Sunday, November 30, 2008

Alvin Lucier


The purpose of this blog is for Alex and I, two interested more-or-less outsiders, to try to figure out what is going on in contemporary music composition. Cage, Feldman and Stockhausen are dead. LaMonte Young, Elliot Carter, Steve Reich & Philip Glass have been around forever. Who are the people writing the new music, now? And what is new concert music now? Who will be the next Nono, Partch or Cowell? Its a conversation between friend, one I am delighted to have because much of my interest in this music comes from Alex’s having turned me onto it years ago. But for me- perhaps because I am now much better versed in electro-acoustic and computer music, especially of a non-academic variety, I would like to center around conventional notation and instrumentation, allowing ofcourse for augmentation.

That all said I’m going to write first about, not a youngster, but a true bad ass, the person I’ve thought of as the greatest living American composer for some time and if you’ve made it here- someone I assume you know about: Alvin Lucier. In the future hopefully we’ll delve into younger folks and newer works.

If, like me, you cut your teeth on conceptual and process art, or really anything other than music theory- if an explanation of how something is made helps you enter into contemporary art(s) like it does so many others, then Lucier is a godsend. The work involves process, which becomes a way of understanding, of contextualizing the intriguing sounds generated. His now ubiquitous “I am sitting in a room” is a super obvious example, it is a piece so process driven and so conceptually hermetic that it becomes almost impossible to not get. By contrast Milton Babbitt’s works only makes sense if you understand the history and ideas of serialism and that is something which leaves a lot of people on the outside not able to enter it. The language used to explain a Lucier is not music language, but quotidian language. “I am sitting in a room” literally explains itself to you.

"I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have."

There are problems with “I am sitting in a room.” Or I think there are problems as it exists in its recorded form (at least the CD reissue of the 1970 recording). It is in mono which is distressing for a piece so much about how space affects sound; and is all one track- which makes one have to listen to it straight through but also makes it impossible to tell how many permutations have happened- although this has really only been an issue when using it in an educational context. The live version he performed in Chicago a few years ago [full disclosure, I worked on organizing that concert] was in stereo and in the course of a performance one can’t really be bothered to try to follow the number of cycles. There are simply more important, less academic, things to be concerned with- like basking in its reverby glory.

The above is all a digression; I don’t really want to talk about “I am sitting in a room”. The bad ass piece I want to write about is the unfortunately titled “Wind Shadows” (1994) which I know from his CD Panorama (Lovely Music LTD, 1997) but still takes advantage of the physical properties of sound propagation. The composition utilizes two electronic oscillators and trombone. With the oscillators set to almost the same frequency (five hertz apart) the sound is nearly unchanging with a slow beating coming in briefly every few seconds and a trombonist who, as I understand it, plays notes between the oscillator frequencies while they are beating. The sounds come together surprising well. The trombone reminding me somewhat of a foghorn, the whole piece has the feeling of watching a lighthouse at night- waiting for the beam to slowly make its revolution and once again illuminate the thick air.

The thing about Lucier’s work for me is that even though it is process driven, it is still a compelling listen. Somehow within his process he manages to include tension and release, the fundamental building blocks of holding human interest. There is a structure comprehendible beyond academic circles but at the same time, especially on works after “I am sitting in a room” understanding it becomes supplemental to enjoyment of it, unnecessarily to its appreciation, pure lagniappe.

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