Alvin Lucier

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Alvin Lucier
Alvin Lucier on the cover of Music on a Long Thin Wire, 1980
Born (1931-05-14) May 14, 1931 (age 88)
Known for Sound art
Notable work
I am sitting in a room

Alvin Lucier (born May 14, 1931) is an American composer of experimental music and sound installations that explore acoustic phenomena and auditory perception. A long-time music professor at Wesleyan University, Lucier was a member of the influential Sonic Arts Union, which included Robert Ashley, David Behrman, and Gordon Mumma. Much of his work is influenced by science and explores the physical properties of sound itself: resonance of spaces, phase interference between closely tuned pitches, and the transmission of sound through physical media.

Composer person who creates music, either by musical notation or oral tradition

A composer is a musician who is an author of music in any form, including vocal music, instrumental music, electronic music, and music which combines multiple forms. A composer may create music in any music genre, including, for example, classical music, musical theatre, blues, folk music, jazz, and popular music. Composers often express their works in a written musical score using musical notation.

Experimental music is a general label for any music that pushes existing boundaries and genre definitions. Experimental compositional practice is defined broadly by exploratory sensibilites radically opposed to, and questioning of, institutionalized compositional, performing, and aesthetic conventions in music. Elements of experimental music include indeterminate music, in which the composer introduces the elements of chance or unpredictability with regard to either the composition or its performance. Artists may also approach a hybrid of disparate styles or incorporate unorthodox and unique elements.

Sound installation art installation that incorporate sound into physical environments

Sound installation is an intermedia and time based art form. It is an expansion of an art installation in the sense that it includes the sound element and therefore the time element. The main difference with a sound sculpture is that a sound installation has a three-dimensional space and the axes with which the different sound objects are being organized are not exclusively internal to the work, but also external. A work of art is an installation only if it makes a dialog with the surrounding space. A sound installation is usually a site-specific but sometimes it can be readapted to other spaces. It can be made either in close or open spaces, and context is fundamental to determine how a sound installation will be aesthetically perceived. The difference between a regular art installation and a sound installation is that the later one has the time element, which gives the visiting public the possibility to stay a longer time due possible curiosity over the development of sound. This temporal factor also gives the audience the excuse to explore the space thoroughly due to the dispositions of the different sounds in space.


Early life

Lucier was born in Nashua, New Hampshire. He was educated in Nashua public and parochial schools and the Portsmouth Abbey School, Yale University and Brandeis University. In 1958 and 1959, Lucier studied with Lukas Foss and Aaron Copland at the Tanglewood Center. In 1960, Lucier left for Rome on a Fulbright Fellowship, where he befriended American expatriate composer Frederic Rzewski and witnessed performances by John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and David Tudor that provided compelling alternatives to his classical training. He returned from Rome in 1962 to take up a position at Brandeis as director of the University Chamber Chorus, which presented classical vocal works alongside modern compositions and new commissions.

Nashua, New Hampshire City in New Hampshire, United States

Nashua is a city in Hillsborough County, New Hampshire, United States. As of the 2010 census, Nashua had a population of 86,494, making it the second-largest city in the state after Manchester. As of 2017 the population had risen to an estimated 88,341.

Portsmouth Abbey School

Portsmouth Abbey School is a coeducational, Catholic Benedictine boarding and day school for students in grades 9-12. Founded in 1926 by the English Benedictine community, the School is located on a 525-acre campus along Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay.

Yale University private research university in New Haven, Connecticut, United States

Yale University is a private Ivy League research university in New Haven, Connecticut. Founded in 1701, it is the third-oldest institution of higher education in the United States and one of the nine Colonial Colleges chartered before the American Revolution.

At a 1963 Chamber Chorus concert at New York's Town Hall, Lucier met Gordon Mumma and Robert Ashley, experimental composers who were also directors of the ONCE Festival, an annual multi-media event in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A year later, Mumma and Ashley invited the Chamber Chorus to the ONCE Festival; and, in 1966, Lucier reciprocated by inviting Mumma, Ashley, and mutual friend David Behrman to Brandeis for a concert of works by the four composers. Based on the success of that concert, Lucier, Mumma, Ashley, and Behrman embarked on a tour of the United States and Europe under the name the Sonic Arts Group (at Ashley's suggestion, the name was later changed to the Sonic Arts Union). More a musical collective than a proper quartet, the Sonic Arts Union presented works by each of its members, sharing equipment and assisting when necessary. Performing and touring together for a decade, the Sonic Arts Union became inactive in 1976.

Gordon Mumma is an American composer. He is known most for his work with electronics, many devices of which he builds himself, and for his performances on horn.

Robert Reynolds Ashley was an American contemporary composer, who was best known for his television operas and other theatrical works, many of which incorporate electronics and extended techniques. His works often involve intertwining narratives and take a surreal multidisciplinary approach to sound, theatrics and writing, and have been continuously performed by various interpreters during and after his life, including Automatic Writing (1979) and Perfect Lives (1984).

The ONCE Group was a collection of musicians, visual artists, architects, and film-makers who wished to create an environment in which artists could explore and share techniques and ideas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The group was responsible for hosting the ONCE Festival of New Music in Ann Arbor, Michigan, between 1961 and 1966. It was founded by Ann Arborites Robert Ashley, George Cacioppo, Gordon Mumma, Roger Reynolds and Donald Scavarda.

In 1970, Lucier left Brandeis for Wesleyan University. In 1972, Lucier became a musical director of the Viola Farber Dance Company, a position he held until 1979.

Wesleyan University private liberal arts college in Middletown, Connecticut

Wesleyan University is a private liberal arts college in Middletown, Connecticut. Wesleyan is a baccalaureate college that emphasizes undergraduate instruction in the arts and sciences but also grants research master's degrees in many academic disciplines, and PhD degrees in biology, chemistry, mathematics and computer science, molecular biology and biochemistry, music, and physics.

Viola Farber American choreographer

Viola Farber was an American choreographer and dancer.


Though Lucier had composed chamber and orchestral works since 1952, the composer and his critics count his 1965 composition Music for Solo Performer as the proper beginning of his compositional career.

I Am Sitting in a Room

One of Lucier's most important and best-known works is I Am Sitting in a Room (1969), in which Lucier records himself narrating a text, and then plays the recording back into the room, re-recording it. The new recording is then played back and re-recorded, and this process is repeated. Since all rooms have a characteristic resonance (e.g., between a large hall and a small room), the effect is that certain frequencies are gradually emphasized as they resonate in the room, until eventually the words become unintelligible, replaced by the pure resonant harmonies and tones of the room itself. The recited text describes this process in action. It begins, “I am sitting in a room, different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice…”, and concludes with “I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have,” referring to his own stuttering. [1] This was a seminal work on Generation loss, which inspired other artists to emulate it. [2] It served, at least in part, as the inspiration of The Generation Loss project. [2] [1]

I am sitting in a room is a sound art piece composed in 1969 and one of composer Alvin Lucier's best known works.

Resonance phenomenon in which a vibrating system or external force drives another system to oscillate with greater amplitude at specific frequencies

In mechanical systems, resonance is a phenomenon that only occurs when the frequency at which a force is periodically applied is equal or nearly equal to one of the natural frequencies of the system on which it acts. This causes the system to oscillate with larger amplitude than when the force is applied at other frequencies.

Stuttering, also known as stammering, is a speech disorder in which the flow of speech is disrupted by involuntary repetitions and prolongations of sounds, syllables, words or phrases as well as involuntary silent pauses or blocks in which the person who stutters is unable to produce sounds. The term stuttering is most commonly associated with involuntary sound repetition, but it also encompasses the abnormal hesitation or pausing before speech, referred to by people who stutter as blocks, and the prolongation of certain sounds, usually vowels or semivowels. According to Watkins et al., stuttering is a disorder of "selection, initiation, and execution of motor sequences necessary for fluent speech production". For many people who stutter, repetition is the primary problem. The term "stuttering" covers a wide range of severity, encompassing barely perceptible impediments that are largely cosmetic to severe symptoms that effectively prevent oral communication. In the world, approximately four times as many men as women stutter, encompassing 70 million people worldwide, or about 1% of the world's population.

Other key pieces

Other key pieces include North American Time Capsule (1966), which employed a prototype vocoder to isolate and manipulate elements of speech; Music On A Long Thin Wire (1977), in which a piano wire is strung across a room and activated by an amplified oscillator and magnets on either end, producing changing overtones and sounds; Crossings (1982), in which tones play across a steadily rising sine wave producing interference beats; Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas (1973–74), in which the interference tones between sine waves create "troughs" and "valleys" of sound and silence; and Clocker (1978), which uses biofeedback and reverberation.

North American Time Capsule is a 1967 composition by American experimental composer Alvin Lucier. The piece was composed at the invitation of Sylvania Applied Research Laboratories, which offered Lucier the use of a prototype vocoder. The vocal content of the piece was provided by the Brandeis University Chamber Chorus, of which Lucier was then the director. The score calls for members of the Chorus to “prepare a plan of activity using speech, singing, musical instruments, or any other sound producing means that might describe—to beings very far from the earth’s environment either in space or in time—the physical, social, spiritual, or any other situation in which we find ourselves at the present time.” Along with Sylvania engineer Calvin Howard, Lucier used the vocoder to isolate and manipulate elements of speech in real time. Eight separate tracks were recorded and subsequently mixed by Lucier. The piece is available on Vespers and Other Early Works.


A vocoder is a category of voice codec that analyzes and synthesizes the human voice signal for audio data compression, multiplexing, voice encryption, voice transformation, etc.

Music On A Long Thin Wire

Music on a Long Thin Wire is a musical piece by Alvin Lucier conceived in 1977.


Honorary Doctorate

Lucier was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Arts from Plymouth University in 2007.




  1. 1 2 Residuum (January 27, 2005). "audio I Am Sitting in A Room" . Retrieved September 29, 2016 via Internet archive.
  2. 1 2 Higgins, Parker (October 31, 2015). "Mad generation loss". parker higgins dot net. Retrieved September 29, 2016. Mad Generation Loss is a project exploring media encoding and the ways in which imperfect copies can descend into a kind of digital madness. It takes an audio file—here, a recording of Allen Ginsberg reading an excerpt from his seminal poem “Howl”–and adds another layer of mp3 encoding to each second of the sound.


Further reading



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