It started with bats. It was around 1967, and composer Alvin Lucier was reading a book on echolocation - the way bats bounce sound off surrounding objects to navigate the night. He was teaching at Brandeis at the time (he would move to Wesleyan University in 1968); his wife, a sculptor and artist in search of studio space, placed an ad that was answered coincidentally by an employee of Listening Inc., a company in nearby Arlington.
Listening Inc. had a contract with the US Navy, researching man-dolphin communication. One of the offshoots of that effort was the Sondol (a name taken from sonar and dolphin) - a handheld gadget that sends out streams of electronic clicks crisp enough to echo off just about anything. The firm hoped to market it to divers and the blind.
Lucier obtained several of the devices and gave four of them to blindfolded performers in a darkened concert hall. He told them to try to make their way around the room, using the Sondols’ echoes for reference. A swirling chorus of clicks was the result; on close listening, they gradually defined the dimensions of the hall - “very slow audio photographs of that space,’’ as Lucier explained it. He called the piece “Vespers.’’
It wasn’t Lucier’s first radically experimental piece, and it wouldn’t be his most famous - that would be “I Am Sitting in a Room,’’ in which Lucier recorded himself reciting the technique of the piece, played it back into the room, recorded the playback, and then repeated the procedure until all that was left was the resonant frequencies of the room itself. But “Vespers’’ - which will be performed at Wesleyan on Saturday night, part of three days of presentations, films, and concerts celebrating Lucier’s 80th birthday - even more provocatively sets out the parameters of Lucier’s music.
“Vespers’’ was constructed as more a task than a musical structure; “It puts the . . . players in a very different kind of a musical situation,’’ Lucier would later explain, “because they have to hear the physical qualities of the sound,’’ rather than the emotional content. If the performers wanted practice, the score advised them to consult with experts: “Dive with whales, fly with certain nocturnal birds or bats.’’ The title itself was a pun on “Vespertilionidae,’’ the scientific name for the largest family of bats.
But there was another set of vespers in the background. Lucier had traveled to Rome on a Fulbright scholarship in 1960, intending to write a set of variations for trumpet and harpsichord on the “Deposuit potentes’’ movement of Claudio Monteverdi’s “Vespers of 1610,’’ which features two solo instruments in cascades of imitative echoes. The variations were never written (a casualty Lucier later speculated, of “the predictable identity crisis of the American expatriate in Europe’’), but the echoes stayed in Lucier’s mind, reappearing as the ricocheting clicks of the Sondols.
Given the upheavals of the late 1960s, another composer might have emphasized extra-musical echoes, too. Plenty of Americans were having identity crises at home, and “deposuit potentes’’ (“He hath put down the mighty’’) would not have been an unpopular fantasy. The score to “Vespers’’ suggestively specifies forces consisting of “any number of players who would like to pay their respects to all living creatures who inhabit dark places.’’ But Lucier was more interested in getting listeners to clear away what they thought music should be, how it should go, what it should mean.
As a student at the Portsmouth Priory school in Rhode Island, Lucier had once watched a Trappist monk in contemplation and had been fascinated by the simplicity of focus. (In one of his first experimental pieces, “Music for Solo Performer,’’ the sounds were triggered, live, by the amplification of alpha waves in the performer’s brain, making the music contingent on a meditative state.) “Vespers’’ channels that austere, simple directness: a piece about finding one’s way that consists of no more and no less than actually finding one’s way.
It frustrated some audiences, who grew restless at the lack of even an abstract musical narrative. But for Lucier, the story was actual sound, in an actual place, and his goal was to stay out of the way.
“Maybe I’m not communicating, but the particular room they are in is communicating,’’ Lucier once explained. “And I think people should find out about that.’’ (Later, Lucier would compose works that treat musical instuments like rooms in themselves; a number of works being performed this weekend pair instruments - or, in the case of “Six Geometries,’’ a chorus - with slow-sweeping sine waves.)
“Vespers’’ is an exercise in figuring out where you are - in physical space, in acoustic space, in the moment, in the grand scheme of historical, biological, and philosophical things. And, like so much of Lucier’s music, it’s about noticing all those frames of reference, realizing that they’re there, realizing that they’ve been there all along.
It’s summed up in Lucier’s definition of echolocation in the score: “sounds used as messengers which, when sent out into the environment, return as echoes carrying information as to the shape, size, and substance of that environment.’’
The world is there, communicating; all you have to do is listen for it.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri @gmail.com.