In 2016, the composer Alvin Lucier turned 85. Only five years earlier at Wesleyan University, where Lucier had taught for four decades, a celebration commemorated not only his 80th birthday but also a lifetime spent reimagining the boundaries of music and our perception of sound and the space we are in. But this time, the Zurich University of the Arts took the lead, programming a three-day festival for No. 85.
There were installations, like an enormous version of Music on a Long Thin Wire, and workshops, including one where Lucier delighted with the anecdotal underpinnings of many of his most famous works. Lucier performed, as did longtime collaborators such as singer Joan La Barbara and cellist Charles Curtis. A new orchestra, the Ever Present, was even formed for the event just to sample from Lucier’s repertoire of compositions after he made an all-important pivot back to conventional instruments in 1982. It was an aptly sprawling coronation for a career that has explored and redefined so much ground.
Last year, the Zurich University of the Arts collected the fruits of that weekend and an exhaustive overview of Lucier’s life in Illuminated by the Moon, a four-LP, one-CD, 120-page, limited-edition box set. Thanks to the Black Truffle label of Lucier enthusiast and collaborator Oren Ambarchi, the set is now back in print in a second edition with stateside distribution. It is overwhelming and awesome, nothing more than a document of a few days in Zurich but nothing less than a testament to and examination of one of the most pivotal composers of the last century.
The music collected here, all recorded at the festival, offers a selective overview of Lucier’s enormous oeuvre. There are wondrous new versions of Lucier’s essential early works—1965’s Music for Solo Performer, where brain waves from an EEG command a thundering percussion arsenal, and 1970’s frameshifting I Am Sitting in a Room, which Lucier recites through the traces of age. Speaking of age, though, there are riveting new works, too, like the world premiere of Double Rainbow, which finds La Barbara’s voice suspended in and blending with electronic washes. And 2015’s Hanover, played by the Ever Present Orchestra, is one of Lucier’s most engrossing works ever, piano plinking beneath the flickering beats of droning guitars and strings. Braid is deeply hypnotic, the Beatles variation for teapot-and-piano called Nothing Is Real wonderfully playful.
Actually, one of the most striking aspects of Illuminated by the Moon may be that sense of play, or the way it humanizes Lucier and his work, which can seem abstruse or even academic at first blush. In the book edited and introduced by Ever Present founder Bernhard Rietbrock, we get glimpses into Lucier’s relationships and personality and mind, all couched in the way the music works. Lucier walks us through many of his pieces himself in his genial voice, softening the complications of it all without dumbing it down. Curtis suggests the unassuming nature of Lucier when he details the origins of the magnificent cello-and-oscillator piece that bears his name. Without fanfare, it arrived unannounced in his mailbox in 2002 in a brown envelope. Over the years, he and Lucier have remained in conversation about the work, refining it in an attempt to, as Curtis puts it, “make it more what it intends to be.”
And there’s Ambarchi himself, detailing the attention to detail it takes to perform Lucier’s work as intended and how intimidating the prospect—and how rewarding the results—can be. In a charming and enlightening “Conversations Among Friends” with La Barbara, Curtis, Anthony Burr, Hauke Harder, and the composer himself, there’s even a little light Lucier ribbing.
Between the works and the words, Illuminated by the Moon seems to capture if not the sum of Lucier’s prolific lifetime at least the spirit of it. Here is the enthusiasm with which he has pursued “no ideas but in things” and a sense of musical mystery through the embrace of scientific wonder, captured lovingly by his cohorts.
The revelatory nature of Illuminated brings to mind a thought from Lucier’s chat with his pals, regarding his most famous work. “I was once asked why I could not just explain or say what the room sounded like, but the thing is that it is something inexplicable, something you need to repeat in each room you are in and discover anew,” he says. At Big Ears 2019, he will have another chance to define new rooms for new audiences, with many of the same people who shape this incredible box set.