Illuminated by the Moon by Alvin Lucier

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Alvin Lucier | Illuminated by the Moon
Black Truffle + ZHdK Records (Box Set: 4xLP + CD + BK)

Alvin Lucier hardly needs an introduction as one of the pivotal minimalist composers in the crossover between the 20th + 21st Century. This “Second Edition” of Illuminated by the Moon as printed on back of box, is hand-numbered in 500 copies (on 180 gram vinyl), comes with a gorgeously illustrated 120pp book – the Swiss publisher Züricher Hochschule der Kunste pairing with Oren Ambarchi’s incredible Black Truffle imprint has done a superb job on this set, delivering striking historical content. Since 1952 the American experimental composer has consistently developed a series of provocative, engaging works and at 87 years old has built quite a legacy, as so honed in this set. The New Englander (like me) has often sought of the various phenomena in the perception of sound itself. His most famous work, I Am Sitting In A Room (1969) is featured here, along with nine other lengthy works. Here is a breakdown of the entire collection:

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LP 1 Side A
I Am Sitting in a Room (1970) for voice and electromagnetic tape /  Alvin Lucier, performer / Hauke Harder, assistant. 18:20 min
LP 1 Side B
Music for Solo Performer (1965) for enormously amplied brainwaves and percussion / Alvin Lucier, brain waves / Hauke Harder and Daniel Wolf, assistants. 24:06 min
LP 2 Side A
Charles Curtis (2002) for cello with slow sweep pure wave oscillators /  Charles Curtis, cello. 13:40 min
LP 2 Side B
Double Rainbow (2016) for voice and slow sweep pure wave oscillator /  Joan La Barbara, voice. (world premiere) 12:08 min;  Nothing is Real (Strawberry Fields Forever) (1990) for piano, amplifed teapot, tape recorder, and miniature sound system / Johannes Herrmann, piano. 8:21 min
LP 3 Side A
Braid (2012) for alto flute, clarinet, English horn, and string quartet / Felix Profos, conductor / Patrycja Pakiela, alto flute / Soraya Dos Santos, clarinet / Megumi Nakajima, English horn / Nora Peterhans and Cécile Vonderwahl, violin /  Tabea Frei, viola / Nadja Reich, cello. (European premiere) 16:00 min
LP 3 Side B
Two Circles (2012) for  flute, B-flat clarinet, violin, cello, and piano / Felix Profos, conductor / Patrycja Pakiela,  flute / Soraya Dos Santos, clari- net / Nora Peterhans, violin / Nadja Reich, cello / Lora-Evelin Vakova, piano. 17:52 min
LP 4 Side A
Hanover (2015) for violin, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, three banjos (three e-guitars), piano, and bowed vibraphone /  e Ever Present Orchestra: Lars Mlekusch, conductor / Rebecca  ies, violin /  Charles Ng, alto saxophone / Joan Jordi Oliver Arcos, tenor saxo- phone / Oren Ambarchi, Stephen O’Malley, Gary Schmalzl, electric guitar / Felix Profos, piano / Anthony Burr, bowed vibraphone. (European premiere) 18:06 min
LP 4 Side B
Step, Slide and Sustain (2014) for horn in F, cello, and piano / Retro Disco: Samuel Stoll, horn / Moritz Muellen- bach, cello / Simone Keller, piano. (world premiere) 14:55 min
CD: One Arm Bandits (2016) for four cellos / Charles Curtis, TJ Borden, Judith Hamann, Reynard Rott, cello. 60:09 min
Mastered and cut by Helmut Erler at Dubplates & Mastering, Berlin.
 

Beginning with the CD content, One Arm Bandits (2016), one of his latter compositions, begins with a singular thread of elongated cello. It’s as if the four players are drawing, with linear strokes, back and forth. It’s as if they take over for each other in succession with each tiny bow back, like passing a baton. It sounds like an alarm after some time. The hour long composition continues like this for almost fourteen minutes until it dips down in a fade out of volume at the exact fifteen minute mark. And it repeats yet on a lower chord, the low reverb tickles your skin in its way. Recycled again with a slight bit of separation the work is moody, discontented. The final eight minutes start to show a breakdown, signs of weariness, a letting go.

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Lucier performs his conceptual piece, I Am Sitting In A Room in 1970 as the LP set opens, his wavering voice explaining exactly what he’s going to do, repeating himself. In this light it reminds me of the work Chair by visual artist Joseph Kosuth. Just voice, and the echo of the in-situ performance, the voice starts to become a dull hum with each iteration, denser, and only our memory keeps his actual words of intent from completely vanishing. In this way, it’s less about what he’s saying, and more about what we’ve retained. Like an elusive dream the voice becomes all but inaudible by the end of the eighteen minutes, ending in a cave like distant drone. So meta before meta was a thing.

The oldest work here, Music for Solo Performer (1965), a rumbling almost thermographic percussive work, shifts like an imposing thunderstorm. I wonder if this is a microphone on wheels criss-crossing a stage…what’s this amplified brain all about? It has some in common with a marching band doing warm-ups for the big parade. Tamborines, cymbals and other tapping, thwapping instruments are employed to create a ruckus that finds time to let up and allow the mighty simplicity of a triangle to have a solo. It’s a rummaging of sorts, but never all out chaos, except in the final five minutes when things get loud. 2002’s Charles Curtis has the cellist named playing, along with additional oscillators. It’s a stirring more melancholy atmosphere than the other pieces here. The melodies float away at times, becoming this intrinsic balance between the light-hearted and the dissonant.

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Elsewhere are genuinely ghostly works like Hanover (2015) with its softened edged mindwarp and changing tones – and my favorite work here, Double Rainbow (2016) where an aching vocal and wavy drone twist around each other gently. Both best explored in a set of headphones. Braid (2012) is orchestral from the start, it sounds like theme music from the best spellbinding Hitchcockian thriller. The group of players are in such sync to sound as though they are building this unique acoustic chasm that makes it confusing to distinguish the fore/background making for a very active listening experience – or a chill meditation.

The final side of the fourth vinyl is Step, Slide and Sustain (2014). It’s got some in common with the feeling of floating inertia on other works, with an irregular set of repeating chords, somber horns and singular keystrokes. It’s as though a despondent set of  tectonic plates shift haltingly in the sonic guise of a muffled, reverberating horn. It’s moody and seems to capture the reticent nature of contemporary society with a powerful emotive stroke of genius. This collection is an absolute must for fans of contemporary composers. Period.

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Recorded in October of 2016 at the Alvin Lucier 85th Birthday Festival at the Zurich University of the Arts, the box gathers a remarkable range of performances of works from Lucier‘s life in music, from the iconic to the lesser known. It begins with wonderful stagings of “I Am Sitting In a Room” and “Music for Solo Performer” performed by the composer, before presenting the work “Charles Curtis” performed by the cellist for whom it was composed, and “Double Rainbow”, a recent work, performed by the incredible Joan La Barbara. Over the course of the set’s many discs, one encounters a range of works performed by Oren Ambarchi, Stephen O’Malley, Charles Curtis, and Gary Schmalzl, with further contributions by many others involved in Lucier‘s life and work. The collection, by offering an expanse of material otherwise unavailable in the composer’s discography, opens a rare window into the breadth and range of territory which he has approached, as well as into the unique humor which has quietly bubbled through his entire career. It is a singular recording event, the likes of which are unlikely to be repeated. A worthy tribute to one of the last century’s most important composers.
 

 

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