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The Other Listening Room: Alvin Lucier – “I Am Sitting in a Room”

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Welcome to The Other Listening Room, your bi-occasional survey of what your BC Magazine writer (me) has been listening to for the past 20 minutes.

These are quite probably the best songs ever, and while they may not ever be my favorites, they certainly kept Advil in business this morning. You could do worse than to try a few of them out and see what they do for you. Painkillers, that is.

Yip:

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 (and, to some extent, the recording device) 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, dependent 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, creating an additional lense through which to view the piece.

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.

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About zingzing

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Can’t believe it took you so long to join with as much time and as much smarts spent in the comments.

    Very nice first piece. A well-written article that I very likely might not have seen covered by anyone else, let alone find on my own, but don’t you think it’s rather obvious that the only reason you like it is because you agree with Lucier’s politics?! Whoops, wrong thread. Sorry.

    Keep them coming.

  • zingzing

    well thank you. i’ll leave politics out of this column. if i can. ha. ha.

  • http://mondoproject.com Mark Saleski

    woo, woo!!! awesome stuff. really!

    wait, didn’t i read somewhere that Lucier was no longer relevant? 😉

    seriously, i’m so glad you decided to do this.

  • http://www.antequeravillarental.com Christopher Rose

    I’m delighted you finally bit the bullet and joined in zingzing and with such an interesting subject too. I hadn’t heard this before but you have made me want to. Thanks for that!

  • STM

    Yeah, up you go zing … good stuff

  • zingzing

    in case you hadn’t noticed, there’s links to a couple different versions of the piece inbedded in the article.

    if anyone listens to it, tell me what you think. even if all you have to report is “sounds like masturbating with broken glass” or whatever.

  • http://mondoproject.com Mark Saleski

    people should also take note that one of the links takes you over to ubu.com, a terrific source for loads and loads of musical, spoken word and other oddities.

    thanks zingzing.

  • zingzing

    hey–shush!

    that’s where i get a lot of my goodies from… aww… this column is busted… thanks, mark… thanks…

    actually, it is quite an amazing site. check out the dj food link for something special.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Mr. Zing,

    A damn nice first effort if I do say so myself sir. We need fresh new voices here, especially when they are smart and they can obviously write. So welcome to the monkey house Mr. Zing, your secret passwords and handshake should arrive ivia e-mail shortly.

    -Glen

    P.S. And don’t look now, but I hear through the grapevine that a certain other rather bright lad is about to make the jump from commenter to critic. You all know him as Vern Halen, but I believe he will be writing under the moniker JC Mosquito. Between the two of you guys, I think the music section may have just got a bit better (or at least regained it’s balance given a few rather curious recent entries).

    Again, welcome to the cabal Mr. Zing.

  • http://www.lookoutforhope.com Tom Johnson

    zingzing, thank you both for joining us and for offering this – this is fascinating listening! Looking forward to more from good stuff you, man!

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    Zing, welcome to the land of the writers. You’ll be hearing from my lawyers regarding your use of series title, but I am sure we can work something out amicably.

    Seriously, it good to add your voice to the section. We need the voices of people who actually like music. Strange that we find ourselves in need of that, yet we do.

  • zingzing

    djr-ahh… you really have lawyers? (bring it on, rich man.)

    actually, i rather handily parodied your opening as well… in case you didn’t notice.

    copying and pasting your latest opening into my next one. thank you.

    (oh ho- i read your opening. naughty boy)

  • http://daslob.blogspot.com/ Pico

    Haha, I knew your threat to be vulgar was an empty one, you pus.

    That was a damned fine debut, btw. I am in the company of even more greatness, now. Glad you’re on board.

  • zingzing

    i forgot to be vulgar. well, i’ve got two i’m working on now, one that will be fairly serious, another that demands plenty of cursing.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    Yes, let the profanity flow in every fucking direction.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    Well said sir! Well done sir! Came out quite nice, didn’t it. I think you downplayed the importance of the recording device but what the Hell. I’ll let it go.