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Remembering Alvin Lucier, 1931-2021


I knew the avant-garde composer from Lukas Foss’s composition class at Tanglewood together in the summer of 1959. Lucier was the next-oldest in the group (I was the youngest, a mere college junior) and remained pretty much aloof from the rest of us — Lita Dubman, Michael Horvit, Roger Hannay, Bob Baksa, and the Canadian Jacques Hétu; Gunther Parchman, a bass player from Louisiana, joined us from time to time. A New Hampshire native, Lucier had a Yale degree and was about to complete another at Brandeis, so he was also a local boy.  I remember his music from that summer as rather 1920s Parisian in quality, diatonic, with lots of bright notes.  We all had our music read by Fromm Foundation players — Fromm Week didn’t exist yet, but fellowship players included woodwinds and what later became the Lenox Quartet.  An amateur musician, Jack Lund, a delightful businessman and record collector with some extra money, came visiting and took us all to dinner, bringing news of a small commission at Foss’s recommendation, and it was Lucier who at summer’s end took home the award.

Only some years later did I hear about Alvin Lucier’s off-the-deep-end experimentalism.  My Reed College colleague Nicholas Wheeler, a physicist and a good cellist, had corresponded with him.  Lucier’s plans included equipping helicopters with huge speakers and microphones, to hover over cities during rush hour, record their traffic sound, and retransmit it back to ground level. The power consumption must have been enormous; whether the rebroadcast could have coped with engine noise, I never found out. Lucier surely would have known of George Antheil’s work with airplane propellers in Ballet mécanique, though Stockhausen’s Helicopter String quartet came half a century later. Later Lucier became a professor at Wesleyan.

David Reed Bloch’s Galimathias Musicum at Portland State College (later University), later called Group for New Music, specialized in the avant-garde.  William Bolcom’s Session II premiered there in 1966, and Charles Boone’s Starfish got a second performance.  But in spring 1968 Alvin Lucier’s signature work, the newly-composed Music for Solo Performer for amplified brain waves, created something of a sensation when we performed it at Reed — it may have been the second performance anywhere. A multichannel amplifier distributed deep shimmering impulses to speakers placed an inch away from bass drums, tamtams, and cymbals. The Solo Performer, local bassist Wayne “Froggy” Hearne (his brother Joseph still plays bass in the Boston Symphony), sat on a chair in a darkened room, wearing electrodes on his scalp, and the waves would ebb and flow when he closed or opened his eyes. It was fun to watch, and agreeably quiet overall, though the low notes burned out the woofer on my beautiful KLH 6 speaker.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Assistant Professor Lucier taught Fundamentals of Music and Elemental Orchestration at Brandeis; he was also responsible for Chorus which in 1968/69 was only the Chamber Chorus of more advanced singers. No small talk at individual auditions—intervals and, if that went well, sight-singing the beginning of Canticum sacrum which the chorus soon performed, without much rehearsal, in the presence of Coretta Scott King, around the time of Morris Abram’s inaugural.
    Rehearsals of the St. John Passion were a joy, a solace at that time of turmoil. Mr. Lucier might have appeared diffident, but we sensed his excitement. As he took us through the music, speaking quietly, singing softly, we shared the feeling; we became more than the gospel’s crowd. He worked with us as a colleague—nothing to excess, self-effacing [perhaps a little dry humor]—we were inspired through the music. We appreciated when he expanded a little, with stories relating to music and the piece [good to know why an intermission had to occur after Part I], sometimes beginning with a slight stammer as he strove for honesty and accuracy (especially when speaking to us, as he had done to Brandeis officials, of the St. John narrative’s problems). He got us through all the technical difficulties of the choruses but we did not rehearse the chorales, singing them as they came up and not again till the final rehearsal, with orchestra (superbly prepared, with Robert Koff and Madeline Foley). His last little story, at that rehearsal, was on himself: He had somehow assumed the Evangelist would sing the tenor arias so another soloist would have to be flown in from New York, last minute—at great expense, he shuddered. Next evening, a religious experience, according to my guests. [I had been moved when the Tenor turned to us and applauded.] No party afterwards—not Mr. Lucier’s style.

    Comment by Cain — December 10, 2021 at 11:09 am

  2. Thank you for these stirring memories of that horrible year; one wants to hear more. How astounding for Lucier to essay at Brandeis that Passion, whose infamous “narrative problems” are sensitively analyzed at . Between Abrams’s appointment in February, a couple weeks after the Orangeburg massacre, and his September inauguration occurred the King and second Kennedy assassinations and much more (including the Tet offensive). Lucier had moved on to Wesleyan (maybe as a visiting professor initially; online sources are unclear), so perhaps he returned to Waltham and the still-stunned campus in order to lead the Stravinsky?

    Comment by David R Moran — December 10, 2021 at 1:27 pm

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