Transferred Agency in Alvin Lucier’s “I am sitting in a room”

I will present a paper on Alvin Lucier’s seminar work I am sitting in a room at the McGill Music Graduate Symposium in Montreal, Canada, 18-20 March 2016. Here is the abstract:

Echo and reverb are the aural cues through which we deduce information about architectural spaces. According to Emily Thompson, the modernist design ideal for live-performance spaces set the “optimum reverberation time” to zero. Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room (1969) can be heard as a critique of that aesthetic apparatus: through a feedback process that activates the resonant frequencies of the performance space, the room becomes the instrument. In that influential work the recursive process interpolates between the speech of a human subject and the music of an architectural object, leading Brandon Labelle to observe that Lucier’s stuttering speech builds “an architecture imbued with the problematic of having a body.”

With the human performer silent and seemingly inactive for all but the initial 1’15’’ of the 45’ work, what Jane Goodall referred to as an “agency vacuum,” is created. This paper contends that I am sitting in a room can be heard as a “transfer of agency” in which agency leaks away from the human performer and into the instrument. Through both a textual and a reverberant slight-of-hand, the room-instrument addresses the human performer, as if from another place. More important than the transfer of sound-production from human to instrument, this paper will argue that there is a transfer of the agency associated with the act of listening. In this way I am sitting in a room re-performs the shift of emphasis, enunciated by Lucier, away from “making sounds happen” and onto listening.

Support for this reading stems from 1) my analysis of Joan La Barbara’s live performance of Lucier’s Palimpsest (2014), a kindred piece built upon the same recursive process, and 2) identifying how the transfer of human agency is an implicit feature of the text-based score for I am sitting in a room.

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