These days there seems to be no escape from the strident assault of words. Words in face-to-face, eye-to-eye, hand-to-hand combat fill the air everywhere. Battered language ripped asunder, muddied and bloodied. Or simply turning into smoke and ash inhaled, and exhaled on a mirror. If everyone could stop talking and just listen, then what would we hear?
I am sitting in a theater space, a room full of people all there for the same purpose – to experience the sonic vibrations of Alvin Lucier’s music. Every seat is filled, a hush of anticipation in the air. The 87 year-old Lucier is known for making the inaudible audible in a way that also makes it “visible” and spatially tangible. Within the minimalist tradition, of which he is a forerunner, his experimental compositions deal with sound as a physical and sensory phenomenon with its own perceptual tautology. Combining classical acoustic instruments with electronically generated sound waves, Lucier introduces a variety of microtonal environments that produce different sensations ranging from ecstatic to oppressive. There is a certain (unintended) irony in the way the evening evolves from one composition to the next, the first five performed by the Ever Present Orchestra, the last by Lucier himself.
I am sitting in a room full of people all inhaling the same sound. The first piece Ricochet Lady (2016) is a solo work for glockenspiel. The instrument has been placed on the far left of the stage against a wall so that the sound ricochets off it. High-pitched layers of three and four note chromatic patterns repeat and overlap. They build into an exhilarating chant. Overtones of rapidly tinkling tiny bells and chimes accelerate at a dizzying speed inducing an almost hypnotic state. They turn into a shimmering insect-like buzzing in the upper range almost beyond the audible. Brilliant reflecting tones shimmer like gold in sunlight, almost too bright to look at. Tiny beeps like the chirp of cicadas pulse in the background. The sound of the room singing, the air vibrating, surrounds us.
The second work, Braid (2002), adapted by the Ever Present Orchestra for four electric guitars and three saxophones, creates an entirely different sonic state. The three wind instruments sustain long extended tones that decay into the next ones while the tones of the rise and fall of the electric strings braid in and out, like the amplified sound of long breaths, inhaling and exhaling, held and released. The overlapping tones in different keys create a soft buzzing in the ears and the sensation of being under water, pulse-like bubbles rising to the surface. It could be a whale song, messages sent on vibrating tones as they sink deeper, lower, into multiples calls and responses. The water is dark. Each breath exhaled a beam of light, as we descend into the depths. Tones like shadowy fish slide by. You can feel the vibration of movement. The calls are longer with extended decays, and so are the undercurrents, the ebb and flow. One rises to the surface as if from a deep meditational state.
Two Circles (2012) adapted for four electric guitars, four violins, one alto and one tenor saxophone, and a piano produces yet another set of sensations and images. The electric strings draw similar circles of eighteen ascending and descending semitones in extended waves. The subtle layers of tones sweeping up and down create a tactile sensation like currents of air stroking skin. The sound is enveloping and in constant motion sweeping you along in its enfolding density. But then there is the piano. A few insistent notes mark time at intermittent intervals, like a clock striking on the half hour breaking the flow. This is followed by Semicircle (2017) in which a similar structure becomes suffocating and claustrophobic. The high-pitched vibrations and repetitive humming suck the air out of the room. At the same time the incessant punctuating beat of the piano notes grows increasingly irritating, like the interminable tapping of fingers on a table. The only escape is to slip away into sleep.
But then the next new piece EPO5 using the same ensemble of instruments, sweeps you into a different soundscape altogether. Hot, dense and throbbing as a jungle with small shifting pitches close as insects buzzing in your ear, and teeming with creatures hiding in the flora. They are just out of sight, at the back of your neck, in your hair, drinking the sweat on your skin. It induces a feverish hallucinogenic dizziness. All five of these pieces establish sound as place, a multi-dimensional terrain — architectural, spatial, and even synesthetic, a complex sensory “language.”
And so we return full circle to where Lucier began half a century ago with his now iconic work I Am Sitting in a Room (1969), which is all about the decay of words into sound via repetitive re-recording. Seeing this piece performed in the present context seems perversely ironic and relevant in a way never imagined at the time of its original conception and creation. Sitting on a chair center stage, the elderly Lucier recites the following sentence:
“I am sitting in a room different from the one you are sitting 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….”
And so it is. The recording of a recording of a recording repeats over and over for about twenty-five minutes, each time taking in the room’s acoustics, breaking the words down piece by piece in a slow decay until there is nothing left but an echo. Meaning disintegrates into a resonant reverberation, a boomerang of sound in a metal cylinder. We are left with the sound of speaking to ourselves ad infinitum in an empty room as Lucier sits motionless in his chair disappearing into his own ghostly image.
And thus this work unwittingly becomes an ironic yet potent metaphor for the current state of language in the echo chamber of our Orwellian world. It is a paradigm of decay in the silos we occupy, in the inchoate scream across digital networks, in the algorithms of propaganda. It is the reverb in the arena where if you repeat the same words enough times they become “believable,” and true meaning lies buried deep in the undertones.
COVER PHOTO: STEVE GUNTHER
Ever Present Orchestra with Alvin Lucier
Tuesday, March 26,2019
REDCAT, Los Angeles, CA