I presented a paper at the annual meeting of the American Musical Instrument Society in Bethlehem, PA in May. The theme of papers ranged from using 3D printing to restore historical instruments to the early history of the Martin Guitar Company. I presented on the performance practice of Alvin Lucier’s classic electroacoustic work “I am sitting in a room,” where the room is (part of) the instrument. This is part of my dissertation project on acoustic resonance in the music of Alvin Lucier and Morton Feldman. Here is the abstract to the conference paper:
Although Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room (1969) continues to be a central reference for discussion about the material conditions of sound in music, little attention has been given to the changing conditions of production of the work. Its recursive process of recording and playing-back continues to transform the composer’s speaking voice into a music of architectural resonances. But which architectural resonances? The original recording was made in the composer’s living room and a “performance” consisted of playing-back that spliced magnetic tape in concert halls. Then in 2005 Lucier began collaborating with James Fei on digitally mediated performances that resonate the architecture of the public performance space in real time.
This paper describes the crucial role of the sound-engineer-as-performer in emplacing living-room aesthetics into the concert hall. It traces changing performance practices using the Alvin Lucier Papers at the New York Public Library and my interviews with sound engineers that have performed the work.
There persists in the literature an overemphasis on non-intervention—of the room sounding itself. But closer investigation reveals significant variation in performative interventions and the resulting sounds. In a performance at Issue Project Room with sound engineer Bob Bellerue (2017), a few stable sine tones rapidly overpowered Lucier’s speech, growing to an ear-piercing volume. In contrast, in the MoMA recording (2014) Lucier’s speech gradually dissolves into room resonance and there arises “a cluster of tones [that] mutate—they still go-away and come-in—and sometimes they start beating with another tone” (Fei). Revealing subtleties of architectural resonances through a gradual process may have been immanent in Lucier’s living room in 1970, but in current live performance practice sound engineers often need to continually intervene through volume and EQ levels if they want to tether the subtlety of living room aesthetics to performance hall acoustics.