Alvin Lucier – Illuminated by the Moon (2017)
It began a few days back. Via his social media accounts, Oren Ambarchi began posting a series of remarkable, candid photos of Alvin Lucier, marking their tour of the composer’s works through Asia – little kernels of joy threading their way into the world, followed by others taken by Crys Cole and David Grubbs. Each appearance made my day, but served as a painful reminder that, in the endless struggle to stay abreast of reviews, I had failed to write up the stunning four LP box set of his works, issued by Züricher Hochschule der Kunste in late 2017. Given how remarkable and timeless it is, there is no such thing as too late.
Photo of Alvin Lucier sitting on a plane by Oren Ambarchi
Alvin Lucier, whose 85th birthday the set was released to celebrate, is one of most important figures in more than a half century of avant-garde and experimental sound practice. He has no equivalent. The heart swells in gratitude for his ideas and what he has brought to our ears, but, crucially, as was the case for a small number of figures from his generation – Tony Conrad, Pauline Oliveros, etc, Lucier’s contribution stands in duality. There is the music, and there is his spirit – the way in which he offers the products of his creativity and terms through which he exists in the world. He is an emblem of freedom and possibility – a guide for those who follow in his wake, indicating other ways of navigating, participating with, and experiencing the world – as radical as he is generous and kind. He is everything that the avant-garde aught to be.
Within the histories of experimental practice, there are two primary forms through which revolutions take hold – radical, paradigm breaking confrontations, exemplified by figures like John Cage, Ornette Coleman, Pierre Henri, and Cornelius Cardew, etc, and quieter, more intricate, discrete gestures, which, while arguably yielding greater effect and change over time, often find their initial passage into the world relatively unnoticed. Alvin Lucier is among the later, a composer whose efforts are steeped in such a profound and inward intelligence, and are so singular, that they have entirely reformed the terms through which we approach the possibilities presented within the sonic arts. He is among America’s most important composers – a towering pillar intellect, creativity, and beauty realized through sound. It is such a life, defined by such striking accomplishment, which the Zurich based imprint Züricher Hochschule der Kunste set out to celebrate across the four LPs, CD, and book which make up Illuminated by the Moon.
The change which Lucier unleashed is, in all probability, far greater, and will yield more impact and legacy, than those whose fame exceeds his own. It is a slow burn. He belongs to the generation of composers who emerged during the early 1960’s, inheriting, but not beholden to, a landscape in constant creative and conceptual flux – one contending with the challenges put forth by predecessors like John Cage. With David Behrman, Gordon Mumma and Robert Ashley, he founded the legendary collective the Sonic Arts Union in 1966, all the while sculpting a singular and unparalleled body of work, focused around acoustic phenomena and auditory perception, which included, among many others, the groundbreaking works Bird And Person Dyning, Music On A Long Thin Wire, and I Am Sitting In A Room, each quietly shifting the understanding of what music could be – deceptively discrete gestures, laying their mark on history and the expectations of nearly everything to come, while radically expanding the field.
Alvin Lucier – Illuminated by the Moon (2017)
Illuminated by the Moon, ZHdK Records’ collection, was recorded in October of 2016 at the Alvin Lucier 85th Birthday Festival at the Zurich University of the Arts. It gathers a remarkable range of of performances of works from Lucier’s life in music, from the iconic to the lesser known. It begins with wonderful stagings of I Am In A Sitting Room and Music For Solo Performer by the composer, before presenting the work Charles Curtis performed by the cellist for whom it was composed, and Double Rainbow, a recent work, performed by the incredible Joan La Barbara. Over the course of the set’s many discs, we encounter works ranging from Nothing Is Real (Strawberry Fields Forever), Braid, Two Circles, Hanover, Step, Slide And Sustain, and One Arm Bandits, performed by Oren Ambarchi, Stephen O’Malley, and Gary Schmalzl, with further contributions by Charles Curtis and many others, including University students and faculty members involved in the celebrations of Lucier’s life and work. The collection, by offering an expanse of material otherwise unavailable in the composer’s discography, opens a rare window into the breadth and range of territory which he has approached, as well as into the unique humor which has quietly bubbled through his entire career. It is a singular recording event, the likes of which are unlikely to be repeated.
A worthy tribute to one of the last century’s most important composers, offering insight, recognition, and critical investigation, long overdue. ZHdK Records has done an astounding job, with the entire set lovingly produced. Including an extensive 120 pages lavish book, with numerous unseen images, while arguably aimed at Lucier aficionados, especially considering the price tag, this one should be on everyone’s list. This limited edition of 500 individually numbered copies, unlikely to ever be repressed, is unquestionably one of the most beautiful and important releases of 2017. You can check out a sample below, and pick it up via SoundOhm, where there are some more samples, from ZHdK’s site, or from a record store near you.
Alvin Lucier – Hanover (2017)