On Saturday November 4, KcEMA will present a live performance of a seminal work of sonic art from the 20th century. For those of you who cannot make it, or are perhaps on the fence, here is a blog post version of my pre-concert talk to whet your appetite:
I Am Sitting in a Room was first recorded in 1969 and first publically performed in 1970 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Alvin Lucier was both the composer and performer of this work.
In the 1950s and 60s, Alvin Lucier was doing what every aspiring American composer at the time was doing; he earned degrees from esteemed Universities (in his case, Yale and Brandeis) and then went to Europe to learn from the best. He earned a Fulbright to travel to Rome and also spent time in Milan to work with composers like Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna.
While studying in Europe, Lucier was introduced to electronic music made on tape. He became very interested in the use of sound in the tape music by Italian and French composers. However, he was more fascinated by an aspect that the music lacked; the use of live performance.
Lucier had always felt alienated in the field of academic instrumental music of the European tradition, and this did not change when he returned to America. He preferred the non-academic spirit of American experimentalism, in particular the live use of technology in performance and improvisation. He was captivated by composers like John Cage.
When he returned to Brandeis, he said of his colleagues, “Most of my teachers were bitter; they were writing music that wasn’t getting played. It was a terrible way to be an artist, to be totally disengaged from your society. When John Cage and David Tudor came into town they would play anywhere. All they needed was a couple of tables to put their electronic equipment on. They didn’t have fancy equipment; they had very cheap equipment anyone could buy. Tudor would wire it together. They performed their own music. They didn’t wait for the symphony orchestra to ask.” Professionally, Lucier found himself at home not in academia, but in the lively experimental world of composers such as John Cage, David Tudor, Pauline Oliveros, and Robert Ashley.
He was constantly talking about “liveness” in experimental works, referring to the live control of technology during the performance. Lucier explored unconventional methods of controlling technology. In most of his work, the performer serves to demonstrate an acoustic phenomenon, rather than to produce an emotive performance. The acoustic principle tends to be the true center of the piece.
The piece Music for Solo Performer (1965) established Alvin Lucier as we know him today. The piece essentially uses brain waves to initiate sound. Electrodes are attached to the performers temples. These waves a greatly amplified and sent to a set of loudspeakers, which are pointed at an array of various percussion instruments. The percussion instruments are activated by the amplified brainwaves. The performer can control this by varying their mental stimulation. Lucier would continue this exploration into biofeedback throughout his career.
A few years later, Lucier wrote I Am Sitting in a Room, which is perhaps his most well known piece, and the piece you will hear today.
This work consists of a narrator, a microphone, some speakers, and a space. The text that is recited quite literally explains exactly how the piece will unfold. The narrator reads the text, and this is recorded. That recording is then played back. This is also recorded, which is then played back again. This process repeats itself indefinitely.
You might think this would just result in a looped repetition of the text, which wouldn’t be very interesting. However, in this process of continuous recording and playing back, Lucier is exploring the acoustics of the space.
Every physical space has resonant qualities. The shape, size, and types of surfaces in a space all combine to determine these unique qualities. As a result of this combination, certain frequencies are amplified while others are dampened. Exactly which frequencies are amplified or dampened varies from space to space. This is even true of our individual bodies, and is part of the reason we all have unique sounding voices. It is important to note that this phenomenon does not generate frequencies, it only amplifies frequencies that already exist in whatever sound is being produced in the space.
In this piece, the space is essentially acting as a filter, allowing some frequencies through while siphoning out others. At first, this is hardly noticeable. However, each time the previous recording is played back in the space, the effects of the space are amplified. After just a few repetitions, you will start to notice certain frequencies ringing out. As the process continues even longer, the room’s sound truly takes center stage. As Lucier says, what you will hear is “the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech.” Eventually, every nuance and particularity of the performer is washed away by the room, who is the true star performer of the piece. The result will surprise and fascinate you.
Every performance of this piece is unique and special. Every space, every performer, and every performance presents a new relationship between space and time. Even our two consecutive performances, within the same space and with the same performer, will produce delightfully different results.
While Lucier conceived the piece to explore sonic qualities of a space, this piece was also a therapeutic exercise for him. Lucier famously had a stutter, and one of the many results of this process is that rhythm is eventually smoothed over and washed out, including the rhythm of his stuttered speech. Lucier makes a reference to this in the narrator’s text.
Alvin Lucier’s experiments with live electronic performances, acoustic spaces, and feedback generation eventually lead to the birth of the sound installation. For the next week we will have a sound installation at La Esquina designed by KcEMA’s Cody Kauhl that uses the audiences’ movement through the space to generate video and sound in real time. I invite and encourage you all to stop by and check it out.
Our residency at La Esquina will end next Saturday, November 11, with a brand new production based on the sonic concept of Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room. The production will involve a performance space that evolves over time, new text written by Jeff Borowiec and performed by J.J. Pearse, original choreography dancer Tianna Morton, and video projections by Cody Kauhl.
Our performance on November 4 strives to be true to the original piece, the only difference being that we are recording onto and playing back from a computer rather than a tape machine. This Saturday’s performance will make for an interesting and informative juxtaposition to next week’s brand new production. I hope you can attend and enjoy!