So You… by Alvin Lucier

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Alvin Lucier | So You… (Hermes, Orpheus, Eurydice)
Black Truffle (CD)

Alvin Lucier is the de facto experimental composer. I am not always convinced that his work overwhelmingly succeeds on a compositional level but rather, like his signature ‘I am sitting in a room’, demonstrates a specific effect or area of experimentation, more often than not with surprising aplomb. Whilst Lucier clearly cares about the quality of the aesthetic outcome, it is at least arguable that the concept, rather than the sonic, is the force that ultimately drives his work. 

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So you…(Hermes, Orpheus, Eurydice) is an hour-long operatic retelling of the Orpheus myth by way of imagist avant-garde poetry, a description that, truth be told, sounds pretty bloody pretentious.  What Lucier has created, however, is an extremely precise exploration of frequency that encapsulates both acoustic and electronic tonalities, unpicking as it goes a relationship between two distinct modalities, two entwined but opposing beings that are as fundamental to the narrative of his work as Orpheus and Eurydice are to the mythology that binds them together. 

Lucier marries his usual conceptual depth with both an extremely limited toolset, and a duration that allows him to fully explore every aspect of the relationships he uncovers. At over an hours length, it is impressive that So you… never feels tiring, or laboured, nor does it seek to lull its listener into a trance, as is the nature of so much drone-based music. Every moment is distinctly active, and though elementary sparse, the mind is constantly fascinated by the new sonic relationships that reveal themselves. Texture, undulation, density and phase each augment the perception of frequency to such a degree that even relatively subtle changes can have an impressive effect. 

The strings in particular offer a sense of fragility and humanity in their performance, with elongated notes shaped by the audible physicality of their performers movement across their instrument. For much of So you… this is contrast with a synthetic tone of such volume that it threatens to completely derail the otherwise delicate composition. It is this continuous, yet ever-changing tone, that prevents the proceedings from ever becoming too pleasant – there is always a fundamental tension at work, a sonic effect wherein the undulation of the electronics augments the dynamics of the acoustic elements. 

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The success of the composition lies firmly in the elucidation of often subtle sonic relationships. I found myself constantly wondering as to the specific inter-dependency between the instrumentation, and whilst I can assume Lucier is working with microtonality to produce the sort of dynamic and rhythmic byproducts upon which the overall piece relies, the utility of any single over-riding idea or effect is rarely at the expense of its aesthetic enjoyment.  As is the case with much durational composition – and with Lucier’s previous works – the onus is upon the listener to find and engage with the slowly emerging strands, the small glimpses of difference by which the album is orientated. 

Despite its apparent depth, Lucier’s commands an often very simple musical structure. Over its hour length, So you… progresses – albeit very slowly – through a series of harmonic intervals, first descending, then ascending, with the intervalic acoustic elements set against the continuous path of the electronic tone.  This is most pronounced in the final 15 minutes – to my ear the only questionable section of the whole work – wherein the journey towards an ever higher register suddenly seems quite an obvious mechanic, with the listener able to predict entirely what will happen next. This is perhaps due in part to the nature of human hearing, with the ear less able to determine nuance at higher frequencies, but for whatever reason, it somewhat impairs the otherwise impressive thrust of Lucier’s work. 

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So you… is, as might be expected from the gravitas of its composer, a conceptually rich work, and one for which its strength lies in the well-rendered and aesthetically-pleasing nature of its dissemination.  The use of a set narrative device, in the form of the operatic retelling of the Orpheus myth, orientates Lucier’s experimentation whilst in no way limiting its conceptual complexity. Indeed, having spent several hours with the work, there are still whole conceptual avenues that Lucier is engaging with, but that I as a listener have barely touched upon – not least the use of resonant chambers whose inclusion no doubt colours the perception of the intervalic relationships at play. 

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