The Science of Sound: An Interview with Alvin Lucier

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.

Thinking Outside the Voice Box: Stacey Mastrian on Contemporary Vocal Music

by Maggie Molloy

In order to be a contemporary classical vocalist, you’ve got to be prepared to do a lot more than just sing. Sometimes, you have to be able to act, speak, compose, or play the piano. Sometimes, you have to be able to interpret graphic scores, or trigger live electronics—and sometimes, when the situation calls for it, you have to be able to bark.

Those are just a few of the extramusical activities that are featured in Seattle-based soprano Stacey Mastrian’s Binary Solo+ performance this Wednesday, July 12 at the Royal Room, joined by pianist Josh Archibald-Seiffer. The program features rarely-performed works for voice with electronics and piano by two generations of American composers: the venerable Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, and Alvin Lucier, and the current generation—Mike Boyd, Stephen Lilly, Kristian Twombly, and Steve Wanna.

The pieces range from meditative and intimate to humorous and theatrical—but all are distinctly contemporary. Morton Feldman’s unpublished Lost Love for voice and piano is based on a poem by a Victorian realist, while Stephen Lilly’s Portrait in Song pokes fun at the clichés of the art song tradition, substituting lyrical melodies for a zoo of animal utterances.

The musical scores employed are similarly wide-ranging: the score for Steve Wanna’s Smriti forgoes traditional Western notation for a new musical language comprised entirely of dots and arrows. The score for Earle Brown’s “For Ann, 1 May ’94,” forgoes the concept of a “page” altogether—it is comprised of rectangular patterns scribbled on a bar coaster.

Mastrian’s performance is part of a double bill with pianist Jesse Myers, who will perform a program of works by iconic minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, as well as brand new 21st century works for acoustic piano and electronics by the likes of Missy Mazzoli and Christopher Cerrone. (Click here to learn more about that program.)

In anticipation of the concert, we sat down with Mastrian to talk about electronics, animal sounds, graphic scores, and the thinking outside the voice box:

Second Inversion: As a singer, you specialize in 20th and 21st century vocal works. What inspires you most about new music? What draws you to new and unusual sounds?

Stacey Mastrian: With new music, I am frequently challenged to step outside of my comfort zone.  It demands or permits me to do things that I otherwise would never consider doing, forcing me to continue learning and driving creativity.

I love the chance to contribute to works that have never been done before, works that have not been done often, or works that have not been performed in a way that has done them justice.  I enjoy collaborating with composers to create something new, as well as learning from those who worked with the composers (in the case of those who are no longer with us).  From a musical standpoint, it is an opportunity to participate in shaping history and in linking with the recent past so that we do not lose those connections.  It also has tinges of the revolutionary, in the political-social-musical disruptions that many of the pieces imply or overtly convey—sometimes seriously and at other times with humor.  Sharing this repertoire with new audiences is particularly thrilling.

As far as “new and unusual” sounds, in some cases it is the exploration of the sounds themselves that fascinates me, or the different ways of conceiving of music, of hearing, or of space.  In other cases, the plurality of options helps express the piece in a way that traditional singing might not:  there are times when bel canto singing in the harmonic language of the Romantic period can express grief beautifully, but sometimes that is not enough—sometimes atonality or shouting or noise can be the only response—from the gut, in a raw, theatrical way.  This is not to say that I do not care about solid vocal technique, but there is less concern about only the beauty of sound and more about what the sound conveys.

SI: How does your Royal Room program differ from more standard classical vocal repertoire?

SM: With standard classical vocal recital rep, one typically stands near the piano and sings beautifully for an hour.  In this program I sing, speak, play the piano, trigger live electronics on the computer, compose with water sounds I recorded, make noises with objects ranging from vases to bowls to teapots to an airplane nose cone, vocalize with ridiculous animal and battle sounds, and mime.

SI: What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of performing music that uses graphic scores? What about music that uses electronics?

SM: With graphic scores, the challenge for me is “Where do I start?  I am not a composer!  Give me parameters!”  There is usually a framework with very specific rules, but the actual content is quite open.  The rewarding part of this work is that every time it teaches me to think outside of the box (haha).  It also is exciting to engage with a score that is so visually compelling and with a result that could be different each time.

With electronics the challenge is “WILL THEY WORK??”  There are so many variables between the hardware hookups and functionality and the software—sometimes the programs just crash, or due to randomness built into certain live electronics processes, they do not cooperate.  This is way more stressful than just singing.  The rewards of working with electronics, however, are many:  I love the way that they sound and the endless possibilities for combinations of options that are not possible otherwise.  The unexpectedness of live processing can be fun when it is not frustrating.  Also working with electronics means that I do not need an accompanist, which is useful for situations that require portability.

SI: What goes through your head when you’re looking at a graphic score for the first time? How do you make sense of it? Are there certain things you look for to orient yourself?

SM: My process looks something like this:

Look at it.  For a long time.  Decide it is impossible to perform because I will never have enough ideas. …or I have too many ideas and do not know where to start. Look at it again.  Think.  Jot down notes.  Repeat. Ask the composers (or performers who worked with them) a lot of questions. Be prepared for them to tell me to read the instructions again. Think some more. Throw away some ideas. Start over.

SI: What are you most looking forward to with this performance? What do you hope audience members gain from it?

SM: With this performance, I look forward to giving several world premieres of works by longtime friends and colleagues and performing some works I have wanted to do for a while, as well as a few entertaining favorites. Performing with pianist Josh Archibald-Seiffer is always a pleasure, and I am honored that Jesse invited me to be a part of his program.

I hope that the audience will enjoy a new sonic and theatrical world—one filled with humor and humanity as well as links with art, everyday items, meditation, poetry and prose, theater, and technology. Mostly I just hope that people will come.  It is difficult to take a chance on a composer or a performer you may not know; it might be terrible and you waste an evening—but it might be amazing! And you either have that opportunity to experience it, or you miss it.

Also—come hear me bark.


Stacey Mastrian and Jesse Myers perform this Wednesday, July 12 at 7:30pm at the Royal Room in Columbia City. For details and additional information, click here.