Alvin Lucier Criss-Cross / Hanover

[Black Truffle; 2018]

Styles: drone, modern classical, experiments in psychoacoustic phenomena
Others: Sonic Arts Union, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Eleh

Instructions for listening to Criss-Cross/Hanover by Alvin Lucier:

1. Read this:

“Almost 50 years after he famously sat in a room, Alvin Lucier is still making music that explores spatial resonance and tonal interference. Early in his career, Lucier worked with Robert Ashley, David Behrman, and Gordon Mumma as the Sonic Arts Union. Now he is collaborating with the next generation of experimental musicians, including Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))) and Oren Ambarchi, whose Black Truffle imprint is releasing this album. More importantly, Lucier is still experimenting — this is the first time that he has applied his process-based compositional style to electric guitars.

The two long tracks that comprise the album can both be classified as ‘drone music,’ but otherwise don’t share much in common. ‘Hanover’ is based on the album’s cover photo of Lucier’s violinist father and his Dartmouth band in 1918. The track features all of the instruments in the photograph, including violin, saxophone, piano, and vibraphone, with three electric guitars replacing the banjos. This is a discordant and haunting song, with the string instruments creating a wailing, keening background for the piano’s hesitant single-note explorations. It is as though the lost figures in the photo, tragically manifested once more, are tuning up for a last performance but struggling to manipulate their instruments through the inconsistent physicality of their ghostly forms.

‘Criss-Cross,’ in comparison, is a soothing meditation. Like the work of La Monte Young or Maryanne Amacher, it relies on the perceptual effects of controlled tones to re-calibrate the listener’s relationship to natural sound. Written for O’Malley and Ambarchi, the piece calls for two guitarists, one in the left channel and one in the right, to apply an EBow to the B string while moving the tuning peg in opposite directions from each other, with one beginning a half semitone below B and the other a half semitone above. As the guitarists intersect at B and then retreat and come back again, they create an interference pattern, called “beating.” What the listener hears is a warm tone that alternately lengthens into a hum and shortens into a rapid pulse. This slowly shifting tone forms an aural frame around any sounds that occur organically — street noise, household appliances, others’ voices. Remove the frame, and the sounds temporarily remain objets d’art. This defamiliarizing effect is central to Lucier’s most successful pieces, including I Am Sitting in a Room and Music on a Long Thin Wire, wherein a simple idea is performed with great precision in order to reveal the subtleties inherent in our audial environment.

Lucier’s work is sometimes called ‘research music’ for its extreme attention to acoustic phenomena and auditory perception. Yet his music’s appeal lies just as much in its personal aspects, whether through Lucier’s voice in I Am Sitting, his father’s ghostly presence in ‘Hanover,’ or O’Malley and Ambarchi’s intense focus in ‘Criss-Cross.’ For the listener, the effect is personal as well, as transparently mundane circumstances — the shape of the room you’re in, the tonal quality of the dishwasher — become newly and startlingly important.”

2. Buy, borrow, or steal some good headphones.
3. Play the album loudly.
4. Focus.
5. When the album is over, you will hear the world anew. This effect is temporary. To experience it again, repeat steps 3 & 4.

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