Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music

Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music


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Composer and performer Alvin Lucier brings clarity to the world of experimental music as he takes the reader through more than a hundred groundbreaking musical works, including those of Robert Ashley, John Cage, Charles Ives, Morton Feldman, Philip Glass, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, Christian Wolff, and La Monte Young. Lucier explains in detail how each piece is made, unlocking secrets of the composers' style and technique. The book as a whole charts the progress of American experimental music from the 1950s to the present, covering such topics as indeterminacy, electronics, and minimalism, as well as radical innovations in music for the piano, string quartet, and opera. Clear, approachable and lively, Music 109 is Lucier's indispensable guide to late 20th-century composition. No previous musical knowledge is required, and all readers are welcome.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819574923
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 08/28/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 920,799
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

ALVIN LUCIER is the John Spencer Camp Professor of Music emeritus at Wesleyan University. Since the mid-1960s, he has explored the natural characteristics of sound and the spaces in which they are heard. He is the author of Reflections/Reflexionen and coauthor, with Douglas Simon, of Chambers.

Read an Excerpt



Symphony No. 4

When I went to college we studied the masterpieces of European music. If you wanted to be a professional composer, you would go to Europe after college to finish up your musical education. Before World War I many American composers went to Munich to study with an organist named Josef Rheinberger; after the war they went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. Walter Piston and Aaron Copland studied with her. My three composition teachers in graduate school studied with her. The entire batch of American students was nicknamed the "Boulangerie." That's French for bakery. Anyway, one felt that one's spiritual home was in Europe. We all thought that American classical music wasn't as good as European music. And for good reasons. It's hard to compete with Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, not to mention such modern masters as Bartok, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky. We all had inferiority complexes. There was no concept of World Music then. And even though we all loved jazz, there were no courses devoted to it. We simply played it outside of school. It's very different now, but when I was in college that was true.

Charles Ives graduated from Yale in 1898. He studied composition with Horatio Parker, who, by the way, had studied with Rheinberger. When Ives left Yale he knew he couldn't make a living as a composer, so he went into the insurance business. The firm of Ives and Myrick became one of the most successful insurance companies in New York. He wrote music at night, knowing that much of his work would never be played, at least in his lifetime. When Ives retired because of ill health, he was a wealthy man, but he only took enough money out of his company to live in reasonable comfort.

Throughout his creative life, Ives wrote startlingly original works using polychords, polyrhythms, quartertones, and other innovative devices he learned from his father, a band conductor and indefatigable music experimenter. His Symphony No. 4 (written between 1910 and 1916 but not performed until 1965, by Leopold Stokowski) requires three conductors to manage separate instrumental groups playing in different meters and tempos. In the first movement, a distant chamber orchestra, consisting of harp and solo strings, usually situated in the balcony, plays heavenly music against the heavy, symphonic music of the main orchestra. (As a child Ives had watched a parade in Danbury during which two bands marched from opposite ends of the street, playing in different keys and tempos.) This movement is only about three minutes long. It's marked maestoso. That's Italian for majestic or stately.

Throughout the history of music there have been examples of instrumental and vocal groups playing separately. Giovanni Gabrieli (1555–1612) composed works for multiple choirs in Saint Mark's Cathedral in Venice. There's a ballroom scene in Mozart's Don Giovanni where three small orchestras on stage play different musics in different tempos simultaneously, , , and . In Gabrieli, the spatially separated musics form part of a whole; they go together. In the Mozart they more or less fit together, but every once in a while they split apart rhythmically. Mozart could get away with that in 1787 because it served the theatrical purpose of providing different musics for different social classes — a minuet for the aristocracy, a contradance for the peasants. But in Ives the musics are completely separate: one group is playing one kind of music, another group, another kind. It was astonishing, that idea. One would think you couldn't hear two musics at the same time, but the contrary seems to be true. The more differentiated they are, the more clearly you can hear them. The work is filled with quotations, too. In the second movement you can hear Marching Through Georgia, In the Sweet Bye and Bye, Turkey in the Straw, Yankee Doodle, and (Ives's favorite) Columbia the Gem of the Ocean.

One of my composition teachers at Yale thought that Ives wrote music with one eye closed. He meant that Ives didn't take enough care with the details of notation. Aaron Copland, too, thought that the "weakness" in Ives's music was due to a lack of self-criticism from not hearing his music played enough. Even John Cage criticized Ives for using patriotic songs instead of sources from around the world. None of these men gives credit to Ives's great innovations and high aspirations for music as a philosophical endeavor. Ives titled the four movements of his Concord Sonata, which he composed between 1911 and 1915, after the New England Transcendentalists Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts, and Thoreau. His Essays before a Sonata presents his impression of the spirit of Transcendentalism and puts forth his own philosophical and musical ideas. The Essays is filled with amazing statements: "Debussy's content would have been worthier if he had hoed corn or sold newspapers for a living," for example. The ideas contained in Emerson's famous essay, Self-Reliance, plus a quote from The American Scholar, "We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe," characterize Ives's thinking.

A group of students and I went down to Alice Tully Hall in New York City to hear the American premiere of Elliott Carter's Fifth String Quartet (1995). Each instrument had a very pronounced personality, different from the others, like characters in a play. Each voice even had a different set of intervals that identified it and its instrument. It was amazing how clearly one could hear each instrument, as it played along with almost complete independence. The viola part was particularly vivid. It reminded me of Ives's String Quartet No. 2 (1907–1913), in which the second violinist, whom Ives named "Rollo," plays music distinctly different from the others. He's the most conservative of the four. Throughout the second movement, Arguments: Allegro con spirito, he tries to establish order, playing steady rhythms. Every so often, he continues blissfully along by himself. As a young man, Elliott Carter had cultivated a friendship with Ives. One of the criticisms of Carter's music is that it's too complicated to hear; you can't tell what's going on. But it's in late nineteenth-century symphonic music, where all the instruments are blended into a whole, that the individual parts are difficult to discern.



Music Walk with Dancers

In 1960 I was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study music in Italy. I spent the first summer in Venice, followed by two years in Rome. I was lucky to have a scholarship. I remember going to a concert at La Fenice (The Phoenix) theater in Venice. It was a beautiful little late eighteenth-century Italian opera house. Verdi's Rigoletto had its first performance there. I had seen advertised a concert of composer John Cage, pianist David Tudor, and dancers Merce Cunningham and Carolyn Brown. I decided to go. The concert began with David Tudor walking down the aisle of the theater and diving under the piano, making sounds on the underside of the instrument. The audience screamed. At the same time Cage, Cunningham, and Brown walked around the theater reading cards with instructions as to actions they could make. They used the whole theater as a performance space. I think the piece was Music Walk with Dancers. At one point, Cage rose up from below the stage on a hydraulic platform playing the piano. People were furious. I was flabbergasted. He used a radio as one of his instruments, too. At one moment he turned it on and got the voice of the pope asking for peace in the world. It was a wonderful moment. One man strode down the aisle with a cane. He hit the piano and said, "Now I am a composer!" I guess you could say that concert blew my mind. I stopped writing music for a year.


In the early Sixties, there were several electronic music studios in Europe. Pierre Schaeffer had established a musique concrète studio in Paris. Musique concrète is music made from recorded natural and man-made sounds. A famous work from that period, by Pierre Henry, a collaborator of Schaeffer's, was called Variations for a Door and a Sigh. The source material for this work consisted entirely of the two sounds in the title. German composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and Herbert Eimert founded a studio at the West German Radio in Cologne, and Italian composers Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna founded the Studio di Fonologia in Milan. The Milan studio consisted of a bank of twelve audio oscillators (guess why?), a white noise generator, an echo chamber, a few modification devices, including a ring modulator, filters of one kind or another, a few tape machines, and some accessory equipment. Do you know what white noise is? Theoretically, it's all frequencies randomly mixed together, producing a hissing sound. It's a valuable tool in testing electronic circuits and acoustic spaces because it's neutral and covers a wide frequency band. If you want to discover the acoustical signature of a space you can pump in bursts of white noise. A spectrum analyzer will show you where the resonances are. White noise was a wonderful sound source for composers because it had a rich timbre. You could filter out frequency bands, too, giving it the suggestion of pitch. White noise is to sound what color is to light.

In these early electronic music studios you basically worked with reel-to-reel tape recorders. There were no cassette or digital tape recorders then. The machines ran at various speeds: the faster, the better the sound quality. The professional standard at that time was 15 inches per second (ips), so if you cut one inch of tape, you got one-fifteenth of a second of sound. If you slowed the machine down to 71/2 ips, you not only slowed the sounds down by half, but lowered their pitch by one octave, too. Playing the tape backward produced interesting results because the natural decay of a sound now became a gradual attack; the end of the sound would be abrupt. A composer could accomplish a great deal by simply manipulating tape. He or she could modify sounds, too, by adding reverberation and filtering. Bandpass filters enabled you to choose certain regions of a wideband sound complex; ring modulators added and subtracted two frequencies fed into it, producing raucous sidebands. Reverb, of course, gave everything a spacy sound, which good composers used judiciously. One of the techniques in the Milan studio was to record a library of sounds by mixing several sources — chords of oscillator tones, ring modulated sound complexes, strands of reverberated white noise — then hang the tapes up on the wall, marking each one so you'd know what was on it.

The Fulbright office in Rome got me permission to work there for two weeks in 1961. I was anxious to explore the new medium. My mind was a blank, which was wonderful because I could let everything just come in. There was a library of all the tape pieces composed by visiting composers. I listened to them all. One was a short work composed by Belgian composer Henri Pousseur. It was called Scambi (1958). That's Italian for "exchanges." The sound material for Scambi is colored noise — white noise filtered in such a way as to give it pitch. There are two very different types of material: one, extremely short bursts of sound, heard as single events and in longer trains (you can imagine how many splices it takes to make a four- or five-second group); the other, longer and more continuous strands, which swoop and undulate. This can be accomplished by manually varying the speed of the recorder, slowing it down and speeding it up, or shifting the regions of filtering. From time to time the material is colored by reverberation. The work consists of sixteen sequences of different lengths that may be interchanged in an almost infinite number of ways. Pousseur himself made several versions of the piece. So did his friend Berio. Because each section may be juxtaposed with any other, there can be no obvious climaxes or points of hierarchical importance. Instead, one hears an unending redistribution of material that may have local high points. The form is open. Pousseur realized that a fixed work on tape may be deadly and he strove to give it life.

There was much talk in those days about additive and subtractive synthesis. If you had enough sine-wave oscillators you could eventually produce white noise. Conversely, white noise, which consisted of all frequencies randomly mixed together, could be filtered down to one sine-wave tone. This was a theoretical notion, as far as I could see; I'd never heard it done in real life. But there was a lot of talk about this, as if this dichotomy could give a theoretical basis to this new medium.

Fontana Mix

One day as I was working, Marino Zuccheri, the engineer, remarked that John Cage had been there a couple of years earlier, in 1958. I thought, "Oh, no!" He said that on the day that Mr. Cage arrived, he simply sat down and proceeded to draw all the equipment in the studio, every dial, every knob, even the brand names of the components. (He had studied architecture in Paris and was a fine draftsman.) Cage explained that prehistoric people, when they were afraid of some wild animal, would draw a picture of it to get over their fear. It's a marvelous idea, whether it's true or not. After Zuccheri described all the components of the studio, Cage asked him if he had a portable tape recorder. Zuccheri said yes and agreed to meet Cage the next day. Instead of making a piece using all the fancy equipment and electronically generated sounds in the studio, Cage preferred to go outside and record some city sounds. They spent days recording animals in the zoo, machines, people on trams, all sorts of environmental sounds. He and Zuccheri brought those sounds on tape back into the studio. Cage arranged the sounds, as well as some others, into six classes, including city and country sounds, instrumental and electronic sounds, wind sounds (singing), and very quiet ones needing amplification.

Cage spent the next couple of months splicing tape. To help him decide how to assemble the material, he resorted to chance procedures. He made a "score" consisting of transparent sheets with dots, drawings of curved lines, a graph with a hundred horizontal and twenty vertical units and a sheet with a straight line. Randomly superimposing the sheets, and connecting points in the graph to those outside it, would give him readings to determine musical parameters such as frequency, timbre, duration, and loudness. I think he took sounds at random, not knowing what exactly was on each piece of tape.

What impresses one was his doggedness in splicing thousands of scraps of tape over such a long period of time. Even though the determinations were generated by chance procedures, the manual work was exact and not subject to chance at all. He called the piece Fontana Mix, named after the woman who owned the pensione he was staying at while working in Milan.


Around this time Cage composed an aria for Cathy Berberian, an American opera singer who was living in Milan. She was married to Berio at the time. Do you know what an aria is? It's a solo number in an opera. The action stops and the singer has an opportunity to sing for an extended time, usually something of an expressive nature. In provincial opera houses in Italy, it's typical for the audience to wait for the arias — the high emotional points — not paying much attention to the other parts of the opera. Do you know Casey Stengel's famous phrase, "It's not over 'til the fat lady sings"? Well, that refers to the final aria a soprano might sing at the end of an opera.

The work may be sung in whole or in any part, by a voice of any range, alone or with Fontana Mix or with any parts of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra (another of Cage's works). There are squiggly lines in eight colors, representing various singing styles, including jazz (dark blue), folk (green), Marlene Dietrich (purple), and coloratura (yellow). There are words or parts of words underneath the squiggles in several languages, including Armenian, Russian, Italian, French, and English. It's clear that Aria was tailor-made for Ms. Berberian. (She was Armenian-American and had studied opera.) There are also black squares that indicate noises that the performer may choose for herself. She chose foot stomps, finger snaps, tongue clicks, expressions of sexual pleasure, etc. There is no time, no meter, no notes, no rhythm. The singer is free to determine all aspects of the performance not specifically notated. For this recording the two works were simply mixed together. No attempt was made to synchronize the tapes and yet in a strange way they seem to go together. Together, Aria with Fontana Mix (1958) is one of the most shocking recorded works I know. I love to start the year with it. It sounds wonderful.


Excerpted from "Music 109"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Alvin Lucier.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Robert Ashley
Studio di Fonologia
Graphic Notation
Town Hall
Rose Art Museum
Cage and Tutor
Sonic Arts Union
Bell Labs
Tape Recorders
The Piano
Long String Instrument
String Quartets
Author's Note

What People are Saying About This

Christoph Cox

“Alvin Lucier is an enormously important experimental composer whose reputation has grown considerably over the past decade. Written in Lucier’s characteristically laconic, deadpan style, Music 109 mixes biography, history, anecdote, and musicology to offer a personal account of experimental musical practice and analyses of many of its key works. It is tremendously valuable for its first-hand, insider’s view of the field and for Lucier’s intelligent and engaging examinations of musical works.”

From the Publisher

"Alvin Lucier sat in a room and created extraordinary music from the confluence of resonance and technology. This is his brilliant and lucid account of the experimental strand of late twentieth-century contemporary music, by one of its great visionaries."—David Rothenberg, ECM recording artist, author of Survival of the Beautiful and Thousand Mile Song

"Alvin Lucier is an enormously important experimental composer whose reputation has grown considerably over the past decade. Written in Lucier's characteristically laconic, deadpan style, Music 109 mixes biography, history, anecdote, and musicology to offer a personal account of experimental musical practice and analyses of many of its key works. It is tremendously valuable for its first-hand, insider's view of the field and for Lucier's intelligent and engaging examinations of musical works."—Christoph Cox, professor of philosophy, Hampshire College

David Rothenberg

"Alvin Lucier sat in a room and created extraordinary music from the confluence of resonance and technology. This is his brilliant and lucid account of the experimental strand of late twentieth-century contemporary music, by one of its great visionaries."
David Rothenberg, ECM recording artist, author of Survival of the Beautiful and Thousand Mile Song

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