Alvin Lucier: Music for Solo Performer

Back in 1965 Musical pioneer Alvin Lucier met the scientist Edmond Dewan who was then conducting research on alpha brainwaves, and the two quickly began sharing ideas. Later that year Alvin Lucier debuted his brain wave piece titled Music for Solo Performer.

The piece is centred around a solo performer who is attached to a device that measures alpha wave activity.  It’s important to know that Alpha waves are only produced when the eyes are closed, the mind is relaxed,  and there is no physical exertion or activity. The solo performer seems to be in a particularly unusual state for an entertainer.  The alpha wave readings are connected to clever mechanical devices (reminds me of this breakfast machine) that strike various percussion instruments which are dotted around the room (although earlier renditions simply involve speaker cones resonating inside percussion).

Graphic Score for Music for the solo performer . From Kahn D. Earth sound Earth signal: Energies and Earth magnitude in the arts. Los Angeles: University of California Press; 2013. p. 87. Image courtesy of Alvin Lucier.

This piece of music has often been heralded as an artistic approach to sonification. However, alpha waves usually cycle between 8 and 13 times per second, which if heard directly, would be far below the range of human hearing, and would offer such a narrow scope of pitch to compose with. That in mind, I find it interesting that this piece is so easily categorized as sonification, despite the huge amount of changes that must be made to the data before it is heard. In some recordings Lucier and his assistant would multiply the frequency of the data by as much as 32 times, which if kept consistent, would still be an accurate representation. The issue I have with this piece is that these alterations are constantly adjusted so that their is huge variance in the pitch and volume. Although I have no doubt that this makes for a much more interesting piece of music,  I can’t help but feel that what we hear is more of a composer toying with effects processors, than the sonification of alpha wave data.

One of the great things about Wav4kst is that there is no pre-defined score. By using the technique of parameter mapping sonification, accurate representations of the data are audible in the music. The temperate values directly correlate to pitches, and each change in temperature adjusts the pitch by the same interval, without any ‘composed’ alterations. I think working in this way allows for a much more accurate representation of the weather data, and in this sense, makes the concept more interesting than Alvin Lucier’s.