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  • Beethoven, Lucier, and the body

    There are few meaningful connections between Beethoven and Alvin Lucier. Beethoven is often regarded as the paragon of human achievement in music, representing construction and transformation. (These values are such a stark contrast to many modern composers, concerned with deconstruction and degradation). Beethoven attains vast peaks by manipulating the musical devices of harmony, form, melody, and orchestration. We often think of his music—not wrongly—as a city of cathedrals to the significance of the individual.

    Lucier's music builds nothing, nor is it about anything, per se. It constructs nothing, but instead offers a revelation. Simply, Lucier's music typically sets up a process which unfolds so as to elaborate an acoustical phenomenon as straightforwardly as possible. (Unlike with Minimalism, it is not the process that concerns the listener, but the result: the revelation). To achieve this, Lucier employs the same devices as Beethoven (harmony, orchestration, etc.), but strips them of their “music”—his harmony, form, melody, and orchestration are all used at the service of pure sound.

    Still, the two composers share one especially significant musical trait: both of them seek a transcendence in their work. Specifically, both offer a transcendence beyond the physical.


    Beethoven's deafness should plainly have ended his career as a composer. That he continued not only to compose, but to create some of the most powerful works ever known, is a testament to his effort. What his music achieves is a transcendence beyond the limitations of the body into the realm of the personal. In Beethoven's music, the personal is both the individual and the society, but never the body. Beethoven's deafness no doubt sharpened his intellect as a composer; without his impairment he would never have created such masterpieces. Yet his work does not celebrate the martyrdom we recognize, nor does it even celebrate Beethoven himself. It celebrates the abstraction of the personal.

    Lucier suffers from a stutter. This most explicitly affects his work I Am Sitting In a Room (1970), a work “scored” for speaker, two tape recorders, and a room. Lucier himself realized the first “performance” (tentatively recognized as such because is lacks the trappings of a familiar performance—no performer, no score, no instruments, nothing performable). The piece employs the human voice as a vehicle for tapping into the resonant frequencies of the room, typical inaudible in a natural setting. Through replaying and re-recording, the room's acoustical properties gradually overpower the human voice, until all “semblance of [his] speech … is destroyed.” This is transcendence at its clearest: a move beyond the inaudible into the audible.

    However, what Lucier does with such efficiency is to eliminate the “problem” of his body. The stutter vanishes as the room's sound engulfs it. Not only is the bodily imperfection erased, but his entire self is trampled in the inexorable crush of sonic purification.

    Thus, both Lucier and Beethoven find ways to subvert their bodies for the service of their work. What they seek may be seen as diametrically opposed (Beethoven, musical symbolism, the human; Lucier, acoustical purity, the imperceptible), but both compose from the understanding that the work is greater than the creator. It is, perhaps, ironic that Beethoven—the symbolist—overcame his physical limitation for practical reasons, while Lucier—the purist—overcame his for largely symbolic purposes.

    I find it particularly touching that one of Lucier's most recent works, Exploration of the House (2005), reworks I Am Sitting In a Room in a live setting, using as its source material fragments of a Beethoven work. But this is the only ritual Lucier indulges in; after the conceptual mise-en-place of these works, symbolism goes out the window, quickly replaced by determination toward transcendent goals.