CD Review:

Sound Baths

Alvin Lucier
Lovely Music, Ltd. LCD 1018

Digital Music
Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta
Mode Records  mode 21

Of all his contemporaries who came to public attention in the sixties, Alvin Lucier has taken most seriously the prime edict of Minimalism: find one simple idea and stick to it.  His work, like the work of his contemporaries David Tudor, Gordon Mumma, Pauline Oliveros and David Behrman, has largely been about redefining music in terms of a meditation upon the physical properties of sound.  Working often as composer/performers, these musicians also articulated  a new social role for composers as solitary explorers, akin to the heroic stance taken by visual artists.  In fact, often times their work would be presented in gallery/installation settings, rather than in a traditional concert situation.

Lucier's work has been built upon the minimalist faith that the world itself provides infinite interest, and that the artistówhether he be working in light, space, or soundó can just focus his work to present nearly natural phenomena as clearly as possible. In Lucier's case, this most American of ideas has worked out well. Over the last twenty-five years, one strand of his work has explored the acoustic properties of various  objects by driving their resonances with the simple sine oscillator.  In different works he has explored the response of a brick wall (Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas) , an eighty foot long steel wire (Music on a Long Thin Wire),  and a chest of drawers (Job's Coffin) ; in other pieces he has used  ice, water, briefcases, teapots and a canoe. 

With the pieces on this disc, Lucier has "returned to the fold" of classical musical practice in an idiosyncratic way, bringing his decades of work with standing waves and other acoustic phenomena to works for players of classical Western instruments.  All three pieces reproduced here are based on one "trick": instrumentalists play sustained tones or chords against a fixed sine wave oscillator which never varies in volume. In two of the pieces,In Memoriam Jon Higgins  for solo clarinet, andCrossings  for small orchestra, the oscillator is very slowly sweeping up throughout the piece; inSeptet for Three Winds, Four Strings and Pure Wave Oscillator, the oscillator is just fixed at Middle C. 

The impact of these pieces is physiological: The unrelenting sine waves cause a strong trance effect. The combination tones, beatings and other interferences between the sine tone and the players form the heart of this music.   At a certain point, the difference between changes in the music and changes caused by the listener swallowing, moving his head or moving across the room become indistinguishable. The sound has the remarkable property of seeming to happen right in the earóand certainly, some of the perceptible effects are caused by  breakdowns and hallucinations in the brain's sound  localization apparatus.  The effect is unlike anything one is likely to have heard in normal life, or normal music. The results are fascinating, with this warning: some listeners may find it an unpleasant, even nauseating experience. 

But there is another beauty and power in this music, rooted in the intense concentration these pieces obviously demand from the performers. Lucier's live solo performances always gained power from the intensity of Lucier himself, often moving through the space,  exploring, and setting a standard for the audience as the "chief listener". In these  pieces that sense of heightened attention takes on a new delicacy, as we become aware of the extraordinary concentration and skill required from the musicians to control their instruments.  The performers meet this challenge well, and carry out ably the slow and subtle transformations that are the body of this music.  Tom Ridenour, the clarinetist for whom In Memoriam Jon Higgins was written, is the most remarkable.  In Lucier's work the most microscopic of changes has obvious consequences, and Ridenour's  playing, consisting of  long, precisely pitched tones, bathes the music in an aura of attention. 

Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta is of a younger generation of composers, strongly influenced by the works and life of John Cage, and by the possibilities inherent in computer technology.  Pimenta is a Portuguese architect in his thirties, who is also a composer. He has worked with Cage, and Cage's influence permeates the work. In fact, if one imagines a body of work  built upon the implications of Cage's early computer music collaboration with LeJaren Hiller, HPSCHD,  then one gets a pretty good idea of the ground Pimenta is covering. 

The pieces areówell, architectural, all long, very static spaces, which form simple arch structures if they have any development in them at all. Development is clearly beside the point in this music: the music is all lush, jangly, complex texture, which like Lucier's work provides a certain field for aural hallucination. Although Xenakis in not mentioned in the liner notes, I hear a strong kinship with his music here: there is the sense that the composer is trying to create a complex enough texture to energize the acoustical field, so that the listener is able to find, or project, whatever he will into the depths of this texture. 

The sound material for most of the pieces seems to be completely synthesized. The notable exception, and one of the strongest pieces on the disk, is Rozart, which uses recordings of the voice of Caruso. The voice of Caruso, like the brain of Einstein or Elvis's comb, has a certain totemic value to begin with, and what Pimenta does with it is a cut above any of the sample manipulation clichés we've been hearing lately. There's something like demon conjuring in this piece, the invocation of a really spooky and powerful presence. This music is not mere technical fiddling, as too much computer music seems to be: the power and integrity of Pimenta's vision is palpable. 

      óTim Perkis