display | more...

"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."

This is the full text of composer Alvin Lucier's piece "I am sitting in a room", originally written in 1970 (I have seen dates as early as 1966 and as late as 1972, but this is the year most commonly cited). It is one of the most influential works in the genre of electro-acoustic music, and its conceptual impact on avant-garde music in general rivals that of John Cage's 4'33".

The setup is brutally simple: Lucier sits in a room with 2 distant mics, 2 tape decks, and speakers. Lucier reads the text and records it onto the first tape deck. Then he plays back this recording into the speakers and records it onto the second tape deck. Then he plays back the new recording into the speakers and records it back onto the first tape deck. And so on. The full piece clocks in at slightly over 45 minutes, going through about 25 iterations of the text.

The degradations the sounds go through are what makes the piece sonically interesting; Lucier's voice is literally unrecognizable by the end (and even long before). What you eventually hear is a strange percussive combination of droning, whistling, clanging, and other, less describable sounds. The listener's abilities of perception are tested and stretched as the piece progresses from speech to pure sound. This transformation, and the Cage-like focus on appreciating sound for its own sake, detached from language or musical idiom, is part of what makes the piece conceptually interesting, but there's more to it than that. The key is in the text. Like Godel's incompleteness theorem, the piece not only refers to itself, it also turns on itself. Performing the actions described in the text ends up obscuring and destroying the text itself.

Another aspect of the piece is rarely discussed, which I find strange, because it's immediately apparent from a single listening -- Lucier has a speech impediment. In interviews he is flippant about this:

TM: What interests you about speech?

AL: I have a speech impediment! (laughs) What could be more interesting than that! (laughs) The only thing that could be more interesting is if you couldn't talk at all, and then you'd probably be really interested in speech, right? (laughs)

But I suspect his relationship to speech is actually more complicated, and tortured, than he lets on. The themes of self-destruction and -immolation are far too apparent in the piece for it to be a mere accident. What it sounds like to me is a peculiar kind of self-hatred transmuted into art. I know it's dangerous to speculate about an artist's creative intent or psychological drives without ample evidence, but I can't listen to this piece without thinking about it. It's right there in the words. He even says that the "physical" aspects of the piece (which most academic analyses tend to emphasize) are unimportant; the whole point is to "smooth out any irregularities" (impediments) in his speech until there is nothing left. Loneliness and isolation are also apparent from the very beginning; he's in a room by himself, you're somewhere else. All this makes the experience of listening into something chilling, even frightening, when you realize that you are complicit in Lucier's aural suicide. For me, this humanness, this vulnerability, is what gives the piece emotional impact and makes it great music, as opposed to throwaway art wank.

Like many listeners, I haven't been able to make it through the entire piece in one sitting (no pun intended), but I plan to someday. When I'm feeling up to it.

assorted memories & experiences