Alvin lucier Arne Deforce Interview on the cello works

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Alvin Lucier Music for Cello with One or More Amplified Vases Interview between Alvin Lucier and the Belgian cellist Arne Deforce Indian Summer


1 Alvin Lucier Music for Cello with One or More Amplified Vases Interview between Alvin Lucier and the Belgian cellist Arne Deforce1 I try to compose as little as possible, but that means that I have to think about each piece a lot, to avoid any kind of pre-existing musical structures that would take away from the perception and focus of the sonic phenomenon in which I'm interested. AD: Nature. I would like to speak about your two cello pieces, Indian Summer and specifically the piece with the pots, Music for Cello with One or More Amplified Vases. In this article "The eloquent voice of nature", James Tenney explains how most of your work deals with the physical phenomena of sound and the curiosity about "how things work". Looking at Music for Solo Performer, Nothing is Real (Strawberry Fields Forever) and more particularly Music for Cello with One or More Amplified Vases, it is obvious that much of your work has indeed not only to do with the physicality of sound but also with what Tenney observes as a mysteriously "expressive" quality which he poetically defines as if it were "inarticulate nature speaking to us." Two questions come up in my mind. First, how do you see your music as related to nature and secondly could you clarify what you understand as "expressive" qualities of sounds, free of personal expression? AL: The nature of sound is universal. Music is not universal. Everybody, every culture, every city even, has a different musical expression. Several years ago I was in Delhi, India, and went out looking for sheet music for piano. I discovered that it was practically nonexistent in music stores. There is virtually none in India, at least in the Western classical genre. India has its own music, its own instruments, its own manner of presentation. For some reason I try to avoid musical language that belongs to a specific culture. I remember living in Europe in the early Sixties and suddenly realizing that the wonderful European music that I heard wasn't my music. When I came home I tried to find something that I could call my own. Now of course, you can say, 1 Made in Gent (B), on the occasion of the performance of Music for Cello with One or More Amplified Vases, at Handelsbeurs Festival Acta Religiosa, Gent May 13, 2003 2 that's cultural, specific to the American Experience, that's true, but I think that acoustical phenomena are universal, not cultural, so I decided among many other things that I've been doing, to explore the natural characteristics of sound waves, how they flow in space from an instrument into the room, how they coincide with each other if they are closely tuned, listening to the audible beating, the bumps of sound that occur when two sound waves coincide. Thats just the beginning of my work. It's where I start to have ideas. I try to compose as little as possible, but that means that I have to think about each piece a lot, to avoid any kind of pre-existing musical structures that would take away from the perception and focus of the sonic phenomenon in which I'm interested. So by expressive I mean that quality which shows something about its nature but which is unintentionally produced. Ripples in a stream, wind through grass, sunlight reflecting off water tell us something about themselves without intending to do so. All natural sounds are unintentional, but nonetheless press out (express) from themselves messages with no meaning other than what they are or how they are produced. AD: Vases. The perception and the focus of sonic phenomena goes along with a visual kind of aspect as well. I think of the teapot ritual in Nothing is Real, or the use of enormously amplified brain waves in Music for Solo Performer, the visual representation of sound in other pieces and the use of vases in the cello piece. I feel there is a sense of mystery in using these external sound devices, and perhaps also a theatrical set-up, provoking a curiosity for what is going to happen. Is that a fair thing to say? What is the function of the vases? Does the visual theatrical aspect also contributes to a certain kind of listening with the eyes, the mysteriously "expressive" quality of the whole concept? AL: I think of the vases as small rooms, in which the sound of the cello gets trapped. We know that every room has a set of resonances, determined by its size and physical dimensions. Its the same for a pot, where there is one strong resonance frequency. I think of the pots as resonant environments. The theatrical and visual aspect that goes with the piece, comes afterwards. Each player that plays the piece uses a different set of pots. So, there isn't only one visual image, its just sounds of the cello getting trapped in the pots, and each pot has its own resonant frequency. AD: Text Scores. Many of your scores give no traditional information, on the notation of the actual sound. Some are little prose texts, giving minimal instructions of what the performer should do. This means the score is more or less a kind of "pre-composition". It implies a big trust in, and gives an important responsibility to, the performer. Somehow he might as well be considered as a co-composer. Although he has to avoid any kind of "self-expression" the performer still has an important role in the making of the music, to make the sound events work. Is it correct to say we are dealing with a kind of "improvisation-scores", the "open-form" principle? Scores which 3 allow a lot of freedom and which are open to play within the frame of the prescriptions, like games? How do you see these items ? AL: I dont see my pieces as games. The purpose of the prose scores are to give the performer as clear a set of instructions as possible. I write them in prose only because there is no other way to present the ideas. I dont expect the performer to use the score as a point of departure or as a do-it-yourself kit with which to devise a different piece. He or she must understand the goal of the work and realize it to the best of his or her ability. Often, a score is accompanied by a diagram or drawing of the equipment set-up. These pieces certainly do not use open-form principles, as I understand them from the works of Earle Brown who invented the term. Open form gives freedom to the performer to choose various options, to move to various places, regions in a more or less notated score, for example. The performer may rely on his musical taste, which is usually derived from past experience, to construct the performance in ways that taste dictates. My own prose scores define specific tasks for the performer to reveal the acoustic phenomenon which is at the core of the piece. Personal choices, based on what a player feels to be musical, have no place in these works. AD: Sound Art & the role of the performer. When I started working on this piece, I had the feeling that I was building a kind of sound installation in which the musician, the human being as opposed to the electronic devices, becomes part of the sound art performance. The rehearsal process started with going to secondhand shops and buying about 30 vases of different shapes and sizes, singing into them and listening to their tones, then trying them out with different kind of microphones, listening to the resonances of the vases, choosing them and finally putting them in a certain kind of order. Finally I got to nine vases which I used in the performance. From a traditional point of view we can say the musician in fact is not "playing" his instrument but rather mediating and searching for that specific "sound" which is hidden in the vases. Within that view, how would you define the role of the performer, the playing, the making of the set up and his "becoming part of sonic art installation"? AL: I said in my interview the other night at the "Handelbeurs" in Gent, that the performer has to listen more than play. The focus is changed, away from the performer to the resulting sound. You have to listen carefully to the resonances, then tune your instrument around those pitches, to create the phenomena that occur, that are for me, the content of the work. You have to tune very carefully. If you hit the resonant frequency exactly, there is an amplification of the sound. If you tune slightly above or below, you're interfering with the resonant frequency and something else occurs, a rhythmical pattern. So "tuning" becomes the playing, becoming part of the sound installation. The player simply activates the resonances in the vases. His role is anti-virtuostic, in the sense that he must avoid any show of technique that distracts from the task of finding and revealing resonances. The 4 player must listen rather than play. AD: A new version? In the score of Music for Cello with One or More Amplified Vases you prescribe that the player "slowly and continuously sweeps up the range of the cello starting on Low C, sweeping up a fifth, taking two or more minutes to do so. As the fifth is reached, move the bow as smoothly as possible to the G-string and continue sweeping upward. Proceeding similarly with the D- and A-strings." In our general rehearsal, one hour before the concert, you suddenly came up with new ideas to change the whole concept of the piece, leaving the idea of the glissando, the ascending sweep. Can we say the piece is getting into an new phase of performance practice? What particularly disturbed you in the initial version, with the long upward sweeping ? Do you intend to re-edit the score for this reason? AL: It felt too predictable. There have been some pieces, where glissandi or single motion gestures have been wonderful. I'm thinking of Jim Tenney's Cellogram, and the piece for solo violin, Koan, where you simply rise up from string to string, going from the G-string to the D-string, There is something else happening of course, one tone is sustained and the other one is sweeping, and these wonderful phenomena occur. I've used single sweeps in works such as Crossings for orchestra, and in In memoriam Jon Higgins for solo clarinet. In those pieces a sine wave oscillator sweeps so slowly, its motion is almost imperceptible. But in Music for Cello with One or More Amplified Vases, it seemed too didactic somehow. Even if one didn't know the resonances the vases were tuned to, and unexpected things happened, it seemed that the upward sweep was just too evident. It was a more scientific searching than I had imagined it. Now, the idea to discover what the pitches are, to remember those, put them in some order and then play against those with silences in between, seems to evoke a lightness, a relaxation of sound, between the various pots. You used all together nine pots, and there where eight long silences; somehow that lightened the performance a little bit. And also its unexpected, because one doesn't know to which vase you will move. The audience surely doesnt; its a less oppressive. So I didnt change the concept of the piece, which is simply to search for and reveal resonances. As you were sweeping upwards, it began to feel burdensome to my ear, perhaps because the resonances are not vivid enough. Since they are subtle, your hear the sweeping gesture too much. The cello has such a rich and colorful timbre, as opposed to the neutral sound of a sine wave, for example, that it overshadows the subtle resonances of the vases. If the resonances were more pronounced, the cello sound would recede into the background. When I use audio oscillators for sweeping, I limit their loudness so that they are not in the foreground. I want the resonances to be in the foreground, to be the focus of the work. The problem in Music for Cello with One or More Amplified Vases is that the cello has to be loud in order to excite the resonances in the vases. Therefore the cello sound predominates. By inserting silences I hoped to lessen the 5 continuous presence of the cello. I will probably add a sentence or two the prose score suggesting this option. AD: Meditation, the sound of nature. As your music is related to the artistic movement of abstract minimalism, the so called esthetics of "drone music" many people tend to relate the music to meditation. Not in the religious aspect, but viewed in its initial meaning as a process of getting acquainted with a different kind of perception of things and phenomena similar to certain practices in concentration in Zen. Is there something you approve with? Is it only a physical experience of sound or can it be related to a certain kind of contemplations on sound? Can you accept that people want to search this experience? Of course the word meditation has a lot of connotations. But there seems to be a similarity to e.g. Zen attitudes: listening to the sea or the wind, and realizing that its just the sound of the sea or the wind? As you said about Chambers, it helps people hold shells up to their ears and listen to the ocean again." Or in the case of the vases, listen to spaces and enclosed rooms - what we hear outside and what we hear inside? AL: Well, I think of it as close focus and paying attention. I'm not a religious person, not at all. I was once in a concert in Frankfort, and a composer wrote a string quartet, for which he had all different sorts of musical ideas. At a certain moment in the piece, two violins were playing highly tuned closely tuned tones, creating beatings; but they were not obvious enough, the players couldn't make the beats really happen. And he asked me afterwards, why my beats worked and his didnt. I replied that that's the only thing I pay attention to. I don't have a lot of other stuff going on, no tunes, melodies, fragments, or different playing techniques. In the middle of those sections of beatings, sometimes it takes time to hear them. Its another formal idea, I can't prove it, but sometimes, when a piece of mine is being played, it takes me time to hear what is happening. I don't perceive it right away. So, you've got to really listen and focus. Rather than "meditation" I would use the term concentration. Too many composers exploit oriental ideas into their work. I havent studied Zen so I refuse to ally myself to practice I know little about. I did attend a Benedictine preparatory school, however, and was impressed by the monks rapt attention while praying. AD: Slow strokes, fast beatings. Is this the reason why the cello pieces - and so much of your works have to be long and slow? The fact that everything is stretched and enlarged? A very very slow building up of sound, to come into the "tuning"-activity, to tune the ear into the mood of things, sounds, beatings, interferences? AL: I'd like to get away from slowness, it gets a little bit soporific, it makes you sleepy. Perhaps the tones don't have to be so long. Let me see, I just wrote a piece for trombone and clarinet Bar Lazy J, in which I specified that the tones should be about 8 seconds long, separated by silences. However, in those 6 works with sliding sine waves, In Memoriam Jon Higgins, for example, the sweeping tone is moving up at a rate of one semi-tone every 30 seconds, which is very slow, but as you are sustaining a clarinet tone against it, as the electronic wave sweeps up toward unison with the clarinet sound, the beats start fast and slow down, because the rule is, the further above, the faster the beating. The long tones are about one-minute duration but the beats are fast, sometimes several per second. You could think of them as corresponding to, lets say, sixteenth notes, eight notes, quarter notes etc.. I tried to mitigate the length of the tones by the faster beating patterns. The main reason I favor slow sweeps is to make them seem imperceptible or at least recede into the background. If something moves slow enough, you dont perceive its motion as continuous. I want to focus on the changes of speed of the beating, not the speed of the sweeping waves. I also want the listener to be able to perceive the accelerating audible beats clearly. For example, in In Memoriam Jon Higgins, for solo clarinet, the oscillator sweeps upward at a rate of 30 seconds per semitone. If you take, as an example, the semitone between A @ 220 and B-flat @ 233 Hz, you have a distance of about 13 Hz. If the clarinet sustains a B-flat while the oscillator tone sweeps up toward it from A, for example, the beating starts at 13 cycles per second (780 cycles/ minute) and slows down until, at the halfway point, the speed is about 6.5 seconds (390/minute). At 30 seconds, the tempo is zero (unison). Deceleration from 780 beats/minute to zero covers a huge range. Therefore, I want to give the listener time enough to hear the continually changing patterns, particularly as the wave approaches unison with the clarinet tone and the beats slow down enough so that the listener can hear them separately. If the sweep were too fast, all you would hear would be rapid buzzing. Remember, too, that at each octave higher, the frequencies double. AD: New Ideas. In our performance we had a set of nine vases, for nine sound events, separated by silences. After this experiences I can imagine a new version in which each sound event explores different constellations of one or more pots all tuned slightly different around the same pitch. The cellist explores the different resonances and beatings of each group, moving up and down, in and out the sound space of the vases. For example, we could have a set of 1, 3, 2, 4, 1, 1, 3, 2, 3 vases - corresponding with nine tuning-events of the cellist, and nine silences, each one of them having different durations. This is the version I would like to make. Do you have other interesting idea's to add which might contribute to bring out the sound processes you have in mind, such as timing, bowing, different tuning activities? AL: Personally, I wouldnt like to impose a grid-like structure upon what is a search for resonances. The form of the piece is a search, not the fulfillment of a pre-determined structure. AD: Feedback. Some players told me it is very difficult to make the resonances of the vases audible. So they bring the vases in feedback and play 7 against the sound of the singing vase? Is this an option as well? AL: I wrote a piece for the Arditti string quartet with piano and trombone that uses six vases, and what I did was to raise the volume of the vases just above the threshold of feedback, producing six different tones, creating natural oscillators. But the cello piece is based on a different idea, its capturing the sounds of the cello in the pots, not playing against feedback from each pot. Last night I thought it was beautiful the way you played it, you didn't stay on each sections too long. And that was very good, because it didn't get tiring. AD: Indian Summer. The piece was written for Jeffery Krieger and is meant for an electric cello. Could also be played on a normal cello? AL: His cello had a built-in delay system, so that within the sustained long tones, there was a time delay and a harmonizer shifting the pitches within a range from zero to 10 cents. So within the instrument you could have a pitch-shifted sound. You cannot do that on a acoustic cello. So it was meant for a electric cello. If you had another electronic device that could change the range from zero to 10 cents, then you would have the beating of the both strings plus the beating of the electronically generated sounds. AD: What is the meaning of the title Indian Summer? AL: Indian summer is a term we use in America to describe those warm days in Autumn that seem to hark back to summertime. It also has to do with the time that our Native Americans harvested their crops, then rested. There is no relation between the title and the concept of the piece. I may have written it in early Fall. I do remember a popular American song from the 30s or 40s called Indian Summer. It was beautiful and sentimental, reminiscent of joyful times past. My mother would often play it on the piano and I have fond memories of our family singing it around the dinner table after supper. AD: I thank you very much for these words on the nature and sound of your work. String-players can now tune their ears, and sounds resonate the vases. Arne Deforce Gent, May 15 2003 Reviewed an approved by email by Alvin Lucier, 23 September 2003