Thursday, February 22, 2007

Alvin Lucier - I Am Sitting in a Room

What you are about to read is the complete score for Alvin Lucier’s 1969 vocal piece, I Am Sitting in a Room.

“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.”

Really, this isn’t just a vocal piece, although the human voice is the only true “source” of the sound that you hear. The real instrument, however, is the room where the piece is recorded. The acoustic qualities of the architecture decide what it is that you hear. In case it wasn’t made clear above, Lucier recorded his voice, saying exactly what is quoted above, played it into a room, recorded that, played the recording of that recording back into the same room, recorded that, and on and on, until his voice was slowly overtaken by pure musical tones.

Of course, just which musical tones develop completely depends upon the structure of the room into which the vocal recording is played back. The different resonances produced by recording the piece in a small room versus those created in a large concert hall are central to the idea. This recording, Lucier’s first attempt in the fall of 1969, is “harsh [and] strident,” according to the composer, while a spring 1970 recording is “beautiful.” Even in the 15-minute 1969 version, melodies and rhythms are quite apparent. At 45 minutes, the 1980 version has much more time to develop properly, if in an almost completely different manner. A 2005 version, made by a computer, is fully distinct again. This is true ambient music, dependant entirely upon the context in which it is created.

The most impressive thing here is the elegance of the idea, the simplistic but absolute creativity. One almost need not hear the actual music to appreciate its beauty. Yet, in hearing the recording, particularly a recording made by Lucier himself, the listener is treated to another surprise.

Before listening to the piece, I wondered what Lucier meant by “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.” There is something of a clinical quality to almost any process music, as if the idea behind it is more important than what the idea actually produces. He handily escapes this when his intentions fold back in upon themselves.

Lucier created the recording, he says, “to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have,” but it is those irregularities that lend such a human quality to the piece. Lucier suffers from a pronounced stutter, particularly on the “R” sounds, but he also pauses uncomfortably at other times. It must have been a source of embarrassment for him, although one has to wonder if he could have produced this masterpiece of vocal/aural suicide without it. In destroying (and thereby perfecting,) his stutter, Lucier may have been escaping into a sonic debris of his own making, but the listener is witness to a man’s desire to correct his personal flaws.