The Sonic Arts Union’s Handmade Electronic Music, 1966-1976


Alvin Lucier at Brandeis Electronic Music Studio, ca. late 1960s.

“Ann Arbor, Michigan in the mid-1960s is perhaps not the place one would expect the seeds of musical innovation to take root and sprout into one of the most interesting and unique electronic music collectives of the 20th century. … Formed in 1966 by composer/performers Robert Ashley, David Behrman, Alvin Lucier and Gordon Mumma, the Sonic Arts Union (SAU) became a lodestar for the American avant-garde. The genesis of the group came about in part from the intermedia explorations and collaborations of the Ann Arbor-based ONCE Group, but also resides within the broader historical timeframe of the 1960s, which gave rise to contemporaneous work by the likes of John Cage and David Tudor, the multi-disciplinary Fluxus art movement and the live electronic music group Musica Elettronica Viva, among others. Beginning their work in the era before the mass production of commercial electronic instruments and synthesizers, and before ‘DIY’ existed in the way we now know it, the SAU used what little resources they had and taught themselves how to design and build circuitry, constructing custom instruments to realize groundbreaking compositions using cheap surplus components and a healthy helping of trial-and-error experimentation and ingenuity. Collaborating with other major figures of the 20th century avant-garde like Cage, Tudor, Pauline Oliveros, Anthony Braxton, Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham, the SAU were pioneers of live electronic music in the United States. In contrast to the many studio-based electronic works of the time, the SAU’s music was performed live with homemade or modified electronic instruments built from cast-off military and consumer circuitry, and scientific equipment repurposed for musical use. As pivotal members in a burgeoning scene of composers and electronic instrument builders active in the 1960s and 1970s, their invention and innovation exists both as part of the standard narrative of 20th century avant-garde musical practice, and as a separate, grassroots network of ‘solder-head’ workbench outsiders, trading ideas, schematics and raw materials to create music from society’s technological detritus. …”
Red Bull Music Academy (Video)
W – Sonic Arts Union
ARTFORUM: Other Voices, Other Rooms
LARB – A Master Class in the Avant-Garde: Alvin Lucier’s “Music 109”
amazon: Earle Brown Contemporary Sound Series 5 /Various Box Set, Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music by Alvin Lucier, Robert Ashley
YouTube: Music for Solo Performer (1965) by Alvin Lucier, Alvin Lucier – I Am Sitting in a Room

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