Remembering Alvin Lucier, 1931-2021 – The Boston Musical Intelligencer
I got to know the avant-garde composer of Lukas Foss’s composition class at Tanglewood together in the summer of 1959. Lucier was the oldest of the group (I was the youngest, a mere college student) and stayed pretty much apart from the rest of us – Lita Dubman, Michael Horvit, Roger Hannay, Bob Baksa and the Canadian Jacques HÃ©tu; Gunther Parchman, a bassist from Louisiana, joined us from time to time. A native of New Hampshire, Lucier had a Yale degree and was about to complete another at Brandeis, so he was also a local boy. I remember his music from that summer, rather Parisian from the 1920s, diatonic, with lots of luminous notes. We all had our music read by musicians from the Fromm Foundation – Fromm Week didn’t exist yet, but musicians in the community included woodwinds and what later became the Lenox Quartet. An amateur musician, Jack Lund, a charming businessman and record collector with a little extra cash, came to visit us and took us all to dinner, bringing news of a small commission on the recommendation of Foss , and it was Lucier who won the prize at the end of the summer.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I heard of Alvin Lucier’s extravagant experimentalism. My colleague from Reed College, Nicholas Wheeler, a physicist and good cellist, had corresponded with him. Lucier’s plans included equipping helicopters with huge loudspeakers and microphones, to fly over towns at rush hour, record traffic noise and relay it back to ground level. Electricity consumption must have been enormous; if the replay could have coped with the engine noise, I never found out. Lucier would surely have known the work of George Antheil with airplane propellers in Mechanical ballet, although Stockhausen Helicopter The string quartet arrived half a century later. Lucier later became a professor at Wesleyan.
David Reed Bloch’s Galimathias Musicum at Portland State College (later University), later called Group for New Music, specializing in avant-garde. that of William Bolcom Session II created there in 1966, and Charles Boone Starfish got a second performance. But in the spring of 1968, Alvin Lucier’s flagship work, the new Music for solo performer for amplified brainwaves, created a sort of sensation when we played it at Reed – maybe it was the second performance anywhere. A multichannel amplifier delivered deep shimmering pulses to the speakers placed a few inches from the bass drums, tamtams and cymbals. The solo performer, local bassist Wayne “Froggy” Hearne (his brother Joseph still plays bass in the Boston Symphony), was sitting on a chair in a dark room, wearing electrodes on his scalp, and the waves were riding high. and came down when he closed or opened his eyes. It was fun to watch and overall pleasantly quiet, although the bass notes burned out the woofer of my beautiful KLH 6 speaker.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy and other composers of the early 20th century. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on numerous musical subjects and edited the fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) revised editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.