Music for Solo Performer by Alvin Lucier in an Investigation of Current Trends in Brainwave Sonification

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An analysis of Alvin Lucier's Music for Solo Performer on hand of current brainwave and brainwave sonification research


Music for Solo Performer by Alvin Lucier in an Investigation of Current Trends in Brainwave SonificationProfessor Michael Gardner, Analysis University of Pittsburgh, 30th of April, 2011

The sonification of brainwaves produced by analog electrical and acoustical sounds in Music for Solo Performer by Alvin Lucier, was both an attempt to bypass the acculturated frame of sound (I think that acoustical phenomena are universal, not cultural, so I decidedto explore the natural characteristics of sound waves1) and also a door through which we might hear the sound of the mind in process (and incidentally to experience our own musicreactions to it,) to the extent to which it is possible through the amplification of alpha waves. Music for Solo Performer poses an audacious challenge to conventional musical analysis; while normally a main goal of musical analysis is to address the mind of the composer, performer and/or audience, Lucier makes us listen to the rhythm of waves formed in the performers mind itself, the minute specifics of which are, by nature, involuntary. How do we analyze the sonic projection of a natural waveform occurring in the electrical pattern of the brain? Although the piece would seem to be angled specifically to transcend normal musical meaning and address state of mind itself, Alvin Lucier says, I found1

Matthew Rogalsky, Nature as an Organising Principle: Approaches to chance and the natural in the work of John Cage, David Tudor and Alvin Lucier, in Organised Sound Vol. 15 No. 2, 136.

the alphas quiet thunder extremely beautiful.2 We can explicate that beauty through sonic and musical analysis. By looking at the sound of this natural phenomenon as projected onto electrically triggered percussion ensembles, Lucier has provided us with a way to evaluate aesthetic judgment in its most raw state.

In many performance and design aspects, Music for Solo Performer is not free of musical intention however. There is a hidden performer who is capable of changing essential parameters of the piece both in the form of the person who decides on, and builds the percussion set-up and the person who attenuates them live. In most cases this person also changes the instrumentation as the piece progresses. There is the performers ability to open and close the eyes, which trigger major changes in alpha wave amplitude. In addition, there is the possibility of biofeedback, wherein the performer is able to control the strength of their alpha waves. And there are the theatrical aspects of the act itself and its situation. From the structural and surface differences between various versions of MFSP and its relation to other brainwave music we can ask the question, which criteria can we use to assemble the most meaningful translation of brainwaves? First I will examine and compare the available recordings of MFSP to each other. Thereafter I will discuss recent neurological research in the realm of sonification,


Alvin Lucier, Music for Solo Performer recorded on December 8 and 9, 2007, Lovely Music LCD 5013, Liner notes.

both medical and aesthetic and see how a close reading of Music for Solo Performer enlivens and informs the current discussion.

Various other composers, some of whom have gathered experience in the field of neurology, (most notably David Rosenboom) have been engaged with making music with interactive brainwaves for some time. But there has been a definite revival of interest in the attempt to make brainwaves into sound since around the turn of the 21st century. One reason for this is the utilization of the new, more powerful digital means at our disposal. Another is the continuing rise of cross-disciplinary study, including the acknowledgement on the part of the scientific community, as well as in the liberal arts, of the limitations of positivistic methods in scholarship. Neurologists regularly work with and consult experts in other fields in order to aim their experiments for maximum relevancy. The sciences and the arts have not been closer together for centuries than they are now.

Nearly 50 years after Alvin Lucier composed and performed Music for Solo Performer, the new focus on sonifying brainwaves is being brought to bear by neurologists (not just composers) not only for pathology and even potential treatment purposes, but also for artistic experimentation, in order to open possible doors to new ways of thinking, and perceiving, that could provide neurological insights. On both sides, utilitarian and aesthetic, they are faced with

the same questions which composers face in their work. In the case of sound for diagnostic and treatment purposes, a host of specific practical criteria come into play for the utilization of the sonification of brainwaves that place limits on creativity. How do these developments change the perspective on Music for Solo Performer? How can the different sound settings of various performances of MFSP inform the renewed engagement with brainwave sound today? A majority of the articles dealt with in this paper cite MFSP, but none of them go any farther than merely mentioning it, as if by just knowing about the piece their scholarship is significantly enriched. Lucier and others various extant recordings from 1965, 1976, 1982, 2007 and other realizations not by Oliveros or Lucier in the last 2 years all have valuable software under the hood into which researchers could profitably delve.

The local rhythms in MFSP, as portrayed through percussion surfaces excited by amplification are, due to their source, similar in all the recordings. In all of them we hear dense clusters of attacks. Rolls are separated by short asymmetrical sporadic silences. The rolls accomplished by speakers are superhumanly fast, and therefore often have a distorted quality. As the hyper-rolls increase or decrease in intensity, various pitches are elicited from the drumheads. (We see the most exaggerated example of this effect in the version from 1982.) The pauses rhythms are reminiscent of Morse code signal. The rhythms are tantalizingly speech-like. We form phrasal closure in connection with

the pauses between bursts. But the constant, fast-paced, (mostly) undifferentiated string of the thousands of closures presented overloads our cognitive system. The unrelenting stream of such rhythms without clear larger boundaries forces our imagination to create arbitrary larger formal downbeats in their stead. These arbitrary downbeats are often the markers of our own state of consciousness going in and out of focused attention as we deal with the overload. Music for Solo Performer creates a performative, interpretive role for the listener by leaving the local rhythmic structures up to the indeterminate actions of the performers alpha waves. Figures Lucier1 and Lucier 2 detail some of the local alpha rhythms, taken from the 2007 version of Music for Solo Performer minute 29:56 to 30:16. Lucier1 is at speed and Lucier 2 is more than twice as slow.

The overall form of the piece is to some degree dependent on flux in the performers alpha state from one minute to the next, but rests even more on the hidden performer who decides how sensitive the amplifiers triggering the drums should be set initially, and who runs the mixer in the performance, improvising how the amplified alpha waves are dispersed through the ensemble over the course of the work. This person, the unnamed duo partner in Music for Solo Performer, is actually responsible for improvising the form of the piece. By looking at different performances of the piece we can trace very different priorities for generating large-scale form in each and also similarities. Especially

significant are the comparatively very low level of intensity at the beginning and the end of all of the versions of Music for Solo Performer.

We know that on the premier of Music for Solo Performer on May 5th, 1965, Luciers amplified alpha wave output was routed to 16 loudspeakerpercussion pairs deployed around the museum. Lucier further explains that, During the course of the 40-minute performance Cage randomly raised and lowered the stereo amplifiers volume controls, channeling the alpha signal to various instruments around the room. (This is, by the way, the first time where I have ever read that Cage did something randomly.) This instrumental distribution would seem to imply that the sound was spatialized and also sectionalized into parts where various instruments came to the fore or receded. It would also seem to imply that various different volume levels were employed.3 The diagram for the piece of 1965 lists a piano as one of the instruments, a feature excised from future versions of the piece.

It is this version from 1965 that the video of 1976 seems to closely emulate. The sparseness of the reduced activity in the beginning of this version is the most dramatic of all the versions, taking up the about whole first 4 minutes. The large-scale form is periodic, with 5 main areas of high activity separated by moments of very reduced



amplitude in which the low rumbling of the timpani stops and smaller less impactful single instrument solos come out (see figure 1.) Some of these quieter moments reach near-stillness. Over the course of the piece we visit various solos and groupings of all the available instruments. The third and forth periods of high activity are marked by having parts where the high frequency cymbals and garbage can drop out. Instead the bass drum, timpani and cardboard box are featured. The fourth period of high activity is much quieter than the others, recalling the sparse first 4 minutes. The last 15 seconds trail off and are reduced down to being only a quieter solo for the snare with chain off. This version possesses a silent ending: in the video even once the sound is turned off, Alvin Lucier keeps his eyes