Reminiscing about last year’s SPARK Fesitval a couple of posts ago reminded me about the experience of meeting Alvin Lucier, who was the event’s feautred guest composer. On my third concert of the festivalâ€”actually a joint recital with violinist Maja Cerarâ€”I performed Lucier’s Spira Mirabilis for bass sustaining instrument (a.k.a. baritone saxophone) and amplified electric light. (To capture the sound of the light, you take a solar cell and route it through an amplifier so that when the light shines on the solar cell, you hear the sound of pure electric light, which happens to be a somewhat flat concert B-natural.) Here’s what happens in the piece: The saxophonist sounds a tone, whose duration, in seconds, and pitch, in cycles (beats) per second, above the tone of the sounding light. The length of each toneâ€”in order of performance above the sounding light: d5, M3, m3, M2, m2, unison 4xâ€”follows a descending Fibonacci sequence, starting at fifty-five seconds and ending at zero. As the performer sounds these tones, he is instructed to walk towards the light in eight constant angles, describing an equiangular spiral. Pretty specific, right?
I have to admit that I’ve always been slightly scared of and intimidated by Alvin Lucier. His music seems so serious to me. He amplifies brain waves. And the performance directions in his scores are so utterly precise. He sounds like a man who knows exactly what he wants. Why else be so specific with your directions to the performer? Stockhausen is notoriously anal about such matters. So every time I performed the piece without breaking out my protractor and making sure that I had inscribed the correct angles on the stage, I would honestly think, “Oh shit, he’s totally going to know that I didn’t walk at the proper angle and he’s going to get eff-ing mad and have a fit and think I’m completely incompetent and then tell everyone and I’ll be ruined!” And now he was at the dress rehearsal, watching and listening to me play his piece, for which my preparation certainly had not included a protractor.
I set about performing the work with grave seriousness. With shoes off and in socked feet so as not to disturb the trance-like effect of dissonance and harmony with an electric desk lampâ€”it’s a rather soft pieceâ€”I played the tritone. Then I walked and played the major third. And then the minor third, all the while hoping he wouldn’t notice that the angle of my trajectory across the stage was wrong. (N.B. In my opinion, one of the most beautiful things in Spira Mirabilisâ€”and there is a sort of indescribable beauty in many of Lucier’s works, particularly the soft pieces and the sine tone stuffâ€”is the alternation between dissonance and consonance. The tritone, a rather harsh dissonance, gives way to a satisfying and restful-sounding major third. The major third transforms into a minor third, which changes to a major second, and so on, until you arrive at the unison, which sounds utterly satisfying when you reach it. At this moment, the whole room seems to vibrate and all seems right with the world. Similarly, in the sine tone pieces you have these episodes of intense dissonance, which only increase in severity as the two tones approach unison, followed by the arrival of the unison, which is fleeting but ends up sounding even more beautiful because of its transience.)
If I may say, it really was quite masterful, my dress rehearsal performance. My circular breathing was stunning. My spiral seemed convincing. And the metronome clicking quietly in my ear at a steady 60 beats-per-minute ensured that I’d held each note for the proper duration. That’s when I heard it. From the darknessâ€”the piece ends with the light turning offâ€”Alvin Lucier emitted a short burst of laughter, followed by this quizzical statement: “Did I write that?” I was stunned. Was it the way I played it? The way he said it made it sound like the piece was kind of trivial or a joke or something. How could that be though with solar cells routed through amplifiers, and electric lights, and all that mathematical and scientific Fibonacci stuff? However, at that moment, although the light on stage had been turned out, a light over my head turned on. I realized that despite all of those cold calculaions in the work, that it is a little humorous and that Alvin Lucier has a great sense of humor to boot.
The rest of the rehearsal was focused on how we could “sell” the piece better. His first suggestion was actually a deviation from the score. (He was flexible (!), which came as a complete shock to me after having had this image of him built up in my head solely from what I’d know of his compositions and writings.) Instead of each tone moving to the next without a break between them, I was to seperate each tone by a few seconds. Next, he got into the theatrics of the performance, giving me directions like, “Look more perplexed as you walk forward,” and “Stare at the light in a suspicious manner,” and “Take slower, more deliberate steps, like you’re creeping around somewhere.” These extra directions actually made me feel much freer during the performance of the piece. And it made it much more fun and enjoyable to play. Before our coaching in the dress rehearsal I was always nervous to do anything that wasn’t notated or suggested in the score for reasons stated above.
To say the least, meeting and working with Alvin Lucier was delightful experience. Listening to some of his stories at dinner following the concert only confirmed his keen sense of humor. When I got him talking about a famous colleague of his, he imparted the following wisdom for those serving on faculty search committees: “You’ve got to hire the crazies.”