I am excited to be giving a paper at the 2018 joint meeting of the AMS and SMT. I will be speaking about work from my dissertation project based on interviews with sound engineers and performers that have worked with Alvin Lucier.
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Does it matter which room Alvin Lucier Sits in? Tethering living room aesthetics to concert hall acoustics.
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.
It was a pleasure to work with the Mivos Quartet for the premiere of my String Quartet at Elebash Hall on 9 May as part of their residency at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Here is a little bit about how I approached making this piece:
This string quartet contrasts different scales of control at which the performers shape the sounds of their instruments. At one extreme, rapid bowing articulates a steady pulse that is directly synchronized to the motion of the performer’s arm. At the other extreme, the same rhythm is achieved through the interaction between instruments as an acoustic effect disarticulated from the bow arm’s rhythm: the standard just-intonation of the instruments causes harmonics on the cello and viola to have conflicting tunings and thus to produce beat rhythms that the performers can turn on or off, but not regulate in speed. Progressively the performers force their instruments into states that produce more complex and unstable sounds. The moment-to-moment play of sound desynchronizes from the bodies of the performers, though it is always dependent upon their refined skill.
Williams College held the annual All-Night Marathon of Voices on 19 January. Shortly after sundown Ellery Galvin led members from the college Concert Choir in a performance of Tone (excerpt). Three groups of singers sustained a single tone seamlessly for 10 minutes. The groups were positioned around the pews so the sound slowly shifted location but maintained a constant volume. The piece requires careful coordination of breath and Ellery led the singers through a beautiful performance. A few minutes into the tone a strong acoustic resonance arose and accompanied the sound of the voices. Thanks to Ellery and the singers! There was a lovely atmosphere with varied stylistic contributions from members of the community.
My new piece “Pulling Faces for Or and Nir” will premiere on 14 December as part of Julie Zhu’s Hunter MFA thesis exhibition. The reception is 6-9. Repeat performances of my piece will be on Friday 15th and Tuesday 19th December, but there are 4 concerts full of premieres, including the big finale on 6 January with Windup Elephant!
From the program notes:
When I first met my two young nephews they didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Hebrew. One way we played games was to pull faces. When they pushed my nose my tongue would pop out. When they pulled my right ear, my right eye would shut. As long as the cause and effect were well-timed they would laugh. This piece pretends that sounds act like the strings of a marionette, running from the keyboard to the face. Each strike or release of a key triggers a movement of the performer’s face.
My interview with Suzanne Farrin about her monodrama “La Dolce Morte” recently performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and her new opera appears in the latest issue of VAN Magazine.
Photo: Doug Fitch