Alvin Lucier, Avant-Garde Composer, Dead at 90

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Pioneering experimental composer Alvin Lucier has died at the age of 90 at his home in Middletown, Connecticut. Lucier’s daughter, Amanda Lucier, told The New York Times that the cause of death was complications after a fall.

Born in 1931 in Nashua, New Hampshire, Lucier studied music theory and composition at Yale and earned his master’s at Brandeis University. His interest in experimental music grew while he was studying in Rome for two years as a Fulbright scholar, where he attendded performances by composers such as John Cage, David Tudor, and Merce Cunningham.

In 1962, Lucier returned to Brandeis, where he took up a position as director of the University Chamber Chorus. His breakthrough work, 1965’s Music for Solo Performer, used physicist Edmond Dewan’s brain wave amplifier to generate sound from Lucier’s own alpha brain waves. In 1966, he founded the Sonic Arts Union alongside fellow experimental composers including Robert Ashley, David Behrman, and Gordon Mumma.

Lucier recorded dozens of works during his decades-long career, often using various gadgets as creative tools. His best known piece, 1969’s I Am Sitting in a Room, features him narrating a piece of text, playing it back, and recording it again until the voice becomes distorted and the words unintelligible. “I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now,” he said. “I am recording the sound of my speaking voice, and I am going to play it back into the room again and again, until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed.” The piece was eventually purchased by New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

In 1970, Lucier joined Wesleyan became a professor of music at Wesleyan University, where he remained until his retirement in 2011. He composed works commissioned by ensembles such as Bang on a Can All-Stars, Alter Ego, Ensemble Pamplemousse, and ICE, while his music has been performed by Charles Curtis, Yo La Tengo, Barbara Held, Claire Chase, Yarn/Wire, Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley,Oren Ambarchi, and Sarah Hennies.

“One of my fondest compliments,” he said in an interview witt The New York Times earlier this year, “was when our plumber, as he was leaving my house after having finished a job at my home, remarked as he was walking out the door: ‘Are you the guy who wrote the piece about sitting in a room? My kids love it. You are ahead of your time.’”

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