Alvin Lucier: Small Waves

Suoni Per Il Popolo 2015

  • Sunday, June 7, 2015 8:00 pm
    4848, boulevard Saint-Laurent, 3e (près de l’angle Saint-Joseph)
    Montréal (Québec)



In the press

Contemplations on listening: Alvin Lucier and the Bozzini Quartet in Montréal

Christina Volpini, Bachtrack, June 10, 2015

As many composers continue on a mad dash to ensnare audiences in a spiral of novel sounds, fantastic visuals and complexity, it is rare to find a composer who is interested solely in investigating the phenomena of sound itself. Musical trends have come and gone over the course of the 20th century, and yet composer Alvin Lucier has continued to produce works focused on a single idea related to sound production and the act of listening. This past Sunday, Montréal hosted Lucier as he, the Bozzini Quartet and other musicians performed his works of the past two decades.

At the age of 84, Lucier is a pioneer in the field of experimental music in post-war America. He often makes use of the properties of sound, room acoustics and the experience of hearing in his compositions. Of particular interest in this concert was the phenomenon of “sound wave interference”. This occurs when two sound waves which are very close in frequency approach the ear. The two slightly out-of-sync waves interfere with each other, and we hear this as a sort of ‘beating’ – imagine two instruments playing slightly out of tune. Though undesirable in other forms of classical music, Lucier draws our attention to this and other naturally-occurring acoustic phenomena, often with the use of technology.

Performing pieces of this nature requires painstaking concentration and hard work on the part of the player; pitches must be executed with absolute precision in order to create the desired effects. The first three pieces on the program presented sound wave interference through the context of a soloist in interaction with electronics. The first piece, Wind Shadows, featured trombonist Felix Del Tredici’s careful microtonal playing. Different rates of beating were created as he played long tones in unison with two pure sine oscillators. This was followed by Violynn, in which the Bozzini Quartet’s Clemens Merkel created a similar effect, this time against a series of six sine waves. Cellist Isabelle Bozzini then performed Charles Curtis, carefully executing double stops against long sine waves to form interference. The performers each paid close attention to detail, displaying fine control of their instrument through careful microtonal inflection.

Lucier himself performed the piece Bird and Person Dyning, in which an electric bird call interacted with feedback between speakers and a binaural microphone. ‘Dyning’ refers to heterodyning, a term from early radio transmission in which the addition and subtraction of two tones creates two new tones. With the performer required to wear the binaural microphone, the frequency of the feedback was dependent on Lucier’s position in the room. The composer moved in the space slowly and deliberately, able to create uncanny effects through even slight changes in the position of his body. At times, this included the strange experience of difference tones that seemed to form and vibrate right within the ear. The effects of space and resonance were also dealt with in the charming piece Nothing is real, in which pianist Daniel Áñez first recorded fragments of the Beatles song Strawberry Fields Forever with a wash of damper pedal, then replayed the fragments on a speaker housed inside a teapot. By raising and lowering both the lid and the teapot itself, Áñez was able to isolate particular partials within the wash of recorded piano.

The final piece of the evening, Small Waves, brought all of the members of the Bozzini Quartet to the stage as well as Del Tredici and Áñez. In this piece, the performers played long, sustained clusters tuned closely to pitches of the feedback between speakers and six microphones. These microphones were inserted in glass vessels partially filled with water and placed around the space. On occasion, stage hands would pour water between vessels, thereby changing the pitch of the feedback. At 50 minutes in length, this piece was a display of endurance. The Bozzini Quartet’s care and precision was essential to the execution of the piece; the subtleties of the work were perceptible due to their exact microtonal tuning and synchronous ensemble playing. The quartet confronted the challenges of this music with confidence, their dedication to the work evident in their effort to bring these acoustic phenomena to fruition.

In many ways, Lucier’s music can be just as challenging for the listener as it is for the performers. Little of Western art music as single-minded and static, particularly when compared with the emotional journeys in the tradition of Beethoven, Wagner or Mahler. What Lucier’s music lacks in turbulence and cinematic grandeur it gains in quiet contemplation; rather than an elaborate structure built from many parts, this music is a monolith chiselled from a single block of marble. Lucier’s music forces us to slow down, reminding us of the quiet wonder found within the everyday act of listening.

The Bozzini Quartet’s care and precision was essential to the execution of the piece; the subtleties of the work were perceptible due to their exact microtonal tuning and synchronous ensemble playing. The quartet confronted the challenges of this music with confidence, their dedication to the work evident in their effort to bring these acoustic phenomena to fruition.

Suoni Per Il Popolo festival keeps its ears open

Jordan Zivitz, The Gazette, June 2, 2015

For a festival that surveys the constantly mutating outer limits of music, it’s reassuring to see how much has stayed the same for Suoni Per Il Popolo as it reaches the halfway mark of its second decade.

The focus remains on the exploratory and improvisational, with artists stretching the elastic properties of rock, jazz and classical.

The activity remains centred at a select few Mile End venues within easy walking distance, fuelling a community spirit. (The distance between Casa del Popolo and La Sala Rossa is little more than a hop and skip; add a jump and you’re at La Vitrola, which opened last year and, like the Casa and Sala, is owned by festival co-founders Mauro Pezzente and Kiva Stimac.)

The admission fees remain resistant to inflation, with few shows priced above $15.

And to hear Suoni executive director Peter Burton tell it, the programming remains the product of collaboration — not just between the organizers, but with musicians who embody the festival’s democratic spirit of sounds for the people, by the people.

“Sometimes a local artist will come to us and say, ‘I really want to play with Person X or Y,” Burton said last week. “A number of years ago we had Halim El-Dabh come to town, who’s this amazing Egyptian-American composer. He worked with Stravinsky and had wonderful stories about hanging out with the Beatles in the ’60s and all this kind of stuff. And (perennial Suoni guest) Sam Shalabi had suggested he’d be a fantastic artist to bring, Sam also being Egyptian. So that was a natural collaboration.”

Burton singled out several concerts on this year’s program that came about through similar mind-melds. Stretch Wood (Monday, June 8, La Sala Rossa) is a Suoni exclusive: a string ensemble led by Josh Zubot — “an amazing virtuoso violinist who’s been in a million different projects” — playing a piece the festival commissioned from composer/percussionist Isaiah Ceccarelli. “We put together all these top-notch string players, including Malcolm Goldstein, who’s this local legend. He used to work with John Cage and Merce Cunningham in New York and has this amazing lineage that he brings to the group.”

The string players in Quatuor Bozzini helped arrange a collaboration with U.S. composer Alvin Lucier. “He’s going to be coming for two concerts with them (Friday, June 5 at the Gesù and Sunday, June 7 at La Sala Rossa). He made some seminal media art pieces, had a massive influence on the development of sound art and helped rethink 20th-century composition. Just this fascinating figure.”

Other concerts are more conventional in structure, but when a festival’s most mainstream acts are Dinosaur Jr. guitar warlock J Mascis (Friday, June 5 at La Sala Rossa) and art-house electronica priestess Zola Jesus (Tuesday, June 16 at La Sala Rossa), conventional sounds are in short supply. Suoni’s reputation has been built not on marquee names, but on the thrill of discovery.

“A lot of people tell us we have plenty of artists they haven’t heard of, and every year that’s the case for me, too,” said Burton, adding that the organizers’ respective tastes complement one another. “People seem to trust the festival.”

The expert curation has chiselled away at walls between genres. It isn’t hard to imagine that someone drawn to La Sala Rossa on Monday, June 22 for untameable Dutch punks the Ex may take a chance on the unknown and venture to La Vitrola the previous night for Niger’s Mdou Moctar.

“He plays interpretations of traditional Tuareg music, but in a guitar/bass/drums format,” Burton said. “He became very popular in West Africa through cellphones, with people exchanging the music on their memory cards.”

Much like Suoni’s audience trusts the festival, the festival seems to trust the loyalty of its audience. Patrons who block off their calendar for much of June are at least as common as those who drop in for a single show.

“It’s a bit of a marathon. A lot of festivals would go for a weekend format for this kind of thing, but ours goes for three weekends and the weeks in between,” Burton said. “We’d probably get more people from out of town if it was just a Thursday-to-Sunday event … but it’s great in the sense that you’re not trying to stuff things in and listen to six artists in one day. You get to pace it over time.”

Suoni Per Il Popolo: musiques atypiques

Alain Brunet, La Presse, May 30, 2015

[…] Les octogénaires Pauline Oliveiros et Alvin Lucier demeurent d’indomptables pur-sang de la musique contemporaine made in USA. Accordéoniste et pionnière de l’électro d’avant-garde, Pauline Oliveiros ne cesse de tourner à travers le monde, malgré son grand âge. La verdeur d’Alvin Lucier est aussi remarquable: professeur émérite à la Wesleyan University, créateur toujours actif, il s’inscrit parmi les précurseurs de l’installation sonore et autres expériences où il exploite les propriétés physiques du son. Lors de ces deux programmes offerts au Gesù et à la Sala Rossa, la musique de ces vétérans sera mise en lumière par le Quatuor Bozzini et l’ensemble de Pauline Oliveiros. […]