Works for the Ever Present Orchestra Vol. II continues Black Truffle’s documentation of the late work of legendary American experimental composer Alvin Lucier, who sadly passed away in 2021 at the age of 90. Like the first volume of the series, the two works recorded here were written for The Ever Present Orchestra, an ensemble founded in Zürich in 2016 to perform Lucier’s work exclusively. At the core of the music Lucier wrote for the ensemble is the electric guitar, an instrument he began to explore in 2013. Played with e-bows, in these works electric lap steel guitars take on roles akin to the slow sweep pure wave oscillators heard in many of Lucier’s works since the early 1980s. This strikingly elegant pair of compositions would serve as an ideal introduction to Lucier’s late music for a listener as yet unfamiliar with its graceful exploration of beating patterns and other acoustic phenomenon.
The two pieces have quite different characters, exemplifying Lucier’s ability to harvest a remarkable range of musical results from closely related compositional procedures and concerns. In Arrigoni Bridge (2019), Lucier uses a technique familiar from earlier works such as Still Lives (1995), where sine waves traced the shapes of household objects. Here, three lap steel electric guitars (played by Oren Ambarchi, Bernhard Rietbrock, and Jan Thoben) follow the form of the Arrigoni Bridge that connects Middletown and Portland, Connecticut. The bridge’s two enormous steel arcs become slowly sweeping pitches, alongside which alto saxophone (Joan Jordi Oliver Arcos), violin (Rebecca Thies) and cello (Lucy Railton) sustain long tones, creating a variety of audible beating patterns depending on their distance from or proximity to the guitars. With its stately pacing, warm middle register tones, and rich timbral variety in the sustaining instruments, Arrigoni Bridge is a beautiful example of compositional reduction producing immersive results. Flips (2020), on the other hand, is more austere. Scored for two lap steel electric guitars (Rietbock and Thoben), double bass (Ross Wightman) and glockenspiel (Trevor Saint), the two acoustic instruments played with bows, the piece zooms in on the range of a major second (two semitones). The two guitars sweep in opposite directions within the range, crossing every four minutes; the double bass and glockenspiel sustain long tones, producing beats of different speeds determined by their distance from the guitar tones. This limitation of the tonal range means the music is often dissonant and forces the phenomenon of audible beating to the surface, resulting in a paradoxical music composed entirely of long tones yet alive with pulsating rhythm. Exemplifying Lucier’s ability to uncover near-infinite complexity within seemingly simple materials, Works for the Ever Present Orchestra Vol. II is a fitting tribute to one of the major figures of the experimental music tradition and a testament to the continuing power of his work.