on the Synclavier synthesizer/sampler.) Lucier also gives examples of some of the period’s more outré experiments with nonstandard musical notation, including graphical scores that often required special training to read. The score for Christian Wolff’s For 1, 2, or 3 people (1964) provides no guidance about melody or rhythm, but gives instructions only on whether notes should be of relatively long or short duration, which ones should be played “simultaneously with the next sound you hear,” and which should be followed immediately by other notes. Cage’s Cartridge Music (1960) requires each performer to stack multiple transparencies on top of one another to form a more elaborate — but no less cryptic — diagram to be used as his or her instructions.


What exactly determined the set of people and compositions Lucier chose to discuss in his book — or, for that matter, in his lectures? It’s undeniable that the composers covered constitute a recognizable musical “scene,” but it’s a resolutely “classical” or “academic” one, and in the late 20th century the distinctions between “serious” music and folk or popular music became much less clear than they had previously been. Around the time of Pauline Oliveros’s early tape experiments, George Martin and The Beatles were similarly occupied, cutting up bits of tape and randomly splicing them back together, or using multiple tape machines to double instruments and create delay effects. In 1966, Zappa was working heavily with tape collage and electronic sound processing. And, by the mid-1960s, everyone in the “rock” world was using electronic effects and distortion, incorporating non-musical sounds into their recordings, or experimenting with chance operations, whether or not they were called by that name.

The most likely answer is also rather mundane: Lucier probably chose this particular group because it’s the circle of people he happens to have been involved with. “Circle of people he happens to have been involved with” is a funny way to describe the massively influential set that includes Cage, Philip Glass, Feldman, and Gordon Mumma, but regardless, this is the world within which Lucier has been fortunate enough to work for the past 50 years. It’s hard to read into Lucier’s choice of subjects a slighting of the parallel experimental activity going on in Europe or Asia, or on the far left end of the rock spectrum, because there isn’t any. With his unaffected but engaging tone, Lucier is simply writing, from an insider’s singularly informed perspective, about the experiences of an extended group of friends: one that just happens to have changed the face of music.