A major US experimentalist has died at 90

A major US experimentalist has died at 90


norman lebrecht

December 01, 2021

The video artist Mary Lucier has announced the death of her ex-husband, the experimental composer Alvin Lucier.

Lucier, who was 90, formed the Sonic Arts Union with Robert Ashley, David Behrman and Gordon Mumma, making experimental music and touring extensively in the US and Europe in the 1960s and 1970s.

Later, he taught college.

Full obituary by Tim Page here. Tim writes:

Mr. Lucier was best known for “I Am Sitting in a Room” (1970), regarded as a seminal masterpiece of the 20th century. Although it can be presented live — 90 different artists offered their own versions for a celebration of the composer’s last birthday — it is best known for the recorded version Mr. Lucier made himself in his living room almost 52 years ago.

On that long-ago afternoon, Mr. Lucier read a halting speech into one tape recorder, then played the recording back into another tape recorder, then played that dub back into the first tape recorder, repeating the process until there were 32 versions of the speech. He was inspired by his then-wife, the video artist Mary Lucier, who had become known for her “Xerox art,” effectively making a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy until almost all semblance of the original was distorted beyond recognition.

The speech read in part: “I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed.”

After listening to Mr. Lucier’s recording for 20 minutes, you can scarcely make out what he is saying. By the end of the piece, all that is left is a mercurial patina of sonic residue — call it the “ghost” of the speech. On paper, it could sound arty and pretentious, but many critics and audiences found it lovely, especially as the distortion moves in to stay. Words become music, sound becomes shimmer and a natural process of acoustics is demonstrated in the most elegant and strangely beautiful fashion.

It is an ideal piece for teaching students to write about music. The musically trained may respond favorably or unfavorably, but even those who know nothing at all about music are often inspired to wax poetic….


  • PS says:

    Alvin Lucier on a Lifetime of Experiments (Red Bull Music Academy)


  • Simon Holt says:

    Sad news indeed. A completely original voice; really absolutely nothing like it. A great inspirer of many younger composers.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Probably this video is interesting. But how, is a mystery to me.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    “I am sitting in a room” is if nothing else one of the remarkable explorations of room sound and its distortions, sort of an audio counterpart to something high school and other teachers have long delighted in involving their students with: quietly state a simple story in a couple of declarative sentences with the first student in the room and have them whisper it to the next person, and by the time it has traveled through a couple dozen or more people nothing remains of the original story. It is if nothing else a telling lesson on the fragility of oral tradition. And Lucier’s counterpart is a telling lesson on the distortions of sound and how once the words are meaningless, the resulting pure sound is in its own way, music.

    • John Borstlap says:

      “…… how once the words are meaningless, the resulting pure sound is in its own way, music.”

      Sound in itself is not music. It so happens to be that music is an art. In the same sense, paint is not a painting, and stones are not a building, as a human body is not a person.

      • Peter San Diego says:

        One might say that music is the art of manipulating sound. By that definition, Lucier was producing music.

        By the way, he started out as a competent neoclassical composer, and later in life he returned to composed music.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Yes, music is manipulated sound, so is speech. But speech is not music. Music makes use of manipulated sound as an instrument of an artistic form of communication.

          In the same way you also annot define speech as manipulated sound and nothing else: language is a complex thing, making use of manipulated sound to convey a communicative content.

          Sound art is a different art form from music, since it lacks all the defining elements of music. Even the most average concert goer notices this, but he keeps his mouth shut out of fear te be considered ‘conservative’.

          (My PA is a good example of a sonic lover, hears Bach als boring sound art. I can say this now since she’s gone home.)

          Best is to consider sound art, or sonic art, as different from music, in the way we make a distinction between photography and painting.

          There are people who claim that all classical music: Bach, Mozart, Raff, Satie etc. etc. including Strauss and Mahler, is simply another form of sound art. This reveals they never hear the music but only the sound it makes. Therefore one can conclude they lack the musical capacity to understand music.

    • Imbrod says:

      Lucier performed this, on the 50th anniversary (more or less) of its premiere, at the Bang on a Can marathon two years ago, and in the resonant Winter Garden the sonorities glowed. It was thrilling to be there.

  • Tony says:

    Brings to mind the painted word.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Yes, and I sometimes paint with words myself as a hobby to relax from my work whihc is often quite irritating. I sit in my living room in front of an empty canvas, and recite a poem, mostly one that I had written the same morning. And I imagine that the words take form in the beautiful void of the canvas. You don’t see anything but that’s not the point, it all happens in the imagination & it’s beautiful! It’s like deep listening but then visually.