Alvin Lucier

Alvin Lucier performing Sferics (1981), sound installation and recordings of ionospheric disturbances for large-loop antennas, tape recorder, and playback system, Middletown, Connecticut, late 1980s, courtesy Alvin Lucier and Tilton Gallery, New York

On one side of the stage, a performer ignites a small flame, which stands out against the darkness; on the other side, another performer appears and vocalizes a sustained tone that rises and resounds throughout the concert hall. After some seconds of this single vocal act, a silence takes over, one that is finally punctuated by a sudden flickering of light—and as if under a spell, the flame gives way, shivering to the invisible touch of air as it is pushed by sound. Fire and voice are put into a profoundly gentle yet no less physical relation: the medium of air is brought out of hiding and made to oscillate, drawn out as a tangible presence linked to sound and awakened to one’s senses. This extremely delicate and lyrical performance may act as an entrance into the work of Alvin Lucier (born in 1931 in New Hampshire) and his unwavering engagement with how sound travels through the world.

Since the mid-1960s, Lucier has produced a range of important compositions that have influenced the culture of experimental music and the sonic arts. Early works such as Music for Solo Performer (1965), Vespers (1968), I am sitting in a room (1970), and Bird and Person Dyning (1975) establish a clear thread throughout his long career. By concentrating on sound as a physical phenomenon, Lucier has deepened the field of experimental music, often through research-oriented stagings dedicated to the act of listening, while at the same time extending new music composition through his unique strategies. Such an approach and sensibility only confirms Lucier as a vital figure within the sounding arts in general, further exemplified by his more recent orchestral works Diamonds for 1, 2, or 3 Orchestras (1999) and Slices (2007). Here the composer draws us into an array of glissandi and clusters of sound that articulate a rich aural experience, a musicality to excite the ear.

From the compositions of Lucier, we may extract a general theory of sound, one suggestive of how to inhabit the sonic world as well as to hear the not yet sounded. For his works manifest a studied rapture in relation to sound, highlighting its place between acoustic fact and acousmatic dreaming, between material reality and the elusive polyphonies animating it. Lucier guides us into listening deep, to seeing sound as a vibrant matter of daily life with fiery consequences.

—Brandon LaBelle

Posted in Public Exhibition
Excerpted from the documenta 14: Daybook
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Notes