Q&A: Evan Ziporyn on Music Visionary Alvin Lucier

Posted on August 15, 2014 by Anya Ventura

Evan Ziporyn is the Faculty Director of the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology and Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music at MIT. A composer and clarinetist, Ziporyn was a founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and is a member of the Steve Reich Ensemble as well as a noted soloist. He is also Founder and Artistic Director of Boston’s Gamelan Galak Tika, a group dedicated to new music for Balinese gamelan. On September 27, 2014, he will perform Alvin Lucier’s In Memoriam Jon Higgins as part of the CAST symposium, Seeing / Sounding / Sensing. We sat down with him to talk about Alvin Lucier’s work and its enduring influence.

Why is Lucier such a good fit with MIT and the symposium’s theme of “sounding”?
Lucier’s music is beautiful in its own right, but it is almost always based on acoustics, on physical principles made observable through sound. He isolates things we take for granted — room acoustics, the beats that occur in tuning, things that happen every time we listen to music, or in fact hear anything — and distills them, giving them a focus and a frame. This process is often thought of as “experimental” music in the purest sense, but there is a poetry to the distillation and the framing — that’s the real magic of it. All music is about the “sounding” of a mental process. But Music for Solo Performer — in which Lucier’s own brain waves trigger the music — is the first piece in history in which that is literally, and exclusively, what happens.

It seems that there has been a renewed interest in Lucier lately. You once remarked that in the past, everyone was talking about Cage, and now it’s Lucier. Why do you think this might be?
My comment was of course offhand and impressionistic — just an observation about what people seemed to be talking about and also about what my students seem to respond to most readily. I do think both men have radically widened the scope of composition and performance. Cage’s writings (Silence, for example) were powerful and pervasive in their own right, and they served for many people as a gateway to his music. As with Cage’s work, almost every one of Lucier’s pieces changes the parameters of what we regard as music; this is a very rare quality, not just in music, but in art in general. As for his influence, I am not the best judge, because I was lucky enough to be introduced to his music at a very young age, in the same 9th grade class in which I was introduced to Stravinsky, Bartok, Ives, Reich, and Cage. In fact I may have heard I Am Sitting in a Room the same day I first heard <4’33.” To me, Lucier has always been part of that particular pantheon, but in a world of noise, it’s easy for the quieter types like him to get lost in the shuffle.

How has Lucier paved the way for the artists featured in both the symposium and the new MIT Sounding series?
Lucier’s work literally “speaks for itself” in a way that is almost unprecedented in art history. I Am Sitting in a Room is the apotheosis of this; it is as self-contained and self-explanatory as any work of art I can imagine, far more than other minimalist pieces, even more than 4’33” – you don’t need program notes or an explanation. In his early work, he eschewed classical music performers, and frankly, the feeling was generally mutual. The new generation has embraced him because there is a purity and a focus in his music, which can be highly expressive and emotional. I am personally finding that to be the case as I prepare In Memoriam Jon Higgins, which I’ll perform at the Symposium [a piece in which a pure wave oscillator sweeps the frequency range of the clarinet over a period of twenty minutes]. The new MIT Sounding series this year is bookended by Alvin’s concert in the Fall semester and Terry Riley’s in the spring. Riley is from the same generation and also regarded as a “classic minimalist,” but his music has a completely different affect – flamboyant, multicultural, and open-ended. Lucier and Riley and others of their generation carved out a wide terrain for those who followed, at a time when many people thought there was little open territory left. Both of them are still going strong in their eighties, writing and performing new works, which is a sign of how fertile that territory actually is.