The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music

by Alvin Lucier
(Wesleyan University Press; Middletown, Connecticut)

From Chapter 8: Sonic Arts Union

Wave Train

In 1998 the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford asked me to give a talk about wave phenomena in conjunction with an exhibition of Lee Lozano’s Wave Paintings. Lozano (1930–1999) had made a series of eleven large canvases each 96 inches high and 42 inches wide consisting of wavy lines of varying size, from two 48-inch waves to 192 half-inch ripples. She said they were a reference to the electromagnetic spectrum.

As I was thinking about what to talk about two other works from the Sixties immediately came to mind: Michael Snow’s Wavelength and David Behrman’s Wave Train. In Snow’s film the camera moves closer and closer to a point between two windows on one wall of the room, finally focusing on a picture of ocean waves. The film is forty-five minutes long but seems to have been taken over a two or three-day time span. The movement toward the wall seems continuous but was actually filmed in steps. There was something about the purity and neutrality of waves and their motions that attracted certain artists who wanted to make nonsubjective and at the same time expressive works. There is a chapter in Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar, in which the hero, sitting on a beach, muses on the transient nature of ocean waves. Where do they begin? Where do they end? How does one differentiate them?

In Wave Train David Behrman explores the resonant characteristics of a grand piano with feedback. Guitar microphones are placed in various locations on the strings of the piano; then the gains on the mikes’ amplifiers are raised to the point of feedback, exciting the strings. The performer’s job is to ride the feedback, raising and lowering the volume levels, creating arcs of sound waves. David likens this activity to surfing where one is constantly monitoring one’s position along a surging wave front. From time to time, the mikes are repositioned (when the gains are down) to explore different parts of the piano.

Wave Songs

Instead of giving a lecture on wave phenomena I asked the Athenaeum if I could compose a work honoring Lozano’s Wave Paintings. They agreed. I wrote Wave Songs, eleven solos for female voice with two pure wave oscillators. I took the proportions of the paintings as the basis of my musical miniatures. In each solo two oscillators are tuned relative to the size of the waves in the corresponding painting. Throughout the work the singer sings against the oscillator tones creating audible beats at speeds determined by the distances between the tones. Each painting is 96 inches high; each song lasts 96 seconds. In each painting the number of inches is divided by the size of the waves; in each solo the oscillators are tuned inversely to the size of the waves. For example, in the Two-Wave Painting each wave measures 48 inches (ninety-six divided by two). In the first solo the oscillators are tuned 48 cycles apart producing audible beats 48 times a second. In each succeeding solo the distance between the oscillator tones becomes narrower until, in Solo XI, corresponding to the 192-Wave Painting, they are within a half a cycle of each other, producing one beat every two seconds. While the number of waves in Lozano’s paintings increase as they get smaller, the number of beats in the solos decrease as the tunings get closer. The reason for this contrariness is because in order to imitate the Two-Wave Painting, for example, I would have had to tune the two oscillators over a minute and a half time span (one beat every 48 seconds), a tempo I thought to be too slow for human performance.

The Athenaeum kindly let me invite Joan La Barbara to come to Hartford to perform the piece. She performed it in the Matrix Gallery, a small exhibition space within the Athenaeum, surrounded by the eleven Lozano paintings. The artist had stipulated that the paintings be leaned up against the walls so that the texture of the paintings could be more physically perceived. I imagined the work as a mini opera with Joan taking the part of Lee Lozano, singing her paintings into existence or perhaps simply humming to herself as she worked on them.

It was extremely hot on the day of the performance. Shelly Casto of the Wadsworth was thoughtful enough to procure several hundred paper fans for the audience to cool themselves with during the performances. There was no air conditioning in the gallery. We soon discovered, however, that the fanning motion disturbed the sound waves. Pure (sine) waves, having no overtones, may be perceived physically particularly if the acoustics of the room are dry enough, that is, if they don’t reflect too much sound. If you move around the room you can feel their presence. Even if you move a little, you can disturb them. It’s like standing in a pool of water and sending out ripples with small movements of your body.

Unforeseen Events

Unforeseen Events (1991) is one of a long series of interactive computer pieces by David Behrman. Starting as far back as 1977 David has composed works for human performers and computer, upgrading his equipment as technological times change. On the Other Ocean and Figure in a Clearing utilized the rudimentary toylike Kim-1 microcomputer. For these works David designed six pitch-sensing circuits that could remember the order and timing of pitches played into them through microphones. Two performers improvised on these pitches causing changes in harmonies stored in two homemade synthesizers.

In most of his pieces David collaborates with other musicians not so much out of shyness but from a firm belief in the artistic strength of such a way of working. In Unforeseen Events he collaborated with Ben Neill, who plays a modified trumpet that he developed in the mid-Eighties with the help of Robert Moog. It includes midi controllers that are connected directly to the computer.

Unforeseen Events is in four parts. In all of them the computer responds to trumpet calls, long tones, and single notes, creating harmonies, chords, and arpeggiated figures that sustain or change pitch and timbre in subtle ways. In Part Two, Fishing for Complements, the composer listens to what’s going on and enters changes into the computer. In Part Three, Witch Grass, only when the performer pauses do the harmonies move away from their origins and don’t stop until the performer plays again.

In all his works Behrman avoids the pitfall of many interactive works, that is, direct cause and effect, first cousin to call and response, a technique that appears in many world musics but sounds out of place in experimental music. Call and response is oppressive. Each player must respond to what is given by another. It’s too predictable, too. It only works when something gets in the way between the call and its answer. As you listen to Behrman’s pieces you only get glimmers of directness; most of the time the relationships are interrupted and distant and therefore engage the listener in tantalizing ways.

Years ago I went to India to collaborate with a group of Indian musicians. Before I left I recorded empty spaces at Wesleyan that I planned to playback in various performance spaces in India. The idea was to bring my spaces into theirs. I had recorded Crowell Hall in January. Because of the cold weather the windows expanded and contracted periodically making loud, sharp cracking sounds. The North Indian tabla player, having been trained in call and response, would invariably slap one of his drums following a sharp sound. It was absolutely predicable and useless for my purposes. As we were rehearsing Wesleyan English professor Joe Reed, who joined in our trip, came to the door of the space and looked in. I explained my predicament and asked for his advice. He immediately suggested that the drummer hit his drum before he heard a window crack. What a wonderful solution! Now we had unpredictability, anticipation, and the element of time. Something banal in music was turned on its head. Now you had response and call, which was much more interesting.


In the late Sixties I was looking for something outside of music that would inspire me. I didn’t want to write the kind of music that everyone else did. It didn’t interest me to write for conventional musical instruments. It didn’t even interest me to play an instrument, actually, although I was making a living as a choral conductor. I wanted to find my own idea. Virgil Thomson gave a lecture once in which he said, “What I demand from a composer is that he be original.” The audience booed him. They didn’t like the idea that a composer would think he or she had to be original.

I began to read Listening in the Dark by Donald Griffin, a pioneering work in echolocation. Griffin had also written a more popular book on this subject, Echoes of Bats and Men. It was a comprehensive study of the sound sending and receiving acuity of bats. Griffin discovered how bats avoid obstacles and hunt for food. He extended wires across his lab and observed how bats avoided hitting them. They were extremely skilled in doing this. Because sound waves have to be smaller than the objects they’re bouncing off of, bats learned to emit trains of extremely high pulse waves, so high we humans can’t hear them. Low sounds have longer wavelengths; they spread out, they can even go around corners. High sounds, with shorter wavelengths, are more directional. You can actually measure the wavelength of any musical sound. Here is a simple formula for doing so:

Wavelength = speed of sound (ca. 1130 feet/second)/frequency.

So A-natural at 440 cycles per second has a wavelength of about 2.6 ft.

When the echoes from a flying insect come back to the bat, it can tell how far away the insect is, where it is, and how fast it’s moving. Griffin’s book gave me a lot of ideas. I began thinking of sounds in terms of short and long wavelengths, not as high and low pitches or notes written in time from left to right on a page. I was truly impressed by these creatures that employ sound so exquisitely for survival.

There was an interesting program on television the other night. A young man has learned how to echolocate skillfully enough to negotiate through his neighborhood without bumping into things. He makes clicks by snapping his tongue against his palate. It was uncanny. He could tell you what every object was. It was the first time, I think, that a human being has learned how to echolocate.

It often happens that when you are looking for something and your mind is prepared sufficiently you find it almost as if by accident. I happened to meet a man in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who was working for a company called Listening Incorporated. The company was trying to develop ways of communicating with dolphins. They were manufacturing a device called a Sondol (sonardolphin), a hand-held pulse wave oscillator. You know what sonar does. You send out a sound wave, it reflects off an approaching ship, for example, bounces back and tells you how far away it is. Radar is similar but it employs radio waves. I borrowed a prototype of a Sondol and turned it on. I adjusted the pulse rate – you couldn’t change the volume or any other parameter – and immediately heard reflections off the surrounding environment. It was beautiful! When I beamed it at a wall I heard that the echoes that came back differed from the pulses that went out. If I aimed it at glass window I noticed that the echo was different from that which came from the wall. I visualized the sounds getting squashed on the impact. If we had perfect hearing, we should be able to tell how far away that wall is. Because sound travels about 1130 feet per second in air (under water it’s five times faster), if it returns to you in a second, you can assume that the reflective surface is about 600 feet away. Half a second out, half a second back. The echoes are beautiful outdoors; you can hear the leaves on trees. By aiming the Sondol at certain angles one can create multiple echoes. They ricochet all over the room. Musicians ask to borrow my Sondols for concerts but I can’t let them have them; they’re one of a kind and can’t be replaced if lost.

One night I had a vivid dream. (When you’re deeply involved in a project, you start dreaming about it.) I saw humans – astronauts perhaps, I may have been one of them – exploring a dark space in an alien environment. They were beaming sound guns into darkened rooms, collecting information about those rooms and relaying it back to Earth. It was kind of a science fiction idea.

I bought four Sondols from Listening Incorporated and thought about making a performance piece. In those days you often didn’t know how your piece was going to go until the day of the concert. In 1968 I was invited to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to the Once Festival Bob Ashley and Gordon Mumma had organized. I decided to present a piece with four performers playing Sondols. Not until the dress rehearsal was I clear about the form of the performance. Nothing in my training could help me organize the structure. I couldn’t use what I’d learned in school because that had to do with notes and pitches and meters and rhythms. This piece had to do with pulse waves echoing off walls, ceilings, and floors of enclosed spaces.

The performance took place in the Michigan Union Ballroom, a huge space on the University of Michigan campus. I blindfolded the performers and stationed them in the four corners of the room. As a sort of prologue to the performance I walked around the room. My shoes, which had leather soles, made sharp, clicking sounds. I pulled apart the drapes on the windows to make the room more reverberant. I stacked up some chairs and positioned a couple of potted plants as obstacles. I hoped that the performers, as they approached the plants and chairs, would hear echoes coming back from them and could avoid walking into them.

Instead of writing a score that stipulates when each player plays and in what combinations I simply asked them to move to a central point in the darkened space, listening to their echoes as they moved. I gave them the task of orienting themselves in the dark, avoiding obstacles, and arriving at a predetermined goal. If they followed this simple task rather than imposing their own ideas about something musical everything would fall into place. For example, when four people are playing at the same time, the texture is so dense that none of them can hear his own echoes. The players have to stop playing every once in awhile to allow each other a clear sound-image to follow. So silence is built into the performance. I didn’t indicate when it should occur. Stops, starts, silences, density, and texture are built into the task of orienting oneself by mean of echolocation. A performance of Vespers gives you an acoustic signature of the room, as if one were taking a slow sound photograph over a long period of time. You hear what the room sounds like. That was mysterious to me and wonderful. It really turned me on.

I called the piece Vespers for two reasons. Vespers is one of the seven canonical hours the Catholic Church held in the late afternoon or early evening. Although I am not religious I thought of it as a ritual in some way. Vespers also refers to the common bat of North America, of the family vespertilionidae. I wanted to pay homage to these courageous and supremely skillful creatures that are so maligned by our culture. Bats are just fabulous! They scoop up insects with their wings. They do all sorts of fancy things.

Once we performed Vespers in Finland. I had bought five hundred little toy crickets to take along with me. You know those metal toy crickets you can buy for a few cents each? They make sharp clicking sounds. Toward the end of the performance I passed a bunch of them out to people in the audience. Three hundred people or so began playing their crickets. The hall was ringing! The sound image of that room was marvelous. The room was being used as an instrument. Then a professor from the local music conservatory went out and got his violin. He started playing it in the middle of the performance. Can you believe that? People around him started making vulgar vocal sounds, or banal rhythms by clapping. If people were going to interfere with my pieces I wish they’d do something more interesting. I was depressed. After the concert as I was walking through the streets of Helsinki I could hear people that had been at the concert playing their little crickets. At two o’clock in the morning I could hear the loveliest trains of ticks and their accompanying echoes. It was beautiful. Some people finally got the point of the piece.

I Am Sitting in a Room

One day during the fall of 1968 I bumped into Edmond Dewan in the hallway of the Brandeis Music Department. In casual conversation he remarked that a professor at mit named Bose had just given a lecture in which he described a way of testing a loudspeaker he was designing. He recycled sounds into his speakers to hear if their responses were flat. That’s all I remember of our conversation. I picked up on the idea and decided to make some preliminary experiments in one of the practice rooms at Brandeis. I made sounds of various kinds and recycled them into the room over and over again. The results were strident; the room was too bright acoustically.

During the spring of 1969, I was living in an apartment at 454 High Street, Middletown, Connecticut. I was teaching during the spring semester at Wesleyan. It was a sordid habitat, the kind universities rent to part-time faculty. It had a green shag rug, heavy drapes on the windows, and an old armchair. I mention this because it has a lot to do with the acoustics of the room. The kitchen was supplied with one pot, a skillet, and a coffee cup. But that was okay; I was by myself and ate out a lot anyway.

One night I borrowed two Nagra tape recorders from the Music Department. They had purchased them for ethnological field recording. At that time Nagra machines were the sine qua non of the recording industry. They were the finest portable reel-to-reel recorders for films and field recording. Any Hollywood Western you ever saw was probably recorded with a Nagra. They were beautiful machines. I had a Beyer microphone, a single klh loudspeaker, and a Dynaco amplifier. I set the mike up in the living room, sat down in the armchair, and wrote out a text that explained what I was about to do. In those days, there was a genre of work in which the process of the composition was the content of the work. I remember a Judson Church dancer, Trisha Brown I believe, describing her motions as she was doing them. I decided that the work would have no poetic or aesthetic content. The art was someplace else.

I placed the two machines on a table outside the door so the spinning reels wouldn’t make noise. I unplugged the refrigerator, turned off the heat. I waited until the radiator pipes had cooled and the room got quiet. I waited until after 11 o’clock when a nearby bar, The Three Coins, closed. It was snowing that night so it was relatively quiet outside. There was not a lot of traffic going by. I went outside into the hallway, turned on one of the Nagras and, returning to the living room, read the text into the microphone. When I was finished, I went back out into the hallway, stopped the machine, rewound the tape, and listened to the results through headphones. The levels on the meters were okay. They hadn’t peaked into the red zone. That would have indicated distortion. I transferred the tape to the second recorder, which was routed through the amplifier to the loudspeaker. I had positioned it on the chair I had been sitting in. I wanted the copy to sound as much like my original speech as possible. I wanted it to sound as if I were there in person actually talking in the room.

I went back outside the room and played this copy into the room again, recording it on the first recorder. I repeated this procedure until I had sixteen versions, one original and fifteen copies. I stayed up all night doing it. As the process continued more and more of the resonances of the room came forth; the intelligibility of the speech disappeared. Speech became music. It was magical.

I chose speech to test the space because it is rich in sounds. It has fundamental tones (formants) and lots of noisy stuff – p’s, t’s, s’s, k’s. It was crucial to avoid poetic references – poems, prayers, anything with high aesthetic value. I felt that would only get in the way. I wanted the acoustic exploration to be paramount, the room acoustics and it’s gradual transformation to be the point of the piece.

Imagine a room so many meters long. Now imagine a sound wave that fits the room, which reflects off the wall in sync with itself. It will be louder (constructive interference). This is called a standing wave. If the wave doesn’t fit it will bounce back out of sync and dissipate its energy (destructive interference). This is a simplistic model of what happens in I Am Sitting in a Room. All the components of my speech that related to the physical dimensions of the room are reinforced; those that don’t, disappear. Think of yourself singing in the shower. You instinctively find the resonant frequency(-ies) of the small space you are in. Your voice sounds rich because it reinforces itself.

While the procedure of the work was repetitive, the rate of change of the resonance went at its own speed. I was careful not to influence the results in any way. I didn’t raise or lower volume levels on purpose to make the process go faster or slower. I did have to carefully monitor the levels, however, in order to keep the recording from distorting or getting too soft. I did this minimally. I wanted the room to do the work.

I’ve made several versions of I Am Sitting in a Room, one for the dance Dune by Viola Farber, another in my house on 7 Miles Avenue. Each one sounds different. A couple of years ago some folks in Toulouse made several versions of the work. One of them was in a dialect peculiar to that region in France.


In 1968, composer Pauline Oliveros, who was on the faculty of the University of California in San Diego, invited me out to be a guest artist. Every day I used to drive out on Route 1, along the ocean from La Jolla to Leucadia, and I would pass by a seashell shop. One day I stopped to buy several conch shells, some rather large. Pauline and I sawed the ends off them to make them into wind instruments. It’s not the first time shells have been used as trumpets; they’ve been used in many cultures as that. I thought about when you’re a child: you put a seashell up to your ear, and you hear the ocean. You hear the sounds around you resonating in the interior of the shell. I started to think of those shells as small rooms that had special resonant characteristics.

When I came home, I composed Chambers. The score consists of two lists: one is a collection of resonant objects one can find; the second is a list of ways of making them sound. It started as a conceptual piece that has several versions. One is that you find, collect, or make small resonant environments that you would put a sound in somehow, and hear the sound of the environment that the sound was originally made in in this new environment, and you would hear the change in the sound. I made a performance piece in 1968 for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I gave everybody money and sent them out to buy materials for the performance. We had brought along suitcases, boots, bags, lunch boxes, vases, pots, pans, and other small, enclosed chambers. All we needed were sound sources that functioned by themselves. In a couple of hours the players came back with toy airplanes, trucks, sirens, whistles, radios, and electric shavers. Anything that was battery-operated or that you could wind up and would sound for a couple of minutes. Up until two hours before the concert we didn’t know exactly what we were going to do. That’s what you did in those days. You’d get an idea, go to the performance space, and execute it. You didn’t rehearse or practice your part. I staged it simply. We started outside the room and came in through the doors. Each performer walked in with his sounding object. The performer simply walked through the room. The audience heard the movement of the sound, where it was going, and tried to figure out what was in it. I let each player decide where to put his chamber down. The performance consisted of bringing sounds into the space. You could hear the original or recorded sound in its chamber come through the space. That’s all it was. The score for Chambers consists of lists of resonant spaces or objects – cisterns, bowls, bottles, etc. – along with ways of making them sound – rubbing, jiggling, burning, etc.

In 1994 we had a festival here of my work. I wanted Wesleyan students to participate in it, so I asked the students in Music 109 to collect resonant objects and sounds. We performed it at noontime in Crowell Hall. Everybody carried in their object, one by one, and filled up the hall with sounds. There were about sixty performers finally sitting on stage with their objects. It was wonderful. The sounds were so quiet and the texture so thick.

I’ve also done Chambers as an installation. I collected sixteen objects when I was performing in Europe. I bought some pots and pans in Amsterdam, and various things, and then I recorded environmental sounds with a cassette tape recorder. I would get on a tram, for example, and record a sound for an hour or so. I made a lot of recordings of public spaces. In large restaurants, you can hear the sounds of forks and knives, of tinkling glasses. You can get a sonic idea of the activities in those spaces. For installations I simply mount the resonant objects on sculpture stands. My favorite one was the sound of the huge railroad station in Cologne, Germany, heard inside a thimble. I used a single earphone as a loudspeaker. Visitors walk in and hear all these sounds in funny little objects.

A few weeks ago two players did a version of Chambers at the Greenwich House Music School in New York. They played garden hoses as wind instruments, starting outside the small concert hall. One slowly climbed a stairway up several flights playing as he went; the other walked downstairs and outside into a courtyard a couple of floors below. The dispersal of the sounds as they receded into the distance was beautiful.

© 2012 Wesleyan University Press

Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music by Alvin Lucier

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