Alvin Lucier, who turned 89 this month, has always been fascinated by the physical properties of sound, particularly the unique reverberations of spaces and the way they challenge and change our perception of sounds. His classic early pieces I Am Sitting In A Room and Music On A Long Thin Wire are perfect examples of this.

The former, from 1969, consists of a tape of Lucier reciting the following short statement:

“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.”

Over the course of just 15 minutes in the original recording (a second version from 1981 lasts 40 minutes), this is exactly what happens. With each repetition, the sound becomes more echoey and degraded, hiss and feedback rise, and by the end it’s no longer even recognizable as human phonemes — the sounds are mere high-pitched whistles and pulsing hums.

Music On A Long Thin Wire, first conceived in 1977, is a recording of a simple machine. It operates as follows, according to Lucier: “the wire is extended across a large room, clamped to tables at both ends. The ends of the wire are connected to the loudspeaker terminals of a power amplifier placed under one of the tables. A sine wave oscillator is connected to the amplifier. A magnet straddles the wire at one end. Wooden bridges are inserted under the wire at both ends to which contact microphones are embedded, routed to a stereo sound system. The microphones pick up the vibrations that the wire imparts to the bridges and are sent through the playback system. By varying the frequency and loudness of the oscillator, a rich variety of slides, frequency shifts, audible beats and other sonic phenomena may be produced.”

The result, on a double LP released in 1980 on the Lovely Music label and later reissued on CD, is a set of four nearly 19-minute drones that rise and fall, shifting just slowly enough for change to be perceptible, but never leaving the impression that a specific “moment” has occurred. Music On A Long Thin Wire creates an endless now that you can live in as long as you keep playing the CD. The down side is that it’ll make you think your tinnitus is becoming terminal.

Lucier’s latest release is a two-CD set on the Black Truffle label run by guitarist Oren Ambarchi. String Noise contains three pieces for solo and duo violin, composed between 2004 and 2009 and performed by the duo of Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris, who work together as String Noise. Each work is an exploration of Lucier’s continuing interest in sound and space.

The first piece, “Tapper,” was performed in the Drawing Center in New York and is something of an exercise in echolocation. A single violinist walks around the performance space, tapping the body of the violin with the butt end of the bow to produce a series of sharp reports, like someone hammering nails into plywood. The rhythm varies, as the tapper is walking while “playing,” and his or her energy seems to flag at times, then come rushing back, causing the tempo to speed up. There are a few pauses, as the full piece lasts nearly 53 minutes and no one could be expected to maintain a steady pace for that long, and the fascination comes from hearing the sounds move around the sonic field. (Listen on headphones.)

“Love Song,” for two violins, runs a comparatively concise 19:53. In this piece, the two violins are connected by — guess what — a long thin wire, causing the sounds made by each violin to also resonate through the other like a can-and-string “telephone.” The players walk in circles around the performance space, playing long tones on their instruments’ E strings. The intertwining of the high-pitched sounds often sounds more like bowed cymbals than violins, and sometimes they sound almost like vocal cries, like a species of bird or hooting jungle apes.

The final piece, “Halo,” features both players walking through a space (in this case, Lucier’s house) while playing long tones. They move in a zig-zag pattern, allowing the reverberant drones to strike the walls and ceiling and bounce back and forth, building on each other. When only one violin is playing, it can sound like a sine wave being fed through a reverb pedal; when both are going at once, overlapping each other and shifting subtly over time, they can sound like a harmonium.

This is some of Alvin Lucier‘s most striking and beautiful work. You can put on headphones and focus on it, or put it through speakers and let it fill the room with shifting waves of sound. If you like the endless violin drones of Tony Conrad, or the room-filling electronic pulses and hums of Ryoji Ikeda‘s Matrix (a piece that seems to change based on where you’re standing in the room, or if you move around), you’ll love this.

Phil Freeman

2 Comment on “Alvin Lucier

  1. Pingback: Alvin Lucier Profiled – Avant Music News

  2. Pingback: St. Louis Jazz Notes: Sunday Session: May 24, 2020 - Smooth Jazz WAEG 92.3

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