Alvin Lucier Alvin Lucier

Vespers (1968)


Around the year 1967, Lucier got interested in echolocation. One day he accidentally met someone who worked for a company producing Sondols, hand-held pulse oscillators designed for “ boat owners, acoustic engineers, and the blind.” Lucier bought a few of them and envisioned a piece for echolocation.
Each performer is equipped with a Sondol and asked to move blindfolded inside a defined performing space. The Sondols emit short, sharp pulses at variable repetition speeds, and the pulses produce echoes from the reflecting walls of the space. The echoes are used for orientation. Lucier had in mind that the performers, in doing this, are taking a “sound photograph” of the space. Each echo reveals a little detail of the surrounding space. Thus, the whole piece is like a panoramic, acoustic photograph, made up of uncountable individual shots.
VESPERS might be one of the most underrated pieces in Lucier’s œuvre. It never got the same attention as MUSIC FOR SOLO PERFORMER or I AM SITTING IN A ROOM. But VESPERS, in particular, marked a significant turning point in the history of music. It is probably the first piece in which the decisions made during the performance are solely based on acoustics, since the task is simply to move from A to B using echolocation. Sound is not only the content of the artwork, it also determines its realization.
VESPERS is written as a prose score and, as in many of Lucier’s early works, the instructions on how to perform the piece involve passages of unique and remarkable poetic qualities. The scores of CHAMBERS (1968) and GENTLE FIRE (1971), for example, mainly consist in chains of images, and that of VESPERS invites the performer to explore the world beyond human limits: “Dive with whales, fly with certain nocturnal birds or bats (particularly the common bat of Europe and North America of the family Vespertilionidae), or seek the help of other experts in the art of echolocation.”