A major development that came out of the ONCE Festival was the creation of the Sonic Arts Union, first known as the Sonic Arts Group, which formed in 1966, the year of the final festival. The members of the group, Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma, Alvin Lucier and David Behrman had all played together in various configurations as part of the ONCE Festival and sidereal events.
The four composers had first met at a Morton Feldman and Earle Brown concert in New York City on October 11 of 1963. Ashley and Mumma had driven in just for the event, and Alvin Lucier was there to conduct the chamber chorus from Brandeis University where he was a student. David Behrman was also there. Behrman and Lucier had become friends while in Europe, introduced by pianist and composer Frederic Rzewski, who himself later became a founding member of Musica Elettronica Viva.
A year after the Feldman concert Mumma and Ashley invited the Brandeis Chamber Chorus to perform at the ONCE Festival. Two years later in 1966 Lucier invited Mumma, Ashley and Behrman to perform at Brandeis. Despite the excitement to be had with four friends playing pieces together on the same evening, the Brandeis show ended up as something of a failure on the technical level. Yet something was salvaged out of it in that afterwords the four minds came together and hatched a plan to start an ongoing collective ensemble to share electronic equipment, musical ideas and help in performance.
Ashley remembered talking with Lucier after the concert. “We just had the idea that if one of us got invited to someplace, we could offer the guy four composers instead of one composer… I think that was a successful part of it. Then we started doing a lot of concerts.” They made immediate plans to embark on a tour of North America and Europe.
All the members of the Sonic Arts Union were friends who appreciated each other’s music and the different approaches to composition they each engaged in. “It was the fact that we were all very different, and doing interesting things, they different than what I was doing, different from what Ashley was doing, and all the rest of it,” said Mumma.
An artist statement written in the later sixties or early seventies explains their approach. “The four composers are devoted to the composition and performance of live electronic music. In general, Ashley's works are theatrical and are concerned with social conditions both inside and outside the musical situation, while Lucier's often refer to natural systems--brainwaves, bat and dolphin sonar and resonant frequencies of rooms. Behrman and Mumma design and build their own complex systems of electronic components for the production and control of sounds for specific works. All have used speech as well as instrumental sounds as source material for electronic processing. In addition, all have used, or intend to use, the computer.”
By this point the members of the Sonic Arts Union lived far apart geographically. Ashley was furthest away having gone to California in 1969 to head up the CCM. The rest were on the east coast. Mumma had moved to New York City to be close to Merce Cunnigham and David Tudor, as he was a resident composer with the dance troupe between 1966 and 1974. Behrman was in Stony Point, New York, and Lucier remained in Connecticut. Yet they wrote, talked on the phone, and traveled, seeing each other at concerts and other events. As such they were not just a union but a decentralized network.
Performances ranged from concerts in which four works were presented, one by each of the members, to longer, more environmental installations. Occasionally, guest musicians and visual artists got involved in the action. One of their first concerts was in November of 1966 when they played in New York on a bill with Fluxus founder Ben Patterson, Max Neuhaus, Takehisa Kosugi, and Takahiko Iimura.
For some of the concerts the Union was joined by a cadre of wives, lovers and other artists. Shigeko Kubota, a member of the Japanese avant-garde who had been involved with Group Ongaku before moving to New York was one of these, during the years she was married to Behrman. She was a Fluxist known for her work as a video artist and for creating sculptural installations, all done in the spirit of DIY. Some of her sculptures had video monitors embedded within them playing her own videos. Mary Ashley and Mary Lucier also contributed their own pieces to the variety of events.
At a Sonic Arts Union concert, according to Behrman, “established techniques were thrown away and the nature of sound was dealt with from scratch." Each of the four members built sounds from scratch in their own unique and individual ways that deserve to be explored.
THE SONIC POETRY OF ALVIN LUCIER
For Alvin Lucier, who had composed chamber and orchestral works since 1952, the throwing away of established techniques exemplified by the ONCE Group and the Sonic Arts Union was a liberation of imagination. He had felt stifled by the formality of serialism and the often rigid parameters of academic music in general. His work with the Brandeis Chamber Chorus gave him a basis for how his future work in the precise knowledge of acoustics he acquired while working with vocal music in different settings. As Lucier started to blossom as a composer he often turned to very specific acoustic properties such as resonance, and incorporated them into the gestalt of his compositions.
He counts his 1965 piece Music for Solo Performer as the beginning of his compositional career. From that point on Lucier wrote a number of pieces investigating brainwaves, vocoders, acoustics and long thin wires that made the voice of the aether audible to the listening audience.
Pauline Oliveros called Lucier “the poet of electronic music.” His pieces are eloquent haikus, elucidating natural principles with creative insight in simple set ups underscored by profundity. Mumma said his “works are at once gemlike in their exquisitely defined concept, and large-scale, even vast, in their theatrical presence.” The Sonic Arts Union gave Lucier a vehicle for presenting these works to an expanded audience. In sharing these works with the public he has given listeners a chance to explore and experience the world of sound alongside him.
Music for Solo Performer
All music involves commands from the brain, whether conscious or unconscious. Music for Solo Performer demonstrates this in a unique way. In 1965 Lucier met Edmond Dewan a scientist who was investigating alpha brainwaves. Dewan was a physicist who had stirred up the imagination of the public when he hooked up an electroencephalogram (EEG) to a lamp, and through the control of his brains alpha activity, switched the lamp on and off. His next feat was to hook the EEG up to a Morse code oscillator and spell out “I can talk” in dots and dashes.
At the time Dewan was doing this brainwave research for the US Air Force in a laboratory near Brandeis. Dewan had many interests and music was one of them. As an amateur organist he used to go over to Brandeis and visit the music department where he made the acquaintance of Lucier.
When the physicist and the composer met, Lucier had stopped writing music. Dewan helped get Lucier back into the game when he asked him if he would be interested in using his equipment to detect the alpha waves and turn them into a musical piece. It was the kickstart he needed to start writing music outside the mold of notated sheets which had stifled his creative process, so Dewan brought some of his gear to the Brandeis electronic music studio so Lucier could start experimenting with brainwaves hooked up to various electronic components and see how he could excite them.
Studying the temporal cycle of the alpha wave which has a frequency of 8-13 cycles per second Alvin hit upon the idea that they could be thought of as rhythms and so he decided to create a percussion piece.
Alpha brain waves are commonly associated with meditative states of mind and to create them a person needs to be in a relaxed mental state. This presents a problem for live performance when the nerves of a performer are often excited and on edge. Still Lucier thought the potential payoff of sitting in front of an audience, with an EEG hooked up to his head and using it to control musical activity was worth the artistic risk. So he took what he called “a dangerous course which is to sit on stage and try to produce alpha waves, live, in front of the audience.”
It took practice to get consistent results, as he could only produce alpha waves in short bursts at the start. Lucier writes how through experimentation he found “precisely the right physical and psychological conditions” to create alpha waves for extended periods of time, or long enough for a performance in any case.
To achieve the correct physical and psychological conditions he basically had to teach himself how to meditate. He remembered a time when he had been imprinted with the memory of a monk in contemplation while he was attending preparatory school at the Portsmouth Abbey in Rhode Island.
“I remember going into the chapel and watching a Trappist monk in the act of contemplation... he was thinking – deeply. It looked like somebody just thinking as hard as he possibly could. I remember I went back an hour later – he was in the same attitude – and I thought, ‘Well, if there’s any such thing as pure thought, that guy is doing it.’ And that impressed me a lot... So when I did the brain wave piece, you’ve got to sit and not think of anything; because if you create a visual image your alpha will block.”
EEG measures voltage fluctuations resulting from ionic current within the neurons of the brain and those currents being picked up by the electrodes and passed on to an amplifier. Next the signals pass through a filter allowing only the alpha waves to pass through. For Lucier’s piece the signal was then split into several different channels, each amplified again and routed to a loudspeaker. These loudspeakers were placed on snare drum heads, or other percussion instruments, so when the amplified alpha wave came into speaker it would vibrate the drum, cymbal, or the air. An assistant or two controlled the volume of individual channels to shape the piece live during the performance.
Part of the interest in watching a performance of the piece is that the soloist is just sitting there. John Cage had brought in the idea of creating a music free from the composers own ego, of allowing chance operations to control and set all parameters of a composition, from duration, to dynamics, notes and more. Lucier took a similar tack with Music for Solo Performer, creating an elegant set up in which the soloist does nothing but relax into meditation under the pressure of a staring audience.
It was by chance that Lucier had first met Dewan, and it was this chance meeting that inspired him to take a chance at a performance whose results, from concert to concert, though similar, were largely indeterminate. It set the course for his continuing exploration of music and sound as a physical phenomenon, for using the parameters of composition to ask questions rather than showcase the same specific answer over and over again, and to use non-musical instruments as a standard operating procedure.
After Lucier other composers took up using their brainwaves to drive instruments. Richard Teitelbaum, another member of the collective Musica Elettronica Viva, became a prominent practitioner of the form. In the mid-1960s Teitelbaum asked Robert Moog to adapt his synthesizer to use neural oscillations as control voltages.
David Rosenboom, who worked closely with Don Buchla, also explored the uses of biofeedback in his music. His 1976 album Brainwaves is an expansive document showing the possibilities involved. Rosenboom also wrote the book on the subject, Biofeedback and the arts: results of early experiments, published the same year his album came out. Artists have continued to explore this extended musical interface with the human nervous system.
I Am Sitting in a Room: Exploring Resonant Frequencies
“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. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.”
So go the words, and so begins the repetition of those words, in what is arguably Alvin Lucier’s most famous composition. The piece features Lucier recording himself reading the above text, and then playing the tape recording back into the room, and re-recording it. He then re-records that recording, and repeats the process until his words totally disappear and only the sound of the resonant frequencies of the room remain. It is a fascinating piece that shows how certain frequencies in speech are emphasized as they resonate in the room. Through the process of re-recording the words eventually become unintelligible, replaced by the pure resonant harmonies and tones of the room itself.
All rooms and spaces have characteristic resonant frequencies. A large concert hall or cathedral would have different resonant frequency than a dry walled bedroom, or a basement, or the crypt of an old church. When performed or recorded in different spaces, the end results will be of different tones and harmonies.
The inspiration for the piece came after one of Lucier’s colleagues mentioned attending a lecture by Amar Bose, the man who developed the famous Bose speakers, at MIT. Bose described how he was developing and testing a set of loudspeakers by feeding audio back into them so that the audio they had originally produced in the first place was picked up again via microphones. This triggered Lucier’s idea.
Each time Lucier’s process was repeated the sound of his speech became disarranged as specific frequencies began to supersede the words. These frequencies grow with each successive playback until Alvin’s voice disappears and the only thing left to listen to is the sound of the room. It doesn’t take long for the words to disappear. At about the 17 minute mark the formants start to deform into pure tones, and by the 27 minute mark any trace of the words has been absorbed by the room’s resonant frequency. It is a magical thing to listen to and hear how utterance can been transformed into pure tones.
The work is a great example of a process piece, where the technique itself is showcased as part and parcel of the content of the composition. It’s also an excellent example of minimalism as a repeated text is transformed over the course of 45 minutes into a long and sonorous drone.
I Am Sitting in A Room is also an exploration of the concept of generation loss. This is when the quality between subsequent copies gets reduced with each further copy. Lucier shows how the original representation is liable to disappear with each copy of a copy of a copy. Audio artifacts are introduced as the process continues and these increase during the process.
Many other musicians and composers have since used the process. The generation loss aspect of the work was notably used in 2008 by Iranian born musician Kamran Sadeghi when he was selected as a resident artist for Sastop, an artist organization utilizing an old nuclear cooling tower in Washington state. In the 1970s a group of public utilities started to build what was to be the largest single nuclear power project in United States history. Five reactors, divided between sites located near the cities of Hanford and Satsop were intended to be a solution to projected energy demands of the area.
Before the facility was completed construction stopped. There remained however a structure 423 feet across the base with a height close to 500 feet. The left behind building contained uncanny acoustic properties (the kind of place Pauline Oliveros would have liked to play in). For four years between 2004 and 2008 a small group worked to bring artists and musicians into the space, recognizing that it had unique acoustic properties, and that its weathered industrial architecture showcased a derelict beauty.
Sadeghi was inspired by Lucier’s composition and decided to amplify an original electronic music passage two minutes in length into the open aired structure and then re-record the outcome of the tower's reverberant response. He then took the recording and reamplified back into the tower and re-recorded. He repeated this a total of ten times. The natural acoustics of the tower began to reshape the original passage until it disappeared completely. It’s a unique document of a structure exposed and re-exposed to a passage of music and the passage of time.
Sadeghi named the piece Loss Less in reference to the audio engineering term lossless compression, a process that allows for the preservation and perfect reconstruction of audio data when a recorded waveform is reduced to differing extents for transmission without the loss of quality.
Scanner also made use of this technique on one of the versions of his architectural work, Vex.
NORTH AMERICAN TIME CAPSULE
Lucier himself explored audio compression, and specifically speech compression in his 1967 piece North American Time Capsule. Compression may have not been top on his mind when he created the piece, but a principle function of the vocoder was to compress the audio bandwidth of the voice down. It did this by sending only the parameters of the vocal model over the communication link, instead of a direct recreation of the waveform. Since the parameters change slowly compared to the original speech the bandwidth required to transmit speech can be reduced.
Which is perfect for encryption.
This piece came about when Lucier was invited by Sylvania Applied Research Laboratories to come and use their prototype vocoder in 1967. Sylvania Electric Products was a manufacturer of a variety of electrical equipment, including transceivers, vacuum tubes, semiconductors, and the MOBIDC mainframe computer. The engineers at Sylvania were also involved in the developing the COBOL programming language.
Since he would be using the vocoder to create a work, Lucier decided on making a vocal piece and he enlisted the help of the Brandeis University Chamber Chorus in what must have been one of their most interesting assignments. His score required the chorus members to “prepare a plan of activity using speech, singing, musical instruments, or any other sound producing means that might describe—to beings very far from the earth’s environment either in space or in time—the physical, social, spiritual, or any other situation in which we find ourselves at the present time.”
Along with Sylvania engineer Calvin Howard, Lucier used the vocoder to isolate and manipulate elements of speech in real time. Eight separate tracks were recorded and subsequently mixed by Lucier.
Since one way to use a vocoder is as an encryption tool, where a person with a vocoder on the other end of a transmission could decode it, Lucier got the idea that this whole piece was an encoded message for people who haven’t heard about us here in North America. The first time I heard it, close to twenty years ago at the time of this writing, I didn’t know the slightest thing about vocoders but I was captivated by the raw expressiveness exuded by all the voices -all the voices I couldn’t quite decipher.
Lucier’s instructions leave a lot left open to the vocal interpreters while still providing a sturdy sketch or outline. He wrote “Using sound, the performers might choose to convey, for example, the ideas of life and death, young and old, up and down, male and female. Sonic aspects of our technological environment, such as household appliances, trains, aircraft and automobile horns, might be used.”
These every day activities and occurrences that might be of interest to someone outside our own circles of space and time become alien to the present day listener when processed by the vocoder. The audience hears these wild utterances coming out of the time capsule as if they had dug it up themselves.
Alvin Lucier brought a conceptual sonic poetry to the performances of the Sonic Arts Union.
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Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory: Telecommunications, Electronic Music, and the Voice of the Ether.
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.