Anthony Burr/Charles Curtis: Alvin Lucier
Antiopic/Sigma Editions

How wonderful to see Alvin Lucier honoured with a deluxe two-disc release where the presentation so seamlessly complements the musical content. On the cover, abstract blue-grey patterns overlap, generating an op-art effect not dissimilar to the resonating effect of the music's paired tones. The accompanying twenty-page booklet mixes Lucier's own words with illustrations and writings by Homer, Kepler, Varese, Helmholtz, Adorno, and Horkheimer, making the book a satisfying document unto itself. Enticing passages illuminate the listening experience (the beating interference patterns generated by two slightly different tones is likened to intersecting ripples created when two stones are dropped near to each other in a pond) while poetic excerpts from The Odyssey nicely offset the scientific character of others.

Listeners new to Lucier's work should know, however, that the work is uncompromising and severely minimal (born in 1931, the composer is best known for classics like “I Am Sitting in a Room,” composed in 1970, and 1977's “Music on a Long Thin Wire,” work that explores the physical and psychic effects of sound). The seven pieces are typically long but their duration isn't arbitrary; time is needed for the 'parabolic' beating effects of the tonal pairings (cello and pure wave oscillator on three pieces, clarinet and pure wave oscillator on three also) to be heard. By restricting the focus to close tunings and pure tones, the instrument pairs generate slowly unfurling, wave-like shapes (interestingly, the 'spinning' reverberations are most pronounced on the concluding piece, 1993's “Music for Cello with One or More Amplified Vases”). With their rigorous adherence to the works' demands, cellist Charles Curtis (director of La Monte Young's Theater of Eternal Music String Ensemble and Professor of Contemporary Music Performance at the University of California, San Diego) and clarinetist Anthony Burr are Lucier's ideal interpreters.

Details accompanying the compositions' titles intimate what one will hear. The twenty-minute “In Memoriam John Higgins” (1987) is scored for “clarinet in A and slow sweep, pure wave oscillator” and, not surprisingly, the oscillator maintains a steady presence throughout with the extended tones of Burr's clarinet (and faint traces of his breath) intermittently merging with it. The description oversimplifies the case, of course: when the tones are paired, the sound waves vibrate and spin, moving in and out of sync with one another, and the pitches shift, gradually moving higher as the work progresses. Though they're of similar character, the pieces differ subtly from each other too: while Curtis plucks his cello throughout “On the Carpet of Leaves Illuminated by the Moon” (2000), thereby establishing a tempo that's absent elsewhere, he adopts a more aggressive bowed attack in “Charles Curtis,” a 2002 piece Lucier created especially for the project.

A childhood anecdote by Lucier ends the booklet memorably, with the composer recounting a boys' camp owner who instructed children to walk back to their cabins at dusk along unfamiliar routes, and thereby sensitized them anew to the forest's wealth of natural sounds. According to Lucier, “You would take a journey, and these things would open up to you. That was, for me, a very strong experience”—much like the experience of listening to this valuable collection.

December 2005