It was a snowy evening in March 1970 in Middletown, Conn. But the composer Alvin Lucier turned off the warmth, wanting it quiet in his condo. He sat in his lounge with two tape recorders, a microphone, a single loudspeaker and an amplifier.
Lucier, then 38, with a powerful New England accent and a periodic stutter, pressed document and commenced to talk.
“I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now,” he mentioned. “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.”
He then did precisely that, and the consequence — known as “I am sitting in a room” — has change into one of many classic works of sound art. Lucier repeatedly performed and rerecorded his taped voice into his lounge. Each recording amassed increasingly more of the resonant traits of the area.
After roughly 9 repetitions of the textual content — and about 15 minutes — Lucier’s speech, together with his stutter, turns into unimaginable to make out, and is ultimately overtaken by high-pitched tones, sounding someplace between a bowed vibraphone and the creaking of a rusty swing set. By 23 minutes, speech has absolutely remodeled into noisy drones.
At least that’s what one hears in that 1970 recording. Lucier’s work has been carried out and recorded many occasions since then, and each recording sounds totally different — as a result of how the piece unfolds relies on the actual acoustics of a given area. This vary of prospects will probably be on show on Thursday — persevering with via Friday, Lucier’s 90th birthday — when Issue Project Room in Brooklyn hosts a 26-hour streamed “I am sitting in a room” marathon, that includes 90 performers.
It isn’t the one birthday celebration. On Friday, the Ever Present Orchestra, an ensemble devoted to Lucier’s music, will premiere his “Adagio for Strings,” streamed by the ZKM Center for Art and Media.
Lucier has lengthy been celebrated as a vital innovator, however he has additionally remained a bit esoteric. “I really felt as if I had missed the boat in making work that was understood by a lot of the public, not a coterie of cognoscenti,” he mentioned in an electronic mail interview.
“One of my fondest compliments,” he added, “was when our plumber, as he was leaving my house after having finished a job at my home, remarked as he was walking out the door: ‘Are you the guy who wrote the piece about sitting in a room? My kids love it. You are ahead of your time.’”
At 90, Lucier’s playful, looking out spirit is powerful. “I must confess that I am executing crazy ideas I have had in my mind for years but never have had the courage to realize,” he mentioned, together with a piece impressed by the pianist and composer David Tudor’s “luxurious eyelashes” and “a duet with a bat who lives in the belfry of the Wesleyan Memorial Chapel.”
Over 50 years in the past, when Lucier started educating at Wesleyan University in Middletown, he was already fascinated by environmental and bodily sounds, with works like “Music for Solo Performer” (for amplified mind waves); “Sferics” (for pure radio emissions attributable to lightning); and “Chambers” (for resonant areas starting from seashells to subway stations). Recording his personal physique, in his personal home area, was a logical subsequent step.
One impetus to deal with his voice stemmed partially from his temporary stint appearing in experimental movies. “I’ve started paying attention to the characteristics of my speech which are original to my personality and don’t sound like anybody else’s,” he informed an interviewer in 1970. “You know I’m a stutterer.”
For composers steeped within the mid-20th-century avant-garde methods of John Cage, through which character and self-expression have been frowned on — and sometimes actively averted by utilizing procedures of likelihood — Lucier’s emphasis on his personal voice was a bit taboo.
“Several friends told me they thought it was (too) personal,” he mentioned within the current written interview. “They meant it as a criticism. You see, indeterminacy was supposed to get us away from such romantic notions. One of my friends confessed that he thought it was ‘self-indulgent.’”
But the intimacy of Lucier’s talking voice helped floor the piece’s summary exploration of tape methods and acoustics, bringing it into dialogue with a broader cohort of musicians who have been exploring the musical potential of human speech and repetition across the identical time: Steve Reich in “Come Out,” Robert Ashley in “She Was a Visitor,” Pauline Oliveros in “One Word” (from her “Sonic Meditations”).
For over 20 years, “I am sitting in a room” circulated largely via recordings, the primary issued in 1970 by the journal Source: Music of the Avant-Garde; one other, from the label Lovely Music, got here out in 1981. In 1995, Lucier made his first try at performing the piece reside, and, within the 2000s, started utilizing pc software program to carry out it extra usually.
A new box set of archival recordings, issued on the event of Lucier’s birthday by Sound on Paper Editions, demonstrates how the music displays the acoustics of the area through which it’s carried out — together with a take a look at model made in a small, sterile-sounding room on the Electronic Music Studio at Brandeis University, in 1969, and a wealthy, reverberant efficiency on the Church of Saint-Merri in Paris in 2018.
Although the work has lengthy been synonymous with Lucier’s voice and character, anybody can carry out it: The marathon on Thursday and Friday will function members of his household, college students and colleagues performing in varied areas, a few of which have been a part of the composer’s life. The composer and performer James Fei, a former Lucier scholar, recorded on the Littlefield Concert Hall at Mills College in California, an establishment essential to the historical past of experimental (notably digital) music and whose future remains uncertain. The composer Paula Matthusen carried out the piece in a stairwell on the Center for the Arts at Wesleyan.
“I decided to make my own version that would not be like Alvin’s version,” mentioned the composer George Lewis, who recorded in Berlin. “That’s a very Afro-diasporic thing to do. You sort of find a way. You don’t go with what happened already. You try to create your own version.”
The marathon will start with a 2017 recording by Lucier, carrying a Black Lives Matter hoodie and studying from his guide “Chambers.” His voice is way softer than it was in 1970, and his stutter is sort of unnoticeable. In current years he has begun to face challenges performing due to his well being.
“I am losing my voice because of Parkinson’s disease, which I was diagnosed with about 10 or 12 years ago,” he mentioned.
For his most up-to-date public efficiency of “I am sitting in a room,” in October 2019, Lucier arrived on the Skanu Mezs Festival in Riga, Latvia, seemingly unable to talk.
“We were really concerned,” mentioned Jan Thoben, the co-editor of the field set, who was serving as technical assistant. “This piece without having a voice, just a whisper: I don’t even know if it would work.”
Lucier recalled that, to organize for that efficiency, “I had to warm up my voice beforehand. For some reason I felt strongly that night that I should have my strong voice so that I could give the Riga audience a true version of the work, even though I realized that a whispered version would be authentic, too.”
The Riga recording, featured on the field set, begins tentatively, with the composer quietly repeating the preliminary “I” in a whisper. After 20 seconds, his voice fills out and, after one false begin, continues. The ensuing recording-and-rerecording course of reveals bell-like higher frequencies that echo the rhythm of his speech, till the sound regularly smooths into resonant open intervals, sustained by ethereal, flutelike drones.
The recording is exceptional. And additionally it is deeply intimate — and intimacy, a way of being drawn into Lucier’s physique and area, was at all times each the provocation and the enduring draw of “I am sitting in a room.”