Inner Landscapes: Alvin Lucier’s Music for Solo Performer

Simplicity, purity and ritual combine in the pioneering American composer’s seminal 1965 work utilizing brain waves

May 1, 2017

A man sits in a chair in the middle of a concert hall, perfectly still and dressed tastefully in a suit and tie. He is somewhat anonymous looking, as if he could have been pulled off an urban sidewalk and plopped in this seat, surrounded by a veritable orchestra of percussion instruments. Timpani, gongs, bass and snare drums and cymbals are strewn about, seemingly without performers to bring them to life. Out of nowhere, thunderous bass sounds bring these instruments into vibratory oscillation, their sonic activity spreading around the space in an ever-morphing wash of sound. The man sits calmly at the center, almost beatific. His eyes are closed as he listens to this remarkable spectral orchestra, which, as it turns out, is being played by his brain.

Alvin Lucier - Music For Solo Performer (1965)

The year was 1965, the composer was Alvin Lucier and the piece was Music for Solo Performer. Generally considered to be the first musical work to use brain waves to directly generate the resultant sound, Lucier’s work remains a groundbreaking and important piece of 20th century music, as well as one of the touchstones of early “live” electronic music.

The mechanics of the piece were deceptively simple: alpha brain waves are picked up from electrodes attached to the performer, and the low frequency thumps (typically between 9-15 hertz) are first sent into amplifiers to greatly magnify the pulses’ volume. Then, a bandpass filter cleans up the signal, which is sent by a second performer at a mixing board through a number of loudspeakers attached to percussion instruments and other objects to be activated by these massive, low frequency thumps.

This remarkable piece of music is also an early example (perhaps the first, by most estimations) of biofeedback music, though other works soon followed by composers such as Richard Teitelbaum and David Rosenboom, among others.

Many of these works approached the use of alpha waves differently than Lucier’s work, using the brain waves as control signals for analog synthesizers. As Lucier explains in a 1986 interview with Ev Grimes for Yale’s Oral History of American Music, Music for Solo Performer was about creating a musical structure that grew from the alpha rhythms themselves:

The idea was that I didn’t want to show mind control... Discovery is what I like, not control... So I completely eschewed that form... and let that alpha just flow out, and the composition was then how to deploy those speakers, and what instruments to use.

As a result, the formal structure and textural shifts in the piece’s performance are related not so much to aesthetic decisions (except the choice of instruments) as to the physical properties of the resonating objects. The indeterminate and inconsistent nature of alpha production also inherently limits the performer’s agency.

In the compositional tradition Lucier had studied and practiced prior to Music for Solo Performer, the composer writes the music, controls the result of their efforts and, in general, creates a structured, notated form that explores contrast, texture and form, which is then identified as the “piece.” Lucier’s anxiety at the time in abandoning that approach illustrates the pressure of that training, and his internal struggle to explore what lay beyond it. Ultimately, he made the decision to relinquish control and, in the process, discovered his own voice.

Blank Mind, Fertile Mind

In 1964, Lucier was teaching at Brandeis University, directing the Brandeis Choral Union and Chamber Chorus. He had recently returned from a two-year, Fulbright-sponsored sojourn to Europe. The trip had yielded one important conclusion: He was no longer interested in composing music in the style of his European contemporaries, as he had been attempting to do since his graduation from Yale University.

Dissatisfied with what he’d heard in Europe, Lucier says in a 2008 interview with Anton Rovner that “I realized that if I would write music in some of those styles, such as the post-serial or other similar trends, I would be talking in a dialect, not in my own personal language. So, when I came home, I just waited and thought about different things – my mind was a blank because I was not doing any work on composition.” As it turned out, this “blank” mind was the fertile soil needed for Lucier to make a radical shift in his compositional process.

Edmond Dewan’s brain wave control device (1964)

At the time, physicist Edmond Dewan was working at a lab near Brandeis doing brain wave research for the US Air Force. Dewan was an avid amateur organist and used to visit the Brandeis music department, and according to Lucier, was eager to share his ideas and equipment.

Lucier’s interest was piqued, and he immediately took advantage of the offer, spending long solitary hours in the Brandeis University electronic music studio with Dewan’s gear: two Tektronix Type 122 preamplifiers in series, one Model 330M Kronhite Bandpass Filter set for a range of 9 Hz to 15 Hz, an integrating threshold switch and electrodes, as well as the studio’s conventional equipment.

In an essay about the development of the piece for David Rosenboom’s landmark 1976 volume Biofeedback and the Arts: Results of Early Experiments, Lucier writes that he “learned to produce alpha fairly consistently,” finding that success “could be attained by setting the gain on the audio amplifier to a point just below oscillation, so that even a relatively weak alpha signal would come through.” Often, he says, he could only produce alpha in short bursts, and that it took “precisely the right physical and psychological conditions” to sustain it for longer periods.

This probing aesthetic voyage also connects to other events and memories from Lucier’s youth, specifically his time at the Portsmouth Abbey preparatory school in Rhode Island. In Yale’s Oral History of American Music, Lucier discusses the strong impression the meditational practice of a Trappist monk made on him, and its relationship to Music for Solo Performer:

I remember going into the chapel and watching a Trappist monk in the act of contemplation... he was thinking – deeply. It looked like somebody just thinking as hard as he possibly could. I remember I went back an hour later – he was in the same attitude – and I thought, “Well, if there’s any such thing as pure thought, that guy is doing it.” And that impressed me a lot... So when I did the brain wave piece, you’ve got to sit and not think of anything; because if you create a visual image your alpha will block.

Lucier continues:

I think the idea of mysticism, scholasticism... I don’t know, it formed me in some way, I think. My pieces are ritualistic. The way my pieces work often is they’re very simple and clear, and they’re stripped bare. If I start with eight things, I usually end up with four, and then I go two, and then I discover I can do it with one.

This concern with simplification, purity and ritual, which have become central tenets to much of his musical practice, were in many ways born from Lucier’s self-discoveries while working on Music for Solo Performer.

Performing the Brain as Music

After learning how to produce alpha waves fairly consistently, Lucier had to decide what he would do with them. Since they exist below the normal human hearing range for pitch, somewhere between 10-14 hertz, by themselves they are not perceived as musical notes, but more like physical rhythmic pulses. His colleagues at Brandeis suggested that he record the alpha waves and make a tape piece with the material by manipulating the recording. While Lucier has regularly used a recorded track of accelerated alpha waves during performances of the piece to bring the waves into audio range, the primary material of the piece remains raw alpha generated in real time.

Every person has a little electronic studio inside his or her brain.

Alvin Lucier

Harold Shapero, one of those colleagues, even suggested using an easily reproducible substitute for the alpha waves – a square wave oscillator set at 10 cycles per second. Lucier’s response reiterates the philosophical as well as sonic and aesthetic reasons for his interest in using the waves themselves: “to confuse a waveform, a symmetrical waveform, with a natural phenomenon – I’m talking about [how] the sound itself is different: little pops and clicks... fades and drifts, it goes up and it changes, it gets tired. It’s like the flow of a river or any natural phenomenon.”

The attempt to reveal natural processes as they are, and not to impose upon them, is another hallmark of Lucier’s work post-Music for Solo Performer. In his own 1995 book Reflections: Interviews, Scores, Writings, Lucier describes the foundational realization that “the electronics come from your brain, from inside every person, that every person has a little electronic studio inside his or her brain.” It was not just the sound, but the poetics and transformation of scientific/medical equipment into a tool for art, taking an “existing situation…and displace it, taking it right out of the hospital and putting it into the concert hall. Then it becomes art, or at least what I thought was art.”

He decided that instead of making a tape piece he would perform the piece live, coupling loudspeaker transducers to percussion instruments and use the energy of the waves to cause vibrations in the instruments: “When I thought of using the alpha energy to drive the percussion instruments, that was the point at which the idea became a piece, when it went into a musical realm.”

Lucier’s decision to use percussion instruments is likely another connection to his youth: He began his musical studies as a drummer, influenced by the big band music he grew up listening to, such as the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra, Count Basie, Stan Kenton and others, and he’s said that Music for Solo Performer was influenced by this period of study.

The two musical performance styles seem in stark contrast – a motionless person with eyes closed causing percussion to vibrate through non-visualization, versus a young child freely exploring the sounds and rhythms of a trap set – but there is a literal parallel. For most performances of Solo Performer, an assistant is used to improvisationally spatialize the alpha waves and move them around to the various instruments, which Lucier has likened to a young improvising drummer “going from snare drum to tom-toms.” Lucier’s connection between Solo Performer and his early days as a drummer is far from tenuous: “after all, alpha’s really a rhythm; scientists call it alpha rhythm.”

The premiere of Music for Solo Performer 1965 took place at Brandeis University on May 5th, 1965 at the Rose Art Museum. Lucier had invited John Cage to perform with him, but as late as March 30th, Lucier was still not sure if he would have Solo Performer ready, as stated in a letter to Cage: “If I can get enough electronic equipment ready I would like to try out my new idea with brain waves, but as yet I am unsure about it all.” On April 5th, Lucier made recordings of his alpha waves in the studio, as a dated reel held in the archives at Brandeis reveals. In the end, the piece indeed was performed with assistance from John Cage, who attended to the spatialization of the alpha waves.

The original version using loudspeakers coupled to timpani, bass drums, gongs and other traditional Western percussion instruments sounds the best, like thunder.

Alvin Lucier

Not everyone in attendance was excited by the performance. Two of Lucier’s colleagues attended, and Lucier remembers that one pretended to fall asleep, as if in parody of Lucier’s performing with his eyes closed. There were other less than charitable reviews of the work in its early days; A Boston Globe writer’s tepid review of a performance in Boston on February 26, 1966 stated that, “the sounds…were reminiscent of the Cage-Tudor fad that one found in New York nine or ten years ago…was this Boston’s belated electronic music baptême de feu?” Volker Straebel and Wilm Thoben, in their excellent 2014 article on Music for Solo Performer, uncovered another less than thrilling report of a performance in February 1969 by experimental pianist John Tilbury at the Purcell Room in London, from which the reviewer departed after just 20 minutes.

Discoveries and Futurities

Critical responses aside, this turning point in Lucier’s music was now out in the wider world, and Music for Solo Performer became a self-proclaimed landmark in discovery, where one can witness the formation of the aesthetic contours and compositional approach Lucier has explored ever since.

The piece itself, however, is more than simply the result of a serendipitous meeting with Dr. Edmond Dewan and his scientific equipment. Rather, it’s the combination of this technological encounter with Lucier’s inner journey to discover his own voice.

In Robert Ashley’s book Music with Roots in the Aether, the way Lucier himself describes technology, and his use of technology, is not as a tool divorced from human experience, but as part of a landscape, as natural and inspirational to him as trees and flowers might be to some other creative spirit:

In one way, art has always been dealing with the state that you find yourself in... The EEG was here without me doing anything about it. I don’t think of technology as technology. I think of it as a landscape... If you worked in a medical center, EEG would be just like a tree – it’s what you see every day...a composer in the 19th century is talking about the landscape that he’s in – the trees and the poetry – and I’m just doing that.
Alvin Lucier - Music On A Long Thin Wire

The landscape of his compositions, a number of which reveal natural processes or the physical properties of everyday objects, (such as Vespers (1968), The Queen of the South (1972), Music on a Long Thin Wire (1977), Music for Pure Waves, Bass Drums, and Acoustic Pendulums (1980) and Sferics (1981)) is founded on an extended and dedicated self-inquiry, and a willingness to, as the Cage mantra goes, let sounds be sounds.

Fifty-plus years later, Lucier still occasionally performs Music for Solo Performer. While he doesn’t necessarily experience new discoveries in these latter-day performances, Lucier said via email he does realize that “the original version using loudspeakers coupled to timpani, bass drums, gongs and other traditional Western percussion instruments sounds the best, like thunder.” As far as the future of the piece is concerned, Lucier admits he doesn’t think about it much, but he does have pithy words of wisdom for future performers: “Just sit still. No personal drama. Let the alpha do the work.”

Portions of this work have been previously published in a different form, in Dewar’s 2012 article “Reframing Sounds: Recontextualization as Compositional Process in the Work of Alvin Lucier,” in the online supplement to Leonardo Music Journal 22.

Special thanks to the Oral History of American Music project at Yale University for the use of excerpts from Ev Grimes’ 1986 interview with Alvin Lucier.

Header image © Doubleday & Cartwright

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