The Science of Sound: An Interview with Alvin Lucier

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by Maggie Molloy

Alvin Lucier has spent the past six decades exploring sound—its physical properties, how it moves and morphs in space, and the ways in which we can manipulate our own auditory perception.

His music makes you listen differently. Instead of traditional notions of melody and harmony, his music plays with the very wavelengths of sound itself, placing you in the center of the acoustic phenomena and inviting you to hear the sound as it shifts and unfolds within the space.

We caught up with Lucier at the 2019 Big Ears Festival, which featured performances of his music by Joan La Barbara, the Ever Present Orchestra, and the composer himself—including his most iconic work, I Am Sitting in a Room.

In this interview, Lucier talks with us about the science of sound, the hallmarks of experimental composition, and what it takes to play his music.

Audio editing by Nikhil Sarma.


Music in this interview from Alvin Lucier’s Ever Present and I Am Sitting in a Room, both available on Mode Records.

ALBUM REVIEW: ‘And All the Days Were Purple’ by Alex Weiser

by Peter Tracy

Most of the great song cycles of classical music history are sung in languages like English, German, French, and Italian. In the best examples of art song, the poetry being set and the language it is written in are equally as important as the music itself. It’s significant, then that on And All the Days Were Purple, Alex Weiser gives us something a little less familiar: a song cycle mostly sung in Yiddish, and an attempt to help rehabilitate Yiddish as an artistic language in the process.

Yiddish, the native language of over half a million Jews worldwide, has a long artistic history, one that is largely defined today by the recent decline in native Yiddish speakers. The early 20th century saw a surge in composers who were interested in bringing their Jewish backgrounds into their compositions, often drawing from Jewish folk music or setting Yiddish and Hebrew texts to music. This artistic movement was cut short by the Holocaust, and it never fully recovered. Part of what Weiser is trying to do here, then, is to move Yiddish back into the spotlight, and to show us some of the struggles and triumphs of modern Jewish life in the process.

Alex Weiser. Photo by Jennifer Rodewald.

Much like traditional song cycles, Weiser’s music features a clear distinction between melody and accompaniment, and often depicts the images of its text musically. Most of the songs feature soprano Eliza Bagg singing winding, modal melodies that follow the contours of the poetry, accompanied by a small ensemble of piano, percussion, violin, viola, and cello. The song texts feature Yiddish-language poets from around Europe, the United States, and Israel such as Anna Margolin, Avrom Sutzkever, and Rokhl Korn, as well as Jewish poets writing in English such as Mark Strand and Edward Hirsch.

The song cycle’s opening track, “My Joy,” is an excellent introduction to Weiser’s musical language: the piano forms the backbone of the harmony and keeps the pulse, strings oscillate back and forth on the same harmonies, sometimes breaking off into solos, while Bagg sings Anna Margolin’s poetry about love and death with expressive clarity. The harmonies are seemingly simple as the ensemble rocks back and forth on just two basic chords, but dissonance tends to creep into the plodding of the piano, suggesting the highly tenuous happiness of the poem.

In “Longing,” the whole ensemble seems to be spinning and striving forward, echoing the anxious description of waiting and yearning in Rachel Korn’s poem. The final song in the cycle, “We Went Through the Days,” sets a Margolin poem full of natural imagery atop static string harmonies, pulsing piano chords, and punctuation from the vibraphone and glockenspiel, ending the cycle on a nostalgic and bittersweet note.

Photo by Steven Pisano.

Two instrumental interludes provide moments of reflection that lead into new musical ideas, giving the cycle a sense of flow. In both interludes, the swells, trills, and glissandos of the strings are marked by interjections from the piano and percussion, and the instrumentalists take on a more active and animated role.

Also featured on the album is Weiser’s Three Epitaphs, with English language poetry from William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, and the Seikilos Epitaph, the oldest complete musical composition in the world. An epitaph is usually thought of as a memorial inscription on a tombstone, but in the case of these three poems it might be more fitting to think of it as a poem written in memory of something that’s been lost.

The poetry is separated by instrumental interludes, but the piece is performed in one continuous movement, resulting in slightly more lively instrumentation and greater sense of unity from one segment to the next. In one particularly beautiful moment in Williams’ poem, as Bagg reaches the words “Love is a young green willow, / Shimmering at the bare wood’s edge,” the piano suddenly breaks into a romantic waltz-like accompaniment, only to recede back into the flow of the piece soon after.

It seems appropriate that Weiser has referred to the poems he sets to music as “secular prayers”—these are pieces that express not only the obstacles and lived experiences of the modern Jewish community, but, in certain sense, of modern society as a whole. More than just a meditation on modern Jewish identity and art, And All the Days Were Purple deals with universal questions of love, death, struggle, and perseverance through the lens of one culture and its language.

ALBUM REVIEW: ‘Spinning in the Wheel’ by Projeto Arcomusical

by Peter Tracy

Arcomusical at Deer Run SP. Photo courtesy of Four/Ten Media.

Circles, cycles, and wheels. These images and ideas are important to musical cultures from around the world, including Western classical music: think song cycles, ritornello form, or theme and variations. On their newest album, Spinning in the Wheel, Projeto Arcomusical finds this same imagery in the Afro-Brazilian musical tradition of the berimbau, and use it to inspire groundbreaking new repertoire for their chosen instrument.

The berimbau, a single-stringed musical bow, is played using a thin wooden stick, a small rattle, and a coin or stone slid on the instrument’s string. This allows the berimbau to incorporate both pitched and unpitched percussive sounds, as well as a wide variety of timbres. If you haven’t heard this instrument before, you might be reminded of instruments like the West African kora, the East African mbira, and even the acoustic guitar, as well as a host of percussion instruments from maracas to marimbas. Each aspect of the berimbau is used to full effect in the ensemble’s latest album to create a surprisingly diverse and colorful musical language.

Spinning in the Wheel is not only the name of the album, but an idea that informs the entire aesthetic of the release, from the cover art to the album’s structure, which moves from larger to smaller instrumentation and back again in a sort of circle. In fact, this idea of a wheel or circle is intimately connected with the berimbau itself and its traditional use as accompaniment to the Afro-Brazilian martial art of capoeira. This art takes place in a roda (Portuguese for “wheel”), where musicians and dancers come together in a circle to celebrate, sing, compete, and play. Capoeira, therefore, could be considered its own kind of spinning in a wheel.

“Roda” is also the title of the album’s opening track, a berimbau sextet by composer Elliot Cole. This work features four movements of varying texture and intensity and cycles back around to end in much the same celebratory and energetic place it began. It gives a broad and exciting overview of the berimbau’s potential, from the contemplative cross-rhythms of “Dreaming” to the joyful grooves and expressive group vocals of “Singing.”

The group also sings admirably in Portuguese on “Traíra,” a sextet by Projeto Arcomusical founder and director Gregory Beyer which reworks and expands upon music from the first commercially released recording of capoeira music in Brazil. Other highlights include Kyle Flens’ drifting and nostalgic “Echoes,” Alexis C. Lamb’s ostinato-filled trio “Ondulação” (meaning wave or ripple), and Beyer’s virtuosic “Berimbau Solo no. 5, ‘For Mô.’”

Throughout the album, the sextet imparts a sense of joy in communal music-making, which is reinforced by the group’s impeccably tight performances. The members of the ensemble are incredibly in tune with each other and their instruments to the point where no one player stands out from the sound of the group as a whole. Though they draw plenty of inspiration from Afro-Brazilian folk music, the ensemble’s roots are in Western classical music, and they approach the music much like other chamber musicians would. Out of respect for the oral tradition of their instrument, however, they perform without sheet music, freeing them to move around and engage with each other in performance just like the musicians of a roda.

Arcomusical at Deer Run SP. Photo courtesy of Four/Ten Media.

It can feel at times when listening to Spinning in the Wheel that the music is quite literally spinning and dancing around one’s head, but it is never spinning in place for long, and the members of the ensemble manage to keep listeners on their toes while simultaneously presenting a calmingly cyclical and trance-like listening experience. With elements of minimalism, traditional capoeira songs, and folk music from around the world, Spinning in the Wheel presents a blend of influences and styles which come together to form a truly unique sound.

In addition to composing and performing new music, Projeto Arcomusical is also part of a broader nonprofit organization dedicated to celebrating and expanding upon the rich musical history of the berimbau. In a sense, it is the communal spirit of this art form which truly shines through in all of Projeto Arcomusical’s endeavors, whether that be educating listeners worldwide about the berimbau and its history, seeking out and engaging with players of musical bows from across Africa and Brazil, or composing and performing a unique music of their own.

Celebrating American (Musical) Independence

The history of classical music in America is as innovative and diverse as the people who form the fabric of our country.

From the spiritual fantasias of Florence Beatrice Price to the minimalist musings of Steve Reich, over the past century American classical music has grown to encompass many different styles and identities. Perhaps its greatest hallmark lies in its unwavering sense of possibility—as wide-ranging as American music may be, it is united by the thrill of discovery.

In celebration of Independence Day, we asked each of our Second Inversion hosts to share one of their favorite pieces from an American composer.

Florence Beatrice Price: Fantasie Negre (Sono Luminus)
Lara Downes, piano

Fantasie Negre is such a cool piece, a fascinating mix of romantic era Western European influence and African American spiritual—it’s almost as if Liszt visited the American South and immediately rushed to a piano to interpret the melodies he heard. Fantastic gospel-like moments seep through dazzling displays of technique. It’s even more impressive when you think about all the things Price had to overcome just to compose: a black woman born in Little Rock, Arkansas, she attended New England Conservatory in 1906 but had to pass as Mexican in order to avoid abuse. Though she returned to Arkansas and married, she moved her family to Chicago to flee lynchings; her husband eventually became abusive and she filed for divorce, a rare step for a woman of her time. Despite these difficulties, her prodigious talent produced 300 works in her lifetime.
– Geoffrey Larson


Steve Reich: Come Out (Nonesuch)
Daniel Hamm, voice

In 1966, Steve Reich took a four-second audio clip and spun it into one of the most harrowing musical works of the 20th century. Come Out takes as its basis a mere scrap from an analog tape interview of Daniel Hamm, a black teenager who was wrongfully arrested for murder in 1964 (one of what would come to be known as the Harlem Six). In the clip, Hamm describes the horrific police brutality he faced behind bars. But the police would not take him to the hospital unless he was bleeding—so he ripped open one of his bruises and “let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.”

Come out to show them. Reich gradually loops, phases, and transforms these words beyond recognition over the course of 13 minutes, transporting the listener beyond language and into the dizzying and devastating reality of the situation at hand. Over 50 years later, we find ourselves still spinning in the same tape loop, Hamm’s words still echoing in the race relations of today. – Maggie Molloy


John Luther Adams: Dream in White on White (New Albion)
Barbara Chapman, harp; Apollo Quartet and Strings

Many artists have long recognized that one of the United States’ most powerful attributes is its natural landscape and the massive scale thereof. However, this essential characteristic of the country has been something that many American composers have neglected (or at least struggled) to incorporate effectively into their music, focusing instead on human-centric cultural or traditional elements.

John Luther Adams breaks that mold, using the beauty, power, complexity, and scale of the American landscape itself as the inspiration for much of his work. Going further, Adams lived in Alaska, that state that perhaps best encapsulates the awesome power of the American landscape, for many years. He has managed to forge a unique and engrossing musical language that transports listeners to mountaintops, ocean shores, and glacial snowfields. – Seth Tompkins


Nico Muhly: Mothertongue (Bedroom Community)

Nico Muhly is an American contemporary composer whose mission is to gnaw at the edges of classical & rock/pop. Mothertongue is a fun example of how he melds genres, combining the intimacy and beauty of chamber music with a conceptual pastiche that adds fidgety energy to the mix. In the first movement, “Archive,” Muhly accomplishes this by incorporating the beauty of Abby Fischer’s voice speak-singing a jumble of numbers and places which, turns out, are all addresses where Muhly & Fischer have lived.

In “Hress,” the frenetic third movement, found sounds (pouring coffee, crunching cereal, etc.) create a morning routine. Don’t expect “Hress” to evoke a lazy Sunday sunrise, though. As the music picks up it’s clear these are the sounds of someone either hungover or extremely jet-legged going through the motions to get out the door and on with the day. Mothertongue proves Muhly has a knack for finding the sweet spot between concept and emotional connection; he’s corroding classical boundaries and inviting the next generation to explore his musical Pangaea. – Rachele Hales


Amir ElSaffar: Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy (New Amsterdam)
Rivers of Sound Orchestra

I love this music! I’ve never heard anything like it. ElSaffar has fused together a lot of different musical traditions in this, but what stands out to me most are the jazz and the Middle Eastern sounds. ElSaffar is the child of an Iraqi immigrant and an American. He was born outside of Chicago, and grew up listening to his dad’s jazz collection. His first musical training was in a Lutheran church choir. Iraqi music came later for him—in 2001 he used the money he got from winning a jazz trumpet competition in to go to Iraq and study something called maqam music, and he spent the next five years studying with Iraqi masters in the Middle East and Europe. Anyway, I love how these traditions come together in his music so effortlessly to make something new. – Dacia Clay


Another version of this article was published on Second Inversion in 2018.

A Proud History: LGBTQ+ Stories in Classical Music

by Dacia Clay

Photo by Steve Johnson.

In celebration of Pride Month, Cornish College of the Arts musicologist Kerry O’Brien and early music specialist Byron Schenkman tell stories of LGBTQ+ classical artists from very different periods of music history. How do we talk about queer artists of the distant past when there was no such thing as being “out” yet? Is it possible (or useful) to identify what unique qualities LGBTQ+ artists have brought to classical music? And why is it important to talk about the stories of minority populations anyway?

Byron Schenkman and Kerry O’Brien.

Hear all of this—plus stories you may never have heard before about famous classical artists—in our audio interview with Kerry and Byron.

Audio engineering by Nikhil Sarma.