Landscape with Alvin Lucier

Landscape with Alvin Lucier  “With and without purpose” : excerpts from the interview by Robert Ashley in his Music with Roots in the Aether (first text edition 2000 MusikTexte Cologne, but made for television 1975?)

I’ve selected these comments on the following topics from the interview:

  • technology and feeling – emotions in music
  • functionality and musical choice
  • distilling ideas, like pure alcohol
  • two-dimensional notation, three-dimensional sound in space
  • technology as a landscape
  • physicality of fly-fishing and sound
  • in and out of balance, with and without purpose


I think we should start talking again about emotions in music. 

Now what I do instead is to make pieces about natural acoustical phenomenon. The way sounds act; the way sounds are. People who don’t like what I do say that I’m doing experiments that any physicist can do, all right? Scientific experiments. 

[Talks about the brain wave piece using EEG scans, and taking out of the hospital practical context to make it interesting as a feeling] Technology is one tool after another, and its no better or no worse than any other tool. I took that feeling in the EEG out of the context where they’re not interested in feeling. They’re interested in the physical facts of what brain waves are, and I really didn’t care what the brain waves were.

I’d been thinking recently about making people have déja-vu as a musical experience…You’re always describing it [your work] in very very mundane theatrical terms and I don’t think that what I hear sounds like that.

[on Outlines of Persons and Things, sound waves bouncing off objects in space, works best when tuned at a high frequency, but] I didn’t like it, so I brought them down to the pitches that they are now because it reminded me of those insects in August … So in a sense I made a choice against the best operation of the piece, because it gave me that kind of feeling.

I think of my pieces as the clearest most intense examples of feelings… I try to distill these ideas and present them in their purest form…. It’s like distilling, making pure those things that happen anyway, but that you don’t perceive because they’re too complicated. … its putting people in a beautiful relationship to these phenomena.

.. before language and before writing … I think they were interested in reverberation and the sense of time that sound in space would have.

Well, Webern, Schoenberg, and post-serialism are so connected with print, so connected with writing notes. And if you don’t write in notes you get off the page… and if you’re not thinking on a page, you might not think in two dimensions.

When you write it’s in two dimensions, and sound is not two-dimensional … but most of the music we know is conceived on the page, two dimensionally. Okay? Now if I’m not thinking about that and if I’m not composing on the page and I really love sound, I begin to hear it as it is, which is a three-dimensional action.

See, I don’t think of technology as technology. I think of it as a landscape. … And it’s touching: a composer in the nineteenth or in another century is talking about the landscape that he’s in; the trees and the poetry – and I’m doing just that.

Could we talk a little bit about the idea of making things that make people feel good?

See what I’m doing here is rather like my art, isn’t it?

What you’re doing right at this moment?

Yes, the whole physical quality of this sport [fly-fishing] … The loops, the motion, the physical motion and the laws of wind resistance. … when I do this hour after hour it sharpens my senses. You know, the standing wave piece [Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas, 1973/74] is exactly this piece here [fly-fishing]. It’s exactly what you see when you’re on a stream, or on a pond. You know the first picture about the nature of sound in those acoustical books is a pebble in a pond. They show the photograph of how the surface of the pond radiates outward when you put in a pebble. And if you drop another one in and those waves interfere with each other, you have exactly this kind of thing. … The loops I make are never the same, but the action is. You try to make it the same but each loop is slightly different…. you can see the way the line falls is always slightly different and you can pay attention to that … The change of light, the change of the volume in the stream, the way sound diffracts around the rock.

… when I’ve come to a solution I feel there’s a kind of purification. It’s like alcohol; it’s very pure. It’s like the liquor that you drink – very distilled, transparent you know. It’s like a wonderful kind of gin. That’s funny to say for someone who doesn’t drink any more.

Have you ever noticed, at the moment when you can identify that you’re creating something, that previous to that , you were out of balance or you were sick?

.. It’s [composition] like an activity without a purpose – with and without a purpose.

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