Yesterday I was trying to get to a wonderful book, Music 109 by Alvin Lucier (2012), an adaptation of the music history class Lucier has been teaching at Wesleyan University for the last forty years.
Lucier is, in the sense I was discussing, a conceptual composer. His compositions break music down into sound. He hooks a wire up to some electronics and lets it vibrate – that’s a composition (Music on a Long Thin Wire). In his best known work, I am sitting in a room (1969), Lucier records himself describing the piece, and then records a playback of the recording, and then records a playback of the playback, repeating until the acoustics of the room have destroyed any trace of speech aside from its rhythm. What remains, surprisingly, is music, or something very much like it (“Speech became music. It was magical”). The process of the creation of the piece is crucial to understanding what it is, to even know what I am hearing. Why would anyone record this uninteresting text, which begins with “I am sitting in a room”?
It was crucial to avoid poetic references – poems, prayers, anything with high aesthetic value. I felt that would only get in the way. I wanted the acoustic exploration to be paramount, the room acoustics and its gradual transformation to be the point of the piece. (90)
The finished recording is forty-five minutes long. The distorting acoustical transitions are small and the piece moves slowly.
As César Aira writes, in an essay on John Cage and conceptual art that I swear I did not know about until Rise pointed it out to me yesterday, “what we think of as the ‘work’ can be the method by which the work is made, rather than the actual work itself, the work acting as a kind of documentary appendix which serves only as a means of deducing the process from which it arose.”
Although Lucier also wants to hear the results of the process. He likes the surprise. I believe I have only made it all the way through I am sitting in a room three times, although I have listened to parts of it many times. I must have first come across Lucier in William Duckworth’s survey 20/20: 20 New Sounds of the 20th Century (1999), which included I am sitting in a room alongside Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Ives’s Concord Sonata, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue as one of the seminal works of the century. Really? Yes, at this point, yes.
Since Lucier is now part of music history, his music history class is his music history. The first work discussed is Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 4. Beethoven appears as the author of the Grosse Fuge, “the only nineteenth-century work that can exist on a wholly modern music concert” (183). The major figures are John Cage, Robert Ashley, La Monte Young – people Lucier knew and worked with. Chapter titles cover forms (Opera, String Quartets), but also concepts (Indeterminacy, Repetition) and who knows what – Bell Labs, Words, Tape Recorders.
The prose is conversational, although secretly filled with pedagogical mines designed to explode years later. I should try to write more like Lucier. He gets to the point.
When [Cage] was at Wesleyan in the Sixties, he taught a course in which he sent everyone to the library to find a different book. The students used chance operations to generate the call numbers. They all came back with different books on different subjects, some even in different languages. Cage thought it was a stupid idea for everybody to read the same thing. He thought it would be more interesting if everyone read something different. (13)
How wonderful that with the internet a curious reader can now listen along with whatever crazy piece Lucier mentions, no matter how obscure. How wonderful Lucier’s class must be.
Let’s pack up our book bags and go into the tunnels under the Music Studios, the acoustics there are very reverberant. I brought along a pitch pipe. (Your professor is prepared)… Let’s carry our perfect fifth with us into the tunnels and perform La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 #7. (102)