Sitting in a Room with Alvin Lucier, a Visionary Composer and a Passionate Teacher

Lucier died this week at 90 years old

Music Features Alvin Lucier
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Sitting in a Room with Alvin Lucier, a Visionary Composer and a Passionate Teacher

Few composers ever understood the value of a good accident the way Alvin Lucier did. Of course, any good artist, in any discipline, must be attuned to the epiphanies and possibilities that present themselves in moments unguarded. But Lucier—the influential visionary of experimental music who died this week at the age of 90—created a body of work that seemed to exist in the sonic space between plan and happenstance, between entropy and control. Across a career that spanned 60 years, Lucier was a visionary who permanently expanded the boundaries of what music could be and how it could be created.

He was not a musical prodigy, but rather a conceptual artist who approached sound with a deep well of curiosity and eccentricity. Some composers deal in notes and scales; Lucier communed directly with the physics and acoustic phenomena of sound itself, embracing unpredictability and instability. If the simplest definition of music is “organized sound,” then Lucier was determined to tilt the balance away from the organized side of the equation and towards sheer processes of sound—with an attentive ear towards the properties of the space in which that sound might be heard.

One of the qualities of Lucier’s work was a guiding sense that the instability of a performance environment could be embraced as central to the work itself. Consider his most famous composition, ”I Am Sitting in a Room,” which is as iconic, and oddly quotable, as avant-garde sound art gets. It epitomizes Lucier’s genius for process-based music. Its conceptual basis is all explained within the work itself: The composer recorded the sound of his own voice describing the piece, then re-recorded the sound of that recording being played back into the room, then re-recorded the sound of that recording, and so on and so on, until the frequencies of the room overtake any semblance of intelligible words. “What you will hear then are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech,” Lucier explains. For those patient enough to sit with the piece for 45 minutes, it is hypnotic to hear Lucier’s calming voice dissolve into a distant alien whir, like a photograph of a photograph of a photograph.

The piece became a classic work of American minimalism, its influence echoing across a half-century of experimental and ambient music. You can sense Lucier’s influence in so many different corners of boundary-pushing music-making: from William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops and their use of tape decay and deterioration to the Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka and its willingness to embrace the inherent instability of playback equipment to Laurie Anderson’s blurring of the line between music and performance art. Yo La Tengo are known to be big Lucier fans, as well—the trio performed with Lucier back in 2016, trading their usual deafening guitar noise for an eccentric piece performed with whispered voices funneled through balloons.

Like many of Lucier’s greatest pieces, “I Am Sitting in a Room” was conceived as the result of a happy accident. Lucier hatched the idea after someone told him about a sound engineer named Amar Bose, who had been testing his own speakers by using them to play back sounds made by the speakers themselves. This was a chiefly practical endeavor that Lucier reimagined into an artistic concept, one which thrives on the singular properties of the room in which the piece is performed.

After studying composition at Brandeis and the Tanglewood Music Festival (where his mentors included Aaron Copland) and beginning his career as a neoclassical composer, Lucier began to drift towards the American avant-garde after witnessing performances by John Cage and David Tudor in the early 1960s. Cage’s emphasis in his compositions on chance operations and randomness, such as coin tosses, had made “non-intention” fashionable in avant-garde circles. Lucier gradually embraced Cage’s belief, famously expressed in “4’33,”” that any sound could be musical, and he found new and inventive ways to advance Cage’s investigation of chance processes.

His pivotal early piece, “Music for Solo Performer” (1965), emerged from an encounter with the physicist Edmond Dewan, who provided Lucier with the use of a brain-wave amplifier. Lucier soon devised a piece in which a musician sits onstage, doing nothing, with electrodes attached to their head; the musician’s own alpha waves are amplified, causing 16 percussion instruments to vibrate.

Another piece, “Vespers” (1968), was inspired by a chance encounter with a person whose company produced hand-held pulse oscillators, known as Sondols, which are commonly used by blind people. These gadgets became unlikely musical instruments, too: Lucier had blindfolded performers move around a space holding the oscillators, which make frenetic clicking sounds as they approach walls or furniture. The result was a kind of pitter-patter percussive symphony that doubled as a “sound photograph” of the space in which the piece was performed.

In 1970—after establishing himself with major works like “Music for Solo Performer” and “I Am Sitting in a Room”—Lucier began teaching at Wesleyan University, where he remained a fixture of the music department for more than 40 years. His unique approach to teaching expanded the minds of thousands of students, both trained musicians and inspired amateurs, who studied under him.

I would know: I was one of them. In 2009, as an impressionable freshman at Wesleyan, I was lucky enough to take Lucier’s “Introduction to Experimental Music” class. Every Tuesday and Thursday, we would sit in a basement classroom, trying to soak it all in as Lucier introduced us to major works by experimental composers like Robert Ashley, David Behrman or Gordon Mumma (three artists with whom Lucier formed the Sonic Arts Union in 1966), or regaled us with a live performance of “4’33.””

Lucier had a gentle and quietly excitable manner of speaking (delivered in a soft voice you might recognize from “I Am Sitting in a Room”), and he seemed endlessly curious about sound, and the myriad ways to manipulate and fuck with it. It never seemed arrogant when he included many of his own pieces on the syllabus, or when his name popped up in the textbook he had assigned. It just made sense. Of course his work should be on the syllabus. Studying experimental music with Alvin Lucier felt like studying existentialism with Jean-Paul Sartre, or studying feminist history with Mary Wollstonecraft. It was an outlandish privilege.

Every day was a revelation. Lucier delighted in playing us classic works by great minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, introducing us to methods of creating music through repetition or tape loops or manipulations of the human voice. (I recall having my mind blown by Reich’s “Come Out,” a tape-loop experiment with an urgent social message, and suddenly realizing I recognized the loop because it had been sampled by Madvillain.)

One day, Lucier instructed us to bring one comb and two stones each to class so we could perform George Brecht’s “Comb Music” and Christian Wolff’s “Stones.” Another day, he mesmerized us with the vocal outbursts of Meredith Monk’s “Turtle Dreams.” Lucier seemed to have an unusually vivid memory, too; he would light up as he told us lengthy stories about conversations he had with John Cage back in the 1960s.

Lucier did not make the kind of music you listen to while speeding down the highway with the windows open, and to detractors, his work might seem clinical or aloof; “I Am Sitting in a Room” is, admittedly, a science experiment as much as it is a song. But anyone who spent time in Lucier’s classroom could tell that this man took a strange joy in sound manipulation. Some of his works even revealed a playful, mischievous side: 1990’s “Nothing Is Real,” for instance, consisted of warped fragments of The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” emitting from a speaker placed inside of a teapot.

This sly spirit of rebellion infused the classroom. There was a subtle sense that we were being taught the kind of music that would have horrified our high school band teachers. Fittingly, many of Lucier’s former students have gone on to significant music careers of their own. A brief, nonexhaustive list of musicians who studied under Lucier would include Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser of MGMT, Amanda Palmer, and the rapper Heems, formerly of Das Racist, who tweeted Wednesday that Lucier’s class “informed my approach to rap music.”

It would also include the songwriter and guitarist Ben Seretan, who published a lovely remembrance of Lucier in his newsletter this week. “He very much taught me—and countless others—how to listen, how to orient ourselves in fascination and wonder,” Seretan wrote. “As sound moves air and radio waves ripple through me, I want to chuckle easily, I want to hold it all up to the light.”

Lucier’s mission seemed to be to convince us that anyone could conceive and create works of experimental music. There was no final exam. Instead, the final project was to prepare and perform an original composition, the weirder and more inventive the better. One student created a mini-symphony of “Walk!” signals he had recorded at the crosswalk downtown. Seretan turned his guitar to maximum amplification, then simply breathed on it. Another friend of mine created a “symphony for three or more computers,” a cacophony of arbitrary motherboard beeps between various computers.

As for me, I turned my electric guitar into a percussive instrument, pounding lightly on the body with the amp volume and gain as loud as possible. This produced excruciating feedback noises (which frightened my hallmates when I was rehearsing), but Lucier seemed to like it and I got an A-.

Lucier remained creatively engaged up to the end. Just last spring, when a Brooklyn venue hosted a 26-hour “I Am Sitting in a Room” marathon in honor of Lucier’s 90th birthday, he was interviewed in the New York Times. He mentioned then that he was executing “crazy ideas” that had long existed in his mind, such as “a duet with a bat who lives in the belfry of the Wesleyan Memorial Chapel.”

On Wednesday, when word spread that the composer had died, my Facebook and Twitter feeds filled with tributes to Lucier. While some of my former classmates posted about specific pieces they liked by Lucier, I found it oddly moving when others reminisced about their own bizarre experimental compositions that they had created under Lucier’s instruction. This was part of Lucier’s life’s work: to convince us that any of us could be experimental composers, and that anything could be music.

Zach Schonfeld is a freelance writer and journalist based in New York. He contributes regularly to Paste, Pitchfork, Vulture and other publications. Previously, he was a senior writer for Newsweek. His first book was published in November 2020.