Other Voices, Other Rooms

Thea Ballard on Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room

Alvin Lucier performing I am sitting in a room in 2017 at ISSUE Project Room, Brooklyn. Photo: Cameron Kelly McLeod.

FOUR YEARS AGO, the composer Alvin Lucier, then 86, performed his best-known piece, I am sitting in a room (1969), at ISSUE Project Room in downtown Brooklyn. Sitting cross-legged in a folding chair and sporting a Black Lives Matter T-shirt under his rumpled khaki jacket, Lucier read into a microphone from a hardbound copy of the score as if it were a storybook:

I am sitting in a room, the same 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.

Lucier is one of the pivotal figures of post-Cage American music, and his work has long married scientific inquiry into the spatial and physical properties of sound with a humanistic sense of the poetics, even humor, of such operations. With Gordon Mumma, Robert Ashley, and David Behrman, he founded the experimental electronic-music collective Sonic Arts Union, active from 1966 to 1976; he has also taught since the early 1960s, first at Brandeis and then, from 1970 on, at Wesleyan. His art is animated by curiosity, and as multiple generations of avant-garde music students, composers, theorists, and fans know well, the text that initiates I am sitting does not begin to describe the sounds that will emerge. In its most widely circulated recording, made in Lucier’s living room in Middletown, Connecticut, in the winter of 1970, the piece evolves from a progressively distant repetition of the spoken score into something lilting, variegated, and metallic, unrecognizable as either language or voice. During the 2017 performance, Lucier took off his reading glasses and joined the full house assembled before him in listening to what became an increasingly taut bundle of padded, whirring textures.

Last month, a video of that performance kicked off ISSUE Project Room’s marathon livestream celebration of Lucier’s ninetieth birthday, comprising ninety interpretations of I am sitting in a Room prerecorded remotely by the artist’s friends, family, and colleagues. That amounted to twenty-six straight hours (save for a couple of fifteen-minute intermissions and technical glitches) spent immersed in the frequencies of various artists’ bedrooms, offices, and studios. The formidable roster of performers included all manner of musical heavyweights, among them Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, George Lewis, Joan La Barbara, Petr Kotik, and La Monte Young. Most participants trained a laptop camera on themselves, as one might in a Zoom meeting, reading the score and then sitting in contemplation as the piece unfolded.

Thanks to the sheer unpredictability of what sounds will arise through repetition from within and around the recorded voice, the piece adapted unusually well to the marathon remote-livestream format. ISSUE Project Room has held nearly seventy of these livestreamed events since last April, a herculean effort that has kept some thread of the experimental performing arts (and an income stream for artists) alive. I am grateful to have had these accessible portals to another aesthetic reality while under lockdown, but in most instances, the remotely streamed concert has reaffirmed my sense of the importance of liveness to this milieu. This has to do with an obvious desire for the in-person connection and communion offered by the concert form, but also with the problem of attention posed by the living-room livestream, which one presumes most are watching in the same room and on the same screen to which they have been anchored all day. Lucier’s piece engages both solitude and attention, or maybe attunement. It forges a relationship with space. And as this relationship was made audible, each time anew, the (admittedly overwhelming) accumulation of versions felt like a bounty rather than a chore. I left it running in the background for most of the last twelve hours or so, partaking in a kind of domestic listening all but necessitated by the performances’ duration. I tuned in and out and observed my own listening in the process.

Alvin Lucier at Brandeis Electronic Music Studio, ca. late 1960s. Photographer unknown.

Some of what I heard: There was a certain pleasure in encountering familiar voices, like those of La Barbara or Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley, or in watching Charles Curtis listen while a cat purred on his lap. Some artists introduced small variations, whether out of technical necessity or otherwise. Nestor Prieto, for example, swapped the tapes between each rerecording, introducing a sequence of contemplative pauses into the piece’s usual seamless, swelling whole. Drones were audible in the background of La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s takes, most likely the residue of their own work playing in an adjacent room. Overall, however, much of the beauty and excitement of I am sitting has always been its indifference to performance in the usual sense, in how it eventually places the performer in the position of listener, of captive audience. Lucier once said that “every room has its own melody, hiding there until it is made audible,” and therein was the surprise each time a new person performed: What would their distant room, different from the one their audiences were in, produce? Every iteration was unique. There were high pitches, frightening rumbles, sometimes a sweet, angular melody that seemed like it could get stuck in your head. Fifty-plus years after this experiment was first executed, it’s still exciting to call all of the above music.

In its own bittersweet way, the marathon caps off a year of distant celebration, memorial, and listening for an experimental-music ecosystem that is both creatively and financially at odds with global shutdowns. Lucier has said he chose speech as the starting point for I am sitting in part because, unlike a musical instrument, that mode of soundmaking is “extremely personal.” There was indeed a wonderful intimacy in hearing all of these voices speaking for, and as, Lucier, perhaps especially the unsteady and untrained ones. While figures like La Barbara or Monk give the initial reading as if for an audience, with control and bombast, some participants who weren’t vocalists or performers at all deliver the score more inward than out. But the real intimacy in this long-distance marathon was in watching those participants who shared their video listen to their own voice transform into otherworldly music in real time. Some fidget with the sound or a household chore; some close their eyes; some stare ahead. We, the remote audience, join them in this tranquil process of discovery.

Alvin Lucier is a great artist, and I am sitting in a room is a great work of art. As such, it has been subject to a variety of interpretations. Does it, as a professor of mine recently proposed, inform us of the wild capacities of the human voice by bringing us to its edge? Or does it stage the voice’s dissolution from signal into noise, from a trace of human self into nonhuman flux? Rather than doubling down on my own scholarly leanings regarding this work’s voice, space, and sound, I instead spent an absurd amount of time listening to the piece playing in the rooms of my everyday life, expanding my sense of Lucier as not just a composer but an educator. A number of his colleagues and students from Wesleyan—from a member of the class of ’68 to a current junior—made appearances throughout the marathon. While watching their performances, I thought not only about how I’ve shared this composition with my own students, but also how Lucier’s remarkable generosity of thought throughout his scores and writing has made me feel like a student of his too. And how lucky we all are to have been invited into Lucier’s room to learn to listen from someone who hears the world the way he does.