Alvin

I did a residency with Alvin Lucier at Atlantic Center for the Arts in 2009 and have been thinking about his suggestion that we record a space shuttle launch scheduled to occur the first weekend we were there.

Alvin wanted us to put lots of glasses on a table outside, placing them close enough so they were almost-but-not-quite-touching, and then to mic the glasses, recording the resulting vibration of the shuttle launch through them.

I had apparently mentioned the term “computer music” often enough in our short time together to elicit suspicion so he reminded me, specifically and several times, that we should not “ruin” this recording by “running it through computer effects.” Every time I said “oh yeah, sure.”

We did not successfully complete that recording, I believe one or both of the following happened:

  1. the launch was delayed
  2. we were up very late drinking the night before and slept through the launch

Alvin had to leave after the first few days to deal with a family emergency after this. We spent a week taking turns critiquing each other’s work and then, eventually, were joined by David Dunn, who I had never heard of at the time.

Later David Kant and Cameron Shafii curated a concert that brought a lot of us out to New York and who was in the front row? Alvin. He sat with me out in the lobby while we listened to a sound installation I had made and told me that he thought I should make more installations.

***

We had met before that residency. It was 2006 or 2007 and I was applying to grad schools and had traveled to Wesleyan for interviews.

Earlier that year I was convinced to write an orchestra piece to include in my portfolio while applying to grad school by a composition professor. I did so. It is terrible and no you cannot hear it.

I had interviews with each of the faculty at Wesleyan. Two of them were heroes (Alvin and Anthony Braxton), the other two (Ron Kuivila and Nealy Bruce) I had not heard of before. During the interviews everyone looked at your portfolio and gave some feedback.

When I interviewed with Alvin he quickly looked at my portfolio, two solo pieces and a mess of an orchestra piece, and then gave me a speech about how there was no orchestra at Wesleyan and people who wanted to write for the orchestra shouldn’t come.

I tried to explain that I was told I had to write such a piece to get into grad school and somehow he couldn’t get past being shown an orchestra piece by a prospective student. After returning home to Wisconsin from the trip I sent a mix CD of all the stuff I was doing outside of school, none of which was orchestral, and didn’t get in.

***

Back at Atlantic Center for the Arts in 2009 I was one of the only residents who got a composition lesson with Alvin before family obligations forced him to leave. I had a Cello Quartet that I played. It’s called thirst(2) and I still think it’s a nice piece.

In the first movement each cellist does a long, gradual decrescendo on a number of different parameters simultaneously: glissing down the fretboard, bow pressure, etc.. So the primary action of the piece is this unstable thing that everyone does differently no matter what and I wanted four people to do it together.

I think what I said that got a big reaction out of Alvin was something like “I understand it’s impossible for four people to do this exactly in sync so I just ask them to do it to the best of their ability…” and Alvin said something like “is that what you say to them?” and I said “yes” and he said “what if instead you didn’t say that and you asked them to try, as hard as they could, to be perfectly in sync with each other on every parameter?”

And then he said something ilke “You can compose differences or you can compose similarities. I compose similarities because the differences are a product of nature. This way the differences just happen and that’s magic.”

I think about that statement every single day.