In 1970 Merce Cunningham asked me for music for a new dance he was making. It was to be called, objects, with a set by Neil Jenney. I said I would be honored to do so.

Instead of making a new work, however, I decided to give him vespers, a piece I had made the year before. In this work four players move around a darkened space carrying Sondols, hand-held pulse wave oscillators, which emit sharp, fast clicks whose repetition rate can be varied. The players beam the sounds to various parts of the room, bouncing them off the walls, floor and ceiling. As the pulses ricochet from one reflective surface to another, multiple echoes are produced and, over time, an acoustic signature of the room is revealed. The title, vespers, refers to the common bat of North America, of the family vespertilionidae, an expert in the art of echolocation.

I thought that vespers was a good choice because the battery-operated Sondols need not be plugged into the Company’s sound system. The sounds would then emanate not from fixed loudspeakers but from moving points in space.

I missed the first performance of objects, which took place on November 10, 1970, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I did attend the second performance, however, and went backstage after the performance to thank Merce. As we shook hands he looked at me blankly and seemed not to recognize me. I went home feeling that he hadn’t like the music.

It was not until a few days later that I received a note from Merce, saying that he had been dancing on an injured knee and that the pain had been so intense, he had “blacked out.” He went on to say, however, that he enjoyed the piece very much and thought the changes in space had been amazing.

-Alvin Lucier

A fortunate path led me from Southern California to my studies with Merce Cunningham at his Westbeth studio in New York City in 1981. A few months later, I became a Cunningham scholarship student for 5 years. During that time I have many wonderful memories of Merce Cunningham, the following are just a few.

While the company was on a break, I was fortunate to be chosen by Merce, along with several other scholarship students, to dance and perform at Westbeth in some of his new choreography. One piece was “Inlets 2”. I recall a jumping sequence which I thoroughly enjoyed combined with overall quiet and flowing tidal movements throughout the piece. I felt like a sea organism that had finally made it’s way back home.

Another dance that he choreographed on us was “Deli Commedia”. I remember at one point I said something during rehearsal causing him to double over in laughter. I can’t remember the details of what I actually said but I was dumbfounded yet delighted to see him laugh in such an open way. Minutes after our studio performance, I went to the dressing room to change into my street clothes and one of the dancers said Merce was standing at the dressing room door asking for me. I was mortified wondering what I had done wrong but when I peeked out the door, I was startled to find Merce Cunningham standing right there, and then shocked and relieved when he told me that he just wanted to invite me to attend company class.

Another project I was fortunate to be selected for was the Cunningham Elementary Technique video. After these rehearsals, Merce would often share stories with us filled with words of wisdom of which I still live by. One was a brief story about a recent visit with his company to Calcutta, India. He said that he enjoyed all of the action going on in front of him. The random movement of people, animals, objects, sometimes forming curious patterns and then breaking apart, constantly amazing him. It opened my eyes that day as I left the studio and ambled along the crowded streets of Manhattan, enjoying the random beauty and patterns happening all around me. I learned that day never to be bored or take any moment for granted and to find wonder in everything around me.

Another final piece of Merce advice that I remember from those days was when he told us if we ever felt stuck in a rut, to simply walk another way home and we’ll find a whole new world of opportunity open up to us. I’ve tried it. It works.

In 1986, I decided to leave the city and move to a small farm and learned to grow organic vegetables. I remember smiling while I first worked in my garden recalling how Merce had these large plants in his studio and telling us how wonderful that not only did they give us oxygen but we were supplying them with lots of needed carbon dioxide with all of our collective exhaling.

Although it seems like I’m now a world away from those days of dance, Merce Cunningham has stayed with me. He not only taught me how to move, but how to see. And how to exhale. I am forever grateful.

-Kate Troughton Fisher