Alvin Lucier

By Amelia Kahl & Spencer Topel
Aug 01, 2018

5 Graves to Cairo
Underground sound installation

The Bema

5 Graves to Cairo was located in the Bema, an outdoor amphitheater built in 1882, which served as the commencement site for generations of Dartmouth graduates. With its natural beauty and sense of seclusion, the Bema conjures images of ceremony and ritual. The grotto further isolates the space sonically, providing an unusually quiet environment despite its central location on campus.

The title of this work was borrowed from the 1943 Billy Wilder film of the same name, a World War II espionage drama based on Lajos Biró’s novel Hotel Imperial, about a British spy searching for five supply depots buried in the Egyptian desert. Lucier, in turn, buried five loudspeakers in oil drums, creating hidden sound sources that were audible yet invisible to visitors. Moving across the outdoor space, listeners experienced the sounds of pure waves slowly spinning from speaker to speaker in semi-random patterns, and one’s location affected how the sounds were perceived.

Lucier is often cited as one of the pioneers of sound art, and 5 Graves to Cairo extends his collection of impressive conceptual performance and sound installations, which spans more than fifty years and includes important works such as Music for Solo Performer (1965), I’m Sitting in a Room (1970), and Music on a Long Thin Wire (1977). 5 Graves is the only Lucier piece to date that utilizes an underground sound source.


Alvin Lucier (born 1931) lectures and performs extensively in Asia, Europe, and the United States. He was educated in Nashua, New Hampshire, public and parochial schools; attended the Portsmouth Abbey School, Yale University, and Brandeis University; and spent two years in Rome on a Fulbright Scholarship. From 1962 to 1970, he taught at Brandeis, where he conducted the Brandeis University Chamber Chorus. From 1968 to 2011, he taught at Wesleyan University, where he was John Spencer Camp Professor of Music.

Lucier received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Electroacoustic Music in the United States, and an Honorary Doctorate of Arts from the University of Plymouth, England. In November 2011, Wesleyan University marked Lucier’s retirement with a three-day festival of his works. In October 2014, the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, honored him with a three-day festival of his works. And in October 2016, the University of Zurich, Switzerland, hosted a four-day celebration of his 85th birthday.

The Contributors

  • Amelia Kahl Headshot

    Amelia Kahl is the associate curator of academic programming at the Hood Museum of Art. She runs the museum’s Bernstein Center for Object Study and teaches with the museum’s 65,000-object collection across the Dartmouth curriculum. Her exhibition projects for the Hood have included "Water Ways: Tension and Flow" (2015), "The Stahl Collection" (2015, co-curated with Barbara MacAdam, Jonathan L. Cohen Curator of American Art), and "Emmet Gowin Dreams of Stars" (2014).

  • Topel Headshot

    Spencer Topel creates installations and performance pieces that are immersive experiences, fusing sound, visual components, and interactive expression. Trained in music conservatories as a composer and violinist, he produced work for orchestral and chamber ensembles for over twenty years. In 2011 he collaborated with sculptor Soo Sunny Park on a yearlong installation titled Capturing Resonance, presented at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Since then, Topel’s practice has expanded to include visual art in a distinctive body of work that engages artwork as observer and listener, where installations gain agency in the interactions between visitors and environments.