REVISIO: Alvin Lucier / Illuminated By The Moon

As a thread that runs through all the music on this site, experimentalism is constant; the approach of a host of musicians approaching the world of organising and arranging sound in compositions, songs and sonic experiences. Perhaps it’s simply a case of whether the listener enjoys what they hear. A pleasing melody, evocative lyrics or an unusual blending of sounds and techniques to create a mentally engaging experience.

But sometimes, what the musician is doing requires a framework, an explanation of the process to create a point of entry to understand what’s going on. And there is work that somehow exists in a strangely creative bubble removed from anything beyond itself. More than any other musician I can think of, Alvin Lucier’s work approaches the manifestations and phenomena of sound generation like some being from another planet.  The ten tracks presented on this lavish boxset Illuminated By The Moon (4 lps, a cd and a book) serve to outline the intrigue at play here:

  • I Am Sitting in a Room (1970) for voice and electromagnetic tape
  • Music for Solo Performer (1965) for enormously amplified brainwaves and percussion
  • Charles Curtis (2002) for cello with slow sweep pure wave oscillators
  • Double Rainbow (2016) for voice and slow sweep pure wave oscillator
  • Nothing is Real (Strawberry Fields Forever) (1990) for piano, amplified teapot, tape recorder, and miniature sound system
  • Braid (2012) for alto flute, clarinet, English horn, and string quartet
  • Two Circles (2012) for flute, B-flat clarinet, violin, cello, and piano
  • Hanover (2015) for violin, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, three banjos (three e-guitars), piano, and bowed vibraphone
  • Step, Slide and Sustain (2014) for horn in F, cello, and piano
  • One Arm Bandits (2016) for four cellos

What happens when we add x to y? What happens when we do this repeatedly? What happens when we do this for a very long time? How similar can we make it? And where? How? Nearly all of his work has straddled the line between simplicity and complexity. The contradiction here is that sound broken down to its constituent parts reveals drones. These drones are as near to static as possible but they fill your ears in the most fundamental way possible. As ever present as silence – but louder. A next level of silence…

I’m Sitting In A Room charts the accumulation of sonic silt building up in the recording space. The recording of a recording of a recording of a recording to highlight the impact the space has on the sound. The recording is a simple spoken statement of the actual process (although the piece can work around any sound). I’m Sitting In A Room celebrates the slithering of alien ghosts, proof of another weirder realm, hidden only a few simple steps away from our own reality. The version performed here is by Lucier himself, his gently wavering 85 year old voice slowly engulfed in a piece he devised almost half a century early.  It’s both touching and every bit as satisfyingly odd as ever.

Footage from the late 60s of performances of Music for Solo Performer look like outtakes from a flared trousered, big lapelled talent show feature. But again, the piece takes the listener into another multi-layered dimension. The piece plays with the notion of meditation and the assumptions it exists in stillness and silence. And from a cultural context of that time, the psychedelic experience and the search for ever more esoteric states of mind was seen as one highly prized goal of mental exploration. A brain, in a relaxed mental state, eyes closed, not sleeping, creates alpha waves. These naturally occurring waves are picked up via sensors attached to the performer’s head. The sensors are, in turn, attached to various percussive instruments. It would seem logical to imagine a brain in this state to be inactivate but in reality, it’s just another world of activity at another scale. The performance here is full of tapping drums and rattling tambourines and feels like a warm-up for the dissonance of Ionisation by Edgard Varèse. Chaotic unpredictability broadcast live from a Zen mind.

The set fills out like a survey of possibilities. Taken as a wholly believable distillation of human sound-making, it’s oddly fitting he zones in on Nothing Is Real (Strawberry Fields Forever). The universally recognisable Beatles fragment becomes a statement of the constant transformation in Lucier’s sound. Nothing IS real here, it’s just a string of overlaps, a stack of vibrations, causes, effects and turbulence, sitting in parallel to your brain caught somewhere downstream.

The rest of the work presented here beautifully highlights the thoughtful grouping and the considered meddling with sound – drones, overlays and different colours extracted from a host of instruments and sound generators. Even the presence of guitar  – Oren Ambarchi, Stephen O’Malley, Gary Schmalzl on Hanover, doesn’t significant change the overall dynamic. Alongside the other players, everything is distilled onto the same atom as a deeply controlled cosmic drone soup.

Perhaps the simplest of all, the hour long One Arm Bandits fills the cd part of the box set – four cellos being played one armed (as the title suggests) over four 15 minute sections on each string as a hanging unwavering plateau of sound. And through the scale of this piece comes the realisation of the incredible focus and control of the players.

Taken as a whole, Illuminated By The Moon feels like a totally viable alternative to The Voyager Golden Record – the record strapped to Voyager 1. The introduction on that record by the then UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim includes the statement:

“We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship, to teach if we are called upon, to be taught if we are fortunate.“

While this body of work is a far less all-encompassing survey, it is a superbly engaging showcase of just one (admittedly special) brain, demonstrating our planet’s playful ingenuity with sound. Music that sheds light on a new way forward…

Illuminated By The Moon is a wholly successful celebration of Lucier’s vast ongoing contribution to music. He’s high on my list offered to anyone interested in truly innovative and breathtakingly creative music.

I’m serious.  He’s that amazing. And that’s my overarching point with this review. A boxset of 4 lps, a cd and an extensive book costing north of £100 might not necessarily be the place for the casually interested. However, for those already under Lucier’s considerable spell, Illuminated By The Moon is quite simply essential.

Illuminated By The Moon is re-issued by Black Truffle and is out now: x4 180 gram vinyl. Includes x1 CD and 12×12″, 120-page book with unseen images and various essays; Includes download code; Edition of 500.

Available in the US here and Europe here

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