‘Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music’ Is Simple and Brilliant

If this seems like a short review or one that is unadorned with poles of hyperbole in either the favor of or entirely against a piece of work, it’s because, perhaps, this is one of the easiest books to write about, a book that says what it needs to say and to which very little can be added. Its author takes up the task in a manner that more writers could stand to emulate.

In short:

Alvin Lucier has given us a remarkable gift with this volume, a work that, Robert Ashley writes in the foreword, “is a thorough, modern history of a particular group of composers and their work,” adding that the book “will solve many teachers’ problems about what ideas, what composers, and what compositions are important to understand from that history.” The volume begins in the ’50s and closes somewhere around the ’80s, Ashley notes. The great Harry Partch’s time had already passed but there were many other minds to be discovered and some that still beg to be discovered by a wider audience.

Lucier is a composer himself, of course, a man who knew many of the composers he writes about with such graceful simplicity in these pages. He doesn’t merely analyze the piece at hand but gives us amusing anecdotes not only about the piece but about the composers themselves. Let there be no spoiling of those anecdotes for the potential reader in this review––discovering them for yourself in Lucier’s inimitable way of telling them––economical, humorous, never gossipy and yet delightfully chatty––is one of the great joys of this book, akin to seeking out and hearing may of the pieces written about in these pages.

One couldn’t begin that task at a specified point and expect to end in a short amount of time at the end. Seeking out, hearing, absorbing the many compositions mentioned in this book is an ongoing process but with this as your guide you can hardly go wrong.

The pieces are mostly taken from lectures the author has given in his more than 40 years teaching at Wesleyan and it is not, as he points out, meant to be taken as a complete survey of experimental American music. These are mostly personal favorites, others that he saw in their early stages, or knew about even before they were born.

John Cage figures heavily in the discussion, as one might expect. His is one of the most recognizable names in experimental music and his mind one of the most vast, whimsical, and brilliant of all those who composed during the era about which Lucier writes. He also takes a moment to dispel myths about the legendary “silent” piece “4’33””, of which he writes, “[it’s] beneficial to perform every once in a while. It makes you pay attention to the sounds around you”.

Morton Feldman––“Morty”, Lucier calls him; Morty!––also appears and the author writes of him with affection. Earle Brown’s “From Here” is explained with an economy and clarity that makes you wish Lucier were standing on your shoulder, revealing the mysteries of all great works to you. He writes unself-consciously but with deep honesty about the Sonic Arts Union, of which he was a member. He details Robert Ashley’s 1964 piece, “Wolfman”, with an enthusiasm usually reserved for children or those under the spell of some sort of mania (albeit with an intelligent reserve) such that it becomes one of the most interesting works offered up for discussion in the book.

Steve Reich’s haunting “Come Out” (1966) is here, as Terry Riley’s marvelous “In C” from 1964. Philip Glass’s “1+1” is present––replete with “a mini-lesson in rhythmic notation”––as are a few of his other pieces, including “Einstein On the Beach”.

It doesn’t really matter that the number of actual composers Lucier writes about is relatively small––the body of work he details is large enough to fire the reader’s imagination and soul for some long time to come. If the authorial voice is at times so simplistic that it seems to lull, that’s part of the book’s gentle charm. Lucier persuades you quietly with his point rather than bludgeoning you with the sturm und drang techniques of a lesser writer and a lesser mind.

RATING 9 / 10