Alvin Lucier: Ever Present


I first became acquainted with the bagpipe as a solo instrument in 2000 through Matt Welch, who was a graduate student at Wesleyan at the time. I had always loved the sound of bagpipes in the open air but thought that in an enclosed space, certain acoustic characteristics, caused by reflections from the floor, walls and ceiling, might be revealed. There is no score; the piper is simply asked to walk slowly around the performance space, sounding his instrument as he does so. From time to time he detunes the chanters, creating beating patterns of slightly varying speeds. Upper partials of the near unison tunings, as well as minor spatial disturbances (imaginary Dopplers), may be heard.

Piper was first performed by Mr. Welch on October 27, 2000 at Crowell Hall, Wesleyan University.


Starting from a common tone and tempo 4 koto players play long series of plucked tones over a 12-minute time span, gradually stepping up to 1, 2, 3 and 4 semitones above the starting tone and slowing down to 1 beat every 2, 3, 4, and 5 seconds. As they do so, audible beating at various speeds occurs among the plucked sounds of the instruments.

Fan was first performed on July 19, 2003 at the Kawasaki city Museum, Kawasaki, Japan.


During the course of the work 4 pure tones, tuned to the musical intervals of a 9th, 4th and 7th are sounded in all their combinations. As they do so a flutist sustains closely tuned long tones against them, creating audible beats at speeds determined by the distances between her tones and those of the pure
waves. The farther apart the faster the beating. At unison no beating occurs. Occasionally the flutist bends her pitches a few cycles per second causing the beating patterns to slow down and speed up.

947 was completed on November 15th, 2001, and first performed by Jacqueline Martelle on April 25th, 2002 in Merkin Hall, New York, as part of the Interpretations Series. The work was written as a surprise gift for Ms. Martelle celebrating her purchase of a Powell flute, Number 947.

Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra

Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra is one of a series of pieces for conventional musical instruments I have been making since 1982 that explore the natural timbral and spatial characteristics of sound waves.

In Silver Streetcar, the player dampens the triangle with the thumb and forefinger of one hand while tapping the instrument with the other. The performance consists of moving the geographical locations of these two activities and changing the pressure of the fingers on the triangle as well as the speed and loudness of the tapping. During the course of the performance, the acoustic characteristics of the folded metal bar are revealed.

In order to more vividly hear the acoustic phenomena, stereo microphones are placed in front of and close to the sounding triangle.

Silver Streetcar was written expressly for Brian Johnson. The title of the work was taken from the Surrealist text, Instrumentation (1922), by Luis Buñuel.

Ever Present

In March of 2002 my friend Susan Foster and I visited Robert Irwin’s garden at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Irwin had designed a graceful space with oval walkways as a contrast to the more rectangular architecture of the Richard Meyer’s buildings. It was beautiful to watch the people walking through the garden. They seemed to be in a special frame of mind, feeling the spaces rather than simply paying attention to the plantings.

I decided to use part of the outline of Irwin’s visual design as the formal structure for a new work for flute, saxophone and piano. I simply drew the shapes of the top and bottom walkways on music paper. The upper arc starts at Middle C and rises two octaves, descending back to its starting point, while the lower one descends, then falls more rapidly to its nadir, rising again to its starting point in a similar manner. To offset the symmetry of Irwin’s design I increased the speeds of both sweeps starting at the midpoint. Susan and I had sat off to one side of the garden for most of the afternoon, so our perspective was skewed; the farthest part of the design looked shorter than the nearer. The resulting shapes provided a two-part cantus firmus against which I set the instrumental parts.

As the waves sweep up and down, the players sustain long tones across them creating beating patterns at speeds determined by the closeness of the tunings. Because the waves are in constant motion, the speed of the beating continually slows down and speeds up. The players’ tones are notated simultaneously with and halfway between the chromatic semi-tones of the sweeps. The players may, however, anticipate or delay their tones, thereby changing the resulting patterns.

Ever Present was commissioned by the Drescher-Okabe-Armbruster Trio for a performance at the Musikhochschule, Freiburg, June 21st, 2002. The title was taken from two inscriptions at the entrance of Irwin’s garden:


— © Alvin Lucier, 2007