in: Reviews

March 14, 2012

Lucier’s Music: Music-Making in One’s Head

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New England Conservatory just completed a festival devoted to the music of Alvin Lucier, one of the small number of composers who, during and since the 1960s, has sought to give voice to the different drummers they heard deep inside. Five programs originally were scheduled for Sunday through Tuesday, March 11, 12, and 13, at the Conservatory’s Williams and Jordan Halls. However, last night, NSTAR’s power transformers burst into flames and plunged all of Boston’s Back Bay into darkness, so the anticipated final concert could not take place. This review, therefore, covers the first four of the series.

Alvin Lucier, now 81, is one of the most sensitive, poetic, and challenging of that group of then-young composers who emerged during the 1960s. He began working with electronic music when he became director of the country’s second Electronic Music Studio, established by Irving Fine at Brandeis University in the early 1960s. Working in that studio, Lucier experimented with musique-concrete, loops of sounds made from spliced quarter-inch tape, and feedback systems. Recognizing a connection between electronic circuits and brains, Lucier began experimenting with the musical implications of his own brain waves, a study that resulted in the gentle Music for Solo Performer (1965).

Prior to this, Lucier had won a Fulbright Award for study in Italy. He had been composing lovely neoclassic music, pieces in which each pitch was placed into just the right resonant relationship with the surrounding sounding pitches. His intense focus on the effect a sound can have on its environment has remained constant throughout his music. And what music it is! Minimalist before the frenetic minimalism of the New York school, lyrical without being melismatic, austere and economical in its simplicity before the more recent retreat to mediaevalism, both space-filling and filled with space in ways that Stockhausen’s Gruppen for three orchestras can never achieve, Lucier’s music provides a setting that lets the listener realize again that the true place of music-making is in each listener’s head. The absolutely lovely performance by Edward Kass of A Tribute to James Tenney (1986) for solo double bass and pure wave oscillators exemplified this quality beautifully. And that was only one of the many pieces in which this magic quality emerged. The attention to and quality of the performances was outstanding.

Conservatory faculty member Steven Drury assembled Lucier’s music and that of other composers (Feldman, Chopin, Wolff, and others), into programs that were comprehensive, satisfying, and at the same time, still provocative. This exhilarating and freshly awakened quality so present during performances of the festival was, alas, brought to a sudden close by the fire. Perhaps soon, we will get to hear the world premiere of Braid, a work for flute, english horn, clarinet, violins, viola, and cello, and more of Lucier’s music in Jordan Hall. Many of us want to listen closely to more of this unique and lovely music. In the meantime, as a grateful NEC faculty member, I say thank you, Steve, and thank you, Alvin.

Lyle Davidson, composer, studied at New England Conservatory and Brandeis. He is on the faculty of the New England Conservatory where he teaches Solfege, 16th-century Counterpoint, and Music in Education courses.

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