Of Sounds in Space: Alvin Lucier at ‘The Long Now’ (MaerzMusik ’17)

This essay was written last year, the event took place at the Kraftwerk Berlin, 25-26th March 2017. 

In 1969, Alvin Lucier sat down in a room. He recorded himself reciting a short text, at once his new work’s performance instructions and its main content: ‘I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice…’. This recording is replayed into the room repeatedly and each time, it is simultaneously re-recorded, ‘until the resonant frequencies of the room’ mount up on the tape, removing the detail of Lucier’s recorded speech. With this procedural, almost clinical act, Lucier uniquely meshed together the worlds of electroacoustic music and performance art. It makes an unremarkable action remarkable, illuminating the rich resonances and sonic opportunities that exist in the everyday world. Various recorded versions of I am sitting in a room have been made since its conception, but these are somewhat flat, stale artefacts, simple ‘postcards’, as John Cage might refer to them. It thrives on live performance.

This year’s edition of Berlin’s Maerzmusik festival had an Alvin Lucier focus, featuring performances of his works and a screening of No Ideas but in Things, a 2012 documentary about the American sound artist. The culmination of this was a performance of I am sitting in a room by Lucier himself as part of the festival’s trademark ‘Long Now’ event, a marathon concert turned hipster pyjama party that runs from sunset on Saturday through to midnight on Sunday. As in past years, it took place at the Kraftwerk Berlin. A former power station converted to a vast events space in the early 2000s, it is one of many such venues in a city in love with exposing concrete walls and reclaiming industrial settings.

At midnight on the Saturday, Lucier seated himself in this altogether different room, now the same one that I happened to be in. He recorded the script stutter-free, unlike in earlier versions, and the repetitions began. We listened as Lucier’s recorded voice decayed gradually into a sweet hum, the undulating remnants of his speech melody pulsating in the air. The cavernous space proved an interesting site for such experiments in resonance, adding thick layers of itself to every rendition. I became acutely aware of the room’s impact on the sound, its active role in the performance. Eventually, we arrived at a shapeless singing, void of delineation.

Lucier is often incorrectly pegged as a minimalist. While works like I am sitting in a room might be low on prescribed material, their dimensions are epic. This lack of specification opens up gulfs of possibility: for following processes into their maximal decay, for being maximally mindful. At a live performance to a large audience, I am sitting in a room’s scoring swells to include everyone present, their every cough, twitch and scuffle feeding into the distortion.

All good things have to come to an end; in this case, it was disappointingly only after 30 minutes. Recordings of I am sitting in a room tend to drift on beyond the 45-minute mark and it seemed bit of an affront to the work’s sense of timelessness to restrict to this degree. Not that everyone was so entranced, the visuals of the performance underwhelmed some audience members: ‘there was this old guy and he just sat there’, my neighbour later recounted to a friend returning from the bar. Well…yes and no.

I decided to pass on the power plant sleepover and returned the following day for a performance of Lucier’s Vespers. This lesser-known 1968 piece originated from his interest in the phenomenon of echolocation. A group of performers are blind-folded and equipped with echolocator devices called Sondols, which produce clicks in patterns controllable by the players. By aiming the Sondols at the surfaces around themselves and listening to the quality of the returning echoes, the players can locate themselves and manoeuvre around obstacles. The work often ends in them meeting at a central point, as occurred at the Kraftwerk. Not that Lucier instructs this; the ‘poet of electronic music’, as Pauline Oliveros aptly described him, simply encourages performers to ‘pay their respects to all living creatures who inhabit dark places’. The audience can join them in this act and trace the clicks and echoes themselves or just observe the unfolding of a bizarre game. In the busy Kraftwerk, Vespers functioned as a gentle provocation, the performers dodging campbeds and dozing people in their quest for acoustic information.

Around the Lucier pieces, the Long Now’s curation felt unfocused, more concerned with filling time rather than exploring it. Live electronic ambient acts dominated the programme; in some ways, this slowburning style fitted the hazy, meditative atmosphere that the Long Now aims for (the programme encourages you to ‘indulge’ in its ‘chronosphere’), but it mostly felt lacking in contour, threatening to prepare you for sleep a little too early on into the thirty-hour event.

When the Long Now’s curators did set up real contrasts in repertoire, these allowed for unexpected echoes between musical times and styles. On the Saturday night, I am sitting in a room was followed by the Dutch vocal group Graindelavoix performing early Renaissance polyphony by Orlando di Lasso, Josquin Desprez and others. Their works, like Lucier’s, were designed in a manner sensitive to physical space, the range of vocal textures chosen to suit the nature of the chapels and cathedrals these composers wrote for. It connected two seemingly disparate points in the centuries of thinking about sounds in space that humans have done, in a multitude of different rooms.

 

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