Alvin Lucier: Theme



Music for Piano with Magnetic Strings (22:58)

Years ago I met a music critic who said he didn’t like music made with wires. He was referring to my Music on a Long Thin Wire which had just been installed at the Landmark Center in Saint Paul, as part of New Music America Minneapolis 1980. I retorted that he must not like the piano; it contained over two hundred and fifty of them.

When Lois Svard asked me to write her a piece, my mind flashed back to that encounter and I imagined a work in which the strings of a piano would sound by themselves. In Music on a Long Thin Wire a large horseshoe magnet straddles the wire creating a flux field around it which, in conjunction with a current from an oscillator, causes the wire to vibrate and sound. For a piano work I would need several small magnets to activate more than one string at a time. I bought several EBows, small electromagnets used primarily with electric guitars. I experimented, placing them on the strings of my piano. I discovered that if I waited long enough, certain strings would begin sounding.

I wrote Lois a prose score, describing the process and suggesting she freely position and reposition five EBows on the piano strings, creating strands of sounds of varying density and texture. Much of her time is spent listening for harmonics, audible beating, occasional rhythms produced as one or more magnets vibrates against adjacent strings, and other acoustic phenomena.

Music for Piano with Magnetic Strings was first performed by Lois Svard on the Interpretations Series, Merkin Hall, New York, May 11, 1995.

Theme (18:45)

I first met John Ashbery in Berlin in 1991. I was a Guest Composer of the DAAD Artist Program at the time and had gone to a reading by Ashbery sponsored by the Literature Program. I had for a long time admired his poetry and was delighted to meet and talk with him. When I began planning my Collaborations Festival at Wesleyan in 1994, I suggested to the Poetry Series Committee that they invite John to come to Middletown for a reading. He agreed. I asked him if he would let me set a poem of his to music. He sent me Theme, an unpublished poem which had a couple of musical references.

From the very beginning I knew I didn’t want to violate the flow of the words of the poem by fragmentation or any other cut-up method. The stanzas seemed musical enough just as they were and I wanted the audience to hear the poem more or less in its pristine state. I wrote out the poem for four readers in the order it was written, repeating words and phrases, overlapping and superimposing them in various ways. I worked intuitively and by ear. Every once in a while I would go back to something I heard before or rearrange a few lines and phrases to make different, unexpected meanings. I felt that the poem itself had certain characteristics of automatic writing.

To “set” the poem, I inserted microphones into the mouths of various vessels I had collected, including a small milk bottle, a sea shell, a vase and an empty ostrich egg, to pick up the words as they were sounding inside the vessels. (I thought of them as four small rooms.) The readers speak normally, allowing the pitches of their voices which match those resonances of the vessels to create musical sounds. Occasionally, however, a reader will tend to emphasize certain pitches more than others, reading in an almost chant-like way, to sound the resonances of the vessels more clearly.

Theme was first performed on October 20, 1994, Russell House, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, by Wesleyan faculty members Gertrude Hughes, Indira Karamcheti and William Stowe, English Department, and Victor Gourevitch, Professor Emeritus, Philosophy Department.

Music for Gamelan Instruments, Microphones, Amplifiers and Loudspeakers (15:09)

In 1994, when Wesleyan University invited me to present a festival of my work, I decided to make as many new works as possible rather than simply present a retrospective of older works. I had for some time wanted to make a work for Javanese gamelan but was hesitant to do so for three reasons: one, I didn’t want to infringe on the generosity of my colleagues Sumarsam and I. M. Harjito, who were so often asked to relinquish important rehearsal time for the performance of new works; two, I have always been wary of using someone else’s music in my own work; and three, I didn’t have an original idea. I certainly didn’t want my piece to sound Indonesian. It wasn’t until I started imagining the bowl-shaped bonangs of the gamelan orchestra more as resonant chambers to be sounded than objects to be struck, that I felt I could make a work that I could call my own. I now felt comfortable in asking my colleagues if they would be interested in having me compose a work for their ensemble. They agreed.

During the performance four players place bonangs of various sizes over microphones, creating feedback, the pitch of which is determined by the shape and size of the bowl and the resonant characteristics of the room. Three gender players strike the bars on their metallaphones, searching for the pitches of the feedback strands. Since it is virtually impossible that a strand of feedback will match exactly a pitch on any fixed-pitch instruments, audible beats – bumps of sound which occur as sound waves coincide – occur. The closer the tuning, the slower the beating. When the players reach near-unison with a feedback strand they slow down or speed up their playing, creating beating patterns between the pitches of their instruments and those of the feedback. Music for Gamelan Instruments, Microphones, Amplifiers and Loudspeakers was first performed on October 18, 1994, World Music Hall, Wesleyan University by the Wesleyan University Gamelan Ensemble.

— Alvin Lucier, 1999

Alvin Lucier has pioneered in many areas of music composition and performance, including the notation of performers’ physical gestures, the use of brain waves in live performance, the generation of visual imagery by sound in vibrating media, and the evocation of room acoustics for musical purposes. His recent works include a series of sound installations and works for solo instruments, chamber ensembles, and orchestra in which, by means of close tunings with pure tones, sound waves are caused to spin through space. Since l970 he has taught at Wesleyan University.

Sam Ashley has devoted his life to the invention of an experimental trance-mysticism. He has created many witchdoctor pieces over the years; several have toured the US and abroad. Much of his work is musical; some is solo theater; some is hard to define. He has been singing for more than 15 years, developing an unusual Animal Magnetism vocal technique. He has had principal roles in seven contemporary operas by Robert Ashley, with whom he regularly performs and records. He co-founded Very Important Now (in which he does “spirit possession stand up comedy”), the Cactus Needle Project (acclaimed as an electronic/computer music ensemble), and AA Bee Removal.

Over the past thirty years, baritone Thomas Buckner has achieved notable success as an innovative performer, as well as producer and promoter, of some of the most adventurous music of the 20th century. Through his live and recorded work with both established and emerging contemporary composers and improvisers, Buckner continues to be a pioneer in a wide range of musical contexts, mixing genres and breaking barriers in his on-going pursuit of the yet-to-be-imagined. In 1996, he was awarded the American Music Center’s Letter of Distinction, in recognition of his contributions to the field of contemporary music.

I.M. Harjito is a graduate of the Indonesian National Academy of Music (Surakarta, Central Java). He has taught gamelan there as well as at a number of American universities, including the University of California at San Diego and San Francisco State University. One of the most respected musicians of the younger generation in Central Java, he is currently an Artist-in-Residence at Wesleyan University.

Jacqueline Humbert assumes many roles in the performing arts. She is a visual artist and designer as well as a singer and performer. Her costumes, sets and visual environments have been seen on stages and in TV broadcasts throughout Europe and North America. They include costume designs for the Oakland Ballet, MaFish Co, Zaccho SF Dance Theater and the Oberlin Dance Collective. She contributed both visual and costume design and was a principal performer in Robert Ashley’s opera tetralogy, Now Eleanor’s Idea. She teaches at California Institute of the Arts.

Joan La Barbara, an acknowledged pioneer in contemporary classical music, explores the human voice as a multi-faceted instrument, going far beyond traditional boundaries, developing a unique vocabulary of experimental and extended vocal techniques. La Barbara concertizes worldwide and has premiered landmark compositions written for her by noted American composers, including John Cage, Morton Feldman, Robert Ashley, Philip Glass and Morton Subotnick. She has produced 11 recordings of her own work, and served as singer and producer on internationally-acclaimed recordings of music by John Cage and Morton Feldman.

Sumarsam is a graduate of the Indonesian National Academy of Music (Surakarta, Central Java). In addition, he holds an M.A. degree from Wesleyan University, and a Ph.D. from Cornell. An Adjunct Professor of Music at Wesleyan, he has performed and lectured throughout the United States. He has written numerous articles on the history, theory, and practice of Javanese music. The University of Chicago Press has published his book Gamelan: Cultural Interaction and Musical Development in Central Java (1995).

Lois Svard has received critical acclaim for her performances of contemporary piano music.  Her affinity for American experimental music has led her to commission and premiere works by many experimental composers, including Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier, William Duckworth, “Blue” Gene Tyranny, Annea Lockwood, Elodie Lauten, Jerry Hunt, and Stephen Scott.  She is currently on the faculty at Bucknell University, where she teaches piano, a course on 20th-century music and a seminar on the creative process. Her performances can be heard on Lovely Music and Composers Recordings, Inc.

Music for Piano with Magnetic Strings was recorded by Rusty Richards, January 12, 1997, at the Weis Center for the Performing Arts, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA. Assembled and mixed by Tom Hamilton.
Theme and Music for Gamelan Instruments, Microphones, Amplifiers and Loudspeakers were recorded by Tom Hamilton and Tim Conklin at Sorcerer Sound, New York.
Recording edited and mastered by Tom Hamilton.
Sonic Solutions mastering by Foothill Digital, New York.
The recording of Theme and Music for Gamelan Instruments, Microphones, Amplifiers and Loudspeakers was made possible in part by a Project Grant from Wesleyan University.
The recording of Music for Piano with Magnetic Strings was made possible in part by a grant from Bucknell University.

Produced by Alvin Lucier.

“Theme” from Can You Hear, Bird by John Ashbery. Copyright © 1994 by John Ashbery. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Used by special arrangement with Georges Borchardt, Inc. on behalf of John Ashbery.

Art Direction and Design: By Design

Copyright © 1999 Alvin Lucier (BMI)
© P 1999 Lovely Music, Ltd.

LCD 5011 DDD