Alvin Lucier: Crossings

three works for classical instruments and oscillators



For the past several years I have been making works for players of Western classical musical instruments. Before then I had devoted most of my creative energy to composing live electronic works and sound installations. In 1982, however, Alene Valkanas of the Institute for Contemporary Art in Chicago invited me to compose an orchestral work for the opening concert of New Music America ’82. Since then, several performers and chamber ensembles have asked for pieces. I have been delighted to accept the challenge of writing music for instrumentalists in the same spirit and with the same poetry as my earlier works.

The three works on this compact disc explore interference phenomena between sound waves. When two or more closely tuned tones are sounded, their oscillations periodically coincide to produce audible beats of sound. The speed of the beating depends upon the distances between the pitches of the sounds. The farther apart, the faster the beating; at unison, no beating occurs. Furthermore, under certain acoustic conditions, the beats may be heard to spin around the room.

In the three works heard on this disc the instrumental sounds are combined with electronically generated pure waves. Because pure waves have virtually no overtones, the beats occurring between them are clear. Even when the more complex waveforms of acoustical instruments are combined with them, the beating is vivid enough for use as a compositional element. In In Memoriam Jon Higgins and Crossings, the pure waves slowly sweep up through the ranges of the instruments; the players play long tones across them. In Septet for Three Winds, Four Strings and Pure Wave Oscillator a single oscillator tone, tuned to Middle C, sounds continuously throughout the performance; the players minutely vary the pitches of their tones to produce beats of different speeds.

In In Memoriam the pure wave sweeps one semitone every 30 seconds; each clarinet tone is held a full minute, even in the highest octave of its range. Because of the purity of the clarinet sound, the beating, even on a recording, may be clearly heard to spin across the room. In Memoriam Jon Higgins was composed especially for clarinetist Thomas Ridenour and was first performed by him on December 7, 1984, on the Connecticut Composers Festival at Real Art Ways, Hartford, Connecticut.

The Septet for Three Winds, Four Strings and Pure Wave Oscillator is in four sections. In the first, the players split into trios (the clarinet alternates between them) and, starting a semitone above and below the oscillator tones, step up and down in eighth-tone increments, crossing the tone, stopping at the opposite semitone above and below it. In the second section, the winds and strings separately hold unisons with the tone; the beating occurs as a result of small pitch fluctuations. In the third, the players make sixteen pitch discriminations within a semitone a minor third above the oscillator tone. And in the fourth, they divide into two uneven pairs, and starting from semitones above and below the original pitches of the piece, step up and down toward them, forming double wedge patterns.

The Septet was written for the Core Group of  the New World Consort of Wesleyan University, Roy Wiseman, Director. It was first performed on the Consort’s inaugural concert, September 20. 1985, in Crowell Hall, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut. The players in the Core Group and on this recording are: Perry Elliot, violin; Sharon Dennison, viola; Julie Ribchinsky, cello; Roy Wiseman, double bass; Peter Standaart, alto flute; Thomas Ridenour, clarinet; Gary Bennett, bassoon.

Crossings is scored for sixteen players: two flutes with piccolos; two oboes, one with English horn; two clarinets in B flat, with bass clarinets in B flat; bassoon; trumpet in C; two horns in F; tuba; two violins; viola; cello; double bass. The players are divided equally on either side of the stage. A single loudspeaker is positioned front center. There is no conductor. The players watch a video monitor which displays numerically, in cycles per second, the rapidly changing frequencies of the ascending wave. Each player reads a part with a series of notated pitches. Each notation is preceded and followed by the number of a specific frequency which, as it is reached and displayed on the monitor, serves as a cue for the player to start and stop his or her sound.

The oscillator sweeps the entire range of the orchestra, from the low C at 32 cycles per second to the high C at 4186 cps. With the exception of a few extremely low notes the orchestra plays all the chromatic notes in ascending order throughout the seven-octave range of the work. Each side of the orchestra plays every other note, overlapping the other side by several seconds, producing double sets of beats as the do so. Each player sustains his or her pitch for sixteen seconds, starting above, that is, several seconds before it is reached by the ascending wave, holding it steady until the wave has passed through it, and stopping several seconds after it has risen above it. As the waves approach the players’ tones, the beating speeds up again. The resultant patterns of deceleration-stasis-acceleration form the basic gestures of the work. The individual players participate in the performance as the ascending wave moves through the ranges of their particular instruments.

Crossings was first performed on July 5, 1982, by members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra Hall, Chicago, on the opening concert of New Music America ’82. it was repeated in November of that year at Oberlin College, by the Oberlin Contemporary Ensemble, Daniel Asia, Conductor. It was revised during the summer of 1983 and performed in October of that year at the Eastman School of Music, Rochester, New York, by the Musica Nova Ensemble, Sydney Hodkinson, Conductor. The final version was made in December, 1983, and performed on the “Meet the Moderns” series, January 19 and 20, 1984, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Cooper Union, new York, by the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, Lukas Foss, Music Director. The players on this recording are: Robert Dick, flutes and piccolos; Claudia Coonce, oboes and English horn; Thomas Ridenour, clarinets and bass clarinets; Tim Ward, bassoon; William Purvis, French horns; Philip Rucktenwald, trumpet; Andrew Seligson, tuba; Shem Giubbory, violins; Veronica Salas, viola; Chris Finckel, cello; Roy Wiseman, double bass. The slow sweep oscillator was designed and built by Bob Bielecki.

Digital editing and mastering by Allan Tucker, Foothill Productions, NYC.

Cover photo: Jack Mitchell

Design: By Design

© 1989 Alvin Lucier (BMI)

©P 1990 Lovely Music, Ltd.