In looking for a guide to the world of American experimental music, it would be hard to think of a better one than Alvin Lucier. Lucier is the composer who, as early as 1965, was producing works such as Music for Solo Performer, in which the low frequency of brainwaves is amplified and played over loudspeakers to create sympathetic vibrations in gongs, timpani and other percussion instruments.
In his new book, Music 109, he discusses seminal (and some lesser-known) pieces in experimental music, including his own compositions and others by David Behrman, Earle Brown, Richard Maxfield, La Monte Young, David Dunn, John Cage (of course) and many more.
It tends to be a lost cause to define what artworks of the same broad genre have in common. In the case of much experimental music, it might be that the creative idea of the piece is immanent in its medium. Thus Gordon Mumma's Hornpipe "was one of the first musical works that used acoustical testing of an environment as a formal structure for music". Or there is Lucier's own Chambers, in which (in one version) noises recorded in resonant objects or spaces are played back inside an unrelated resonant object. "My favorite one," Lucier relates, "was the sound of the huge railroad station in Cologne...heard inside a thimble."
Lucier's observations on the performance practice of Robert Ashley's The Wolfman, his own Vespers or Christian Wolff's For 1, 2 or 3 People are especially revealing. This is vital; one of the paradoxes of experimental music, as Mumma and others have pointed out, is that successful performance with advanced technology depends on a pre-modern kind of oral transmission. Would we be able to play Solo Performer if all we had was the circuit diagram?
Surprisingly, Lucier writes with an introductory readership in mind, and, despite the advanced nature of some of the concepts, does not assume prior knowledge of music theory or history. We thus find him explaining some of the fundamentals, even down to what a crotchet or clef is.
Rather like a problematic composition, with difficulties built into its very conception, this is the source of both some undeniable strengths of the book and its limitations. It can seem strange to jump from the high-level rhythmical complexity of Conlon Nancarrow's music to how a triplet works, or from the beautiful simplicity of Lucier's I am Sitting in a Room to an explanation of wavelength. This puts the book in an uneasy position: it would be understandable to a first-year student but probably of greatest interest to a specialised reader, who will wish more space had been devoted to advanced discussion.
As Cage used to say, however, "don't complain you wanted a lamb chop when you're offered steak". (Cage, of course, ever the master rhetorician, was slyly implying that what is offered will be of higher quality than the habitual fare you are demanding.) There are invaluable insights here, and the first-hand account is unpretentious and demystifying, a reminder that most experimental composers do what they do because this is the music they spontaneously conceive, not because they want to impress at dinner parties.
The pedagogical principle is also important - the provocative idea that we could introduce the concepts of art music through the music of the past decades rather than the past centuries. It is a strange habit, isn't it, that while studying music, students tend to come to the newest works only at a relatively advanced point in their studies? After all, scientists don't begin by studying Ptolemy.
Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music
By Alvin Lucier
Wesleyan University Press 216pp, £15.95
ISBN 9780819572974 and 72981 (e-book)
Published 10 September 2012