Music Reviews

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Artist: Alvin Lucier
Title: Vespers and Other Early Works
Format: CD
Label: New World Records
Distributor: New World Records
One side effect of making a landmark piece is that earlier work may be overlooked or remain obscure. Chiefly known for the breathtakingly reductive "I Am Sitting in a Room" (1971), Alvin Lucier has been exploring the frontiers where music and space meet for over four decades. Although Lucier's work is available on labels like Lovely, Cramps, and even Elektra (anyone remember the "Imaginary Landscapes" compilation?) early works like "North American Time Capsule" (1967) and "Vespers" (1969) lurked on expensive, out of print LPs. Released on the well-distributed New World Records label, "Vespers and Other Early Works" features five works that underscore Lucier's deceptively simple and ingenious use of sound, space, and technology. Even without knowing Lucier's ideas behind the pieces, this disc serves a rich sonic feast. "Vespers," originally released on Time/Mainstream Records, starts off with what sounds like the distant clack of billiard balls. The clacking multiplies and soon incessant shifts in tone, density, and location suggest an unsettling, alien telemetry. What is really happening is that the performers are using Sondols - echolocation devices that emit a beep. In performance, the performers find there way through the space in the dark using the Sondols (short for Sonar-dolphins) to converge on a central location. In Elliott Schwartz' book Electronic Music (Prager, 1975, 2nd edition), Lucier writes "With enough practice and discriminating hearing, human beings can learn to use the echoes of Sondol-generated pulsed sounds to measure distances, avoid obstacles and make acoustical signatures of reverberant environments." (p. 239). About the title Lucier comments, "...Vespers was chosen for the dual purpose of suggesting the dark ceremony and sanctifying atmosphere of the evening service of the Catholic religion [sic] and to pay homage to the common bat of North America of the family Vespertilionidae." (ibid, p. 240) Equally mysterious is "Elegy for Albert Anastasia" (1961-63). Created at the Studio Fonologica in Milan, Italy and subsequently remixed at Brandeis University, this tape piece consists of low tones moaning and rumbling at the threshold of hearing. Unlike the quick transitions and mid-range tessitura common to similarly contemporaneous electro-acoustic music, the looming quality of these slow, brooding, bass sounds is refreshing. Originally released on "Extended Voices," a CBS Odyssey Music of Our Time LP, "North American Time Capsule" processes speech, music, and who knows what else with the Sylvania Vocoder. The term is short for "Voice Encoder" originally invented to electronically encrypt and transmit speech signals. The result is an encyclopedia on how to use a Vocoder: susurrant, zippering whispers, oboe-like utterances, and other timbral turbulence makes this piece a delight. Although created in 1968 and 1970, the two other pieces on the disc "Chambers" and "(Middletown) Memory Space" were realized and recorded in the last two years. "Chambers" packages various location recordings into assorted packages. The sounds are modified by these packages, which to my ears sound like vases or other glass containers. For "(Middletown) Memory Space" Lucier asks the performers to annotate and then recreate the sounds of a city (whose name is inserted in the parenthesis and becomes part of the title). Both are alluring, delicate, intriguing works that merit repeated listens.

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