Alvin Lucier’s So You . . . (Hermes, Orpheus, Eurydice) and Three Solos
Alvin Lucier’s So You . . . (Hermes, Orpheus, Eurydice) and Three Solos
Brooklyn, NY 11206
2 PM: So You . . . (Hermes, Orpheus, Eurydice)
3:15 PM: Susan Howe in conversation
5 PM: Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas, In Memoriam Jon Higgins, and Slices for Cello and Pre-recorded Orchestra
Alvin Lucier’s So You . . . (Hermes, Orpheus, Eurydice), composed for Documenta 14 in Athens in 2017, is the most explicitly narrative work in an oeuvre characterized by scrupulous attention to the immediacies of acoustical reality and a poetics of sonorous presence. Inspired by the Imagist poet H.D.’s 1916 feminist retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus’s descent into the underworld to bring back his wife Eurydice, the hour-long epic unites two fields of musical exploration the composer is known for mining—interference patterns and spatial resonance—into an extended journey from high to low C and back again.
Written specifically for longtime Lucier collaborators Charles Curtis, cello, and Anthony Burr, clarinet, joined by vocalist Jessika Kenney and Tom Erbe, electronics, So You . . . employs their sustained tones alongside three sweeping sine waves and nine speakers positioned inside of Greek amphorae. Orpheus, famous for his command of the stringed lyre, maps onto the cello, while the swift-footed Hermes, the only god able move freely from Mount Olympus down to Hades, is represented by the clarinet. As H.D.’s defiant Eurydice, Kenney stretches two-word snippets of the poem into feats of extended vocalization, taking Orpheus to task for his assumption that she wanted to be rescued in the first place. For the work’s New York premiere, Burr, Curtis, Kenney, and Erbe will reprise their titular roles for the first time since the composer’s death in 2021.
In 1972, Lucier inaugurated his exploration of the phenomenon of acoustical beating with the open-ended performance piece Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas. In 1984, he issued the “new version” of the piece, featuring traditional instruments and stricter compositional structures. Kenney will perform Part I No. 2 from Lucier’s 1984 reworking. In this solo, sixteen long vocal tones separated by silences interact with two fixed oscillator frequencies. The slight differences between these closely tuned notes cause them to shatter and spiral around the room.
In Memoriam Jon Higgins, a work for clarinet and sweeping sine wave written in 1984 to commemorate the too-short life of the titular former Wesleyan student and Carnatic vocal performer, marks Lucier’s first use of sine wave sweeps in combination with a solo instrument. Over twenty minutes, the wave moves from the bottom of the clarinet’s register to the top, while clarinetist Anthony Burr plays a series of tones each lasting one minute. These sustained tones interact with the constantly-shifting pitch of the sine wave and result in beating of different tempos depending on the distance between notes.
Written for and with cellist Charles Curtis, Slices for Cello and Pre-recorded Orchestra (2007–2011) utilizes a recording of a fifty-three piece orchestra, each member of which plays a unique sustained note taken from the cello’s fifty-three note chromatic scale, sustained as a tone cluster. As the cellist sounds melodic sequences of these pitches, the corresponding musician from the orchestra falls silent. This continues until only the soloist is playing, at which point the orchestra slowly joins back in. The cycle is repeated seven times with different melodic orderings.
Alvin Lucier’s experimental compositions are some of the twentieth century’s most singular achievements in technology, sound art, and imagination. Often referring to naturally occurring situations like the acoustics of architectural space, echolocation, biofeedback, and the strange phenomena produced by interactions between frequencies, Lucier’s body of work orients listeners away from singular notes and toward the sonic continuum: “Sounds for me have to move not only up and down, but in and out, and across space somewhere; they have to live in space.” Born in Nashua, New Hampshire in 1931, he trained in neoclassical composition at Yale and Brandeis. Lucier’s path veered toward the avant-garde after an early-sixties encounter with the work of John Cage, David Tudor, and Merce Cunningham, resulting in Music for Solo Performer (1965), a piece in which brain waves are amplified such that their resonance activates percussive instruments. The following year, Lucier founded the Sonic Arts Union with Robert Ashley, David Behrman, and Gordon Mumma to further the artists' investigations into new sounds and ways of producing them. In the 1980s, Lucier returned to acoustic instruments, composing solo, group, and orchestral works for a wide array of performers. Between 1970 and 2011, he was a much-loved professor of music at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where he lived until his death at age ninety in 2021, composing and performing all the while.
Preeminent clarinetist Anthony Burr works across and beyond traditional chamber music, contemporary classical, recording engineering, and musical production. He counts Laurie Anderson, Brian Ferneyhough, Alvin Lucier, Helmut Lachenmann, Jim O’Rourke, and John Zorn among his many collaborators. Burr performs in the free improv trio The Clarinets with Chris Speed and Oscar Noriega, has an ongoing duo with Icelandic bassist and composer Skúli Sverrisson, and regularly scores live the films of artist Jennifer Reeves. Burr currently teaches in the music department of the University of California, San Diego, where he collaborates frequently with cellist Charles Curtis.
Charles Curtis is one of the premiere avant-garde cellists of the modern era. Trained at Juilliard, Curtis was also a pupil both of composer La Monte Young and of vocalist Pandit Pran Nath; and he is one of the few musicians to have mastered Young's rigorous practice of performance in just intonation. Curtis has performed and premiered modern classical, minimalist, and chamber music compositions all around the world. Numerous major composers—La Monte Young, Alvin Lucier, Éliane Radigue, Christian Wolff, Alison Knowles and Tashi Wada among them—have written works specifically for him. Curtis is Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of California, San Diego. Recent releases include Performances and Recordings 1998–2018 (2020) and Terry Jennings: Piece for Cello and Saxophone (2022), both on Wada’s label Saltern.
Initially trained in painting, poet, scholar, critic, and essayist Susan Howe came to the fore in the early 1970s as one of the so-called “Language poets” with her deconstructed, typographically varied verse. Fascinated with the movement and remnants of history, particularly that of early colonial America, her subjects have included Emily Dickinson, Jonathan Swift and Esther (Hester) Johnson, the Thirty Years’ War, the Indian Wars in New England, her family and Irish ancestry, Charles Pierce, and Chris Marker, among many others. Since 2003, Howe and her collaborator David Grubbs have recorded five albums, the most recent of which is Concordance (2021). Howe, who has written more than a dozen books of poetry, lives in Guilford, Connecticut, and has been the recipient of too many awards to list here.
Jessika Kenney is a vocalist, composer, and teacher whose work extends the vocal traditions of Indonesian sindhenan and Persian radif into new realms by way of contemporary composition and improvisation. Internationally regarded for the elegiac timbral quality of her voice, her practice of sphygmoresonance, or resonance of pulse, entails ritualistic focus and reverence for inner architecture that emanates a palpable sense of stillness. Kenney’s interest in the full spectrum experience of sound has led to collaboration with a wide range of experimentalists, while her partnership with composer/violist Eyvind Kang has yielded five spellbinding albums of minimal, delicate beauty. A student of radif with Ostad Hossein Omoumi, Kenney’s music is timeless yet steeped in textual research, respectful of its spiritual roots while evoking unknown futures.
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