Alvin Lucier, Groundbreaking Experimental Composer, Dead at 90

Alvin Lucier, performing a piece in 1991. Photo: Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

Alvin Lucier, an avant-garde composer who experimented with new ways to record and distort sounds, died on December 1. Lucier died at his home in Middletown, Connecticut, after a fall, his daughter, Amanda, told the New York Times. He was 90 years old. Lucier was known for his musical compositions that aimed for new ways to channel sound. For his best-known art piece, 1969’s I Am Sitting in a Room, he recorded himself reciting a speech (“I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now …”) in an enclosed room then played back the recording and recorded that. He continued to replay and record the slowly degrading recordings until left with unrecognizable pitches. The piece remains highly influential and known in experimental music for its questions about technology, acoustics, and time. I Am Sitting in a Room also showcased a sense of humor and playfulness present in Lucier’s works, such as his notable 1990 piece Nothing Is Real, which involved recording a pianist playing the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” then playing back the recording inside a teapot and opening and closing the lid to alter the sound. Lucier was also heavily interested in brain waves, which were the basis of one of his first major experimental pieces, 1965’s Music for Solo Performer.

Born in New Hampshire on May 14, 1931, Lucier’s interest in experimental music was sparked in 1960 after attending performances by avant-garde legends John Cage, David Tudor, and Merce Cunningham while on a Fulbright fellowship in Rome. In 1962, he began teaching at Brandeis University, where he went on to arrange performances by Cage and his peers, including Earl Brown and Christian Wolff. Around that time, in 1966, he also formed the Sonic Arts Union, a group of experimentalist peers of his own, including Robert Ashley, David Behrman, and Gordon Mumma, who performed together for a decade. Lucier moved to Wesleyan University in Middletown in 1968, where he taught composition for over four decades as he composed and performed his own works. Earlier this year, Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room celebrated Lucier’s 90th birthday with a 26-hour livestream of performances of I Am Sitting in a Room featuring 90 separate performers.

Alvin Lucier, Innovative Experimental Composer, Dead at 90