A bit of electrical hum is no skin off Alvin Lucier’s nose

At Dundalk Gaol, the experimental composer doesn’t flinch, allowing the problems to run their course

Alvin Lucier sat impassively, letting his engineer see what he could do. Photograph: Amanda Lucier

Alvin Lucier sat impassively, letting his engineer see what he could do. Photograph: Amanda Lucier

Wed, Jun 25, 2014, 01:00

Talking to Alvin Lucier for the interview published on this page last Friday, I asked him whether his piece I Am Sitting in a Room was as straightforward to perform as it might seem.

You speak some text and record it. You play the recording back over a loudspeaker and record it again. Play back, record, play back, record, and so on. During this process, the voice and the words get swallowed up in the characteristics of the room.

Some rooms are echoey, some are dry. They all have resonances related to their physical characteristics, and the piece lays out a process whereby those resonances increase in strength and devour the original statement. You set it up, and off it goes.

In the early days there were reel-to-reel tape recorders, and all their quirks to deal with. Nowadays you don’t need those kinds of moving parts. It can all be done in the digital domain. But, digital, schmigital: there’s still the electricity to deal with. And in Lucier’s performance at Dundalk Gaol on Friday, the electricity made its presence felt very early on, in the form of a mains hum.

Once that irritating noise, or any other unintended contribution, is there, it’s going to stay and influence the process. But Lucier didn’t flinch. Once he has spoken his words, he just has to wait until the end. And he sat impassively, letting his engineer see what he could do.

It sounded to me like he worked at filtering out the hum, and tried to boost the voice by making it brighter, in an effort to get the whole thing back on the rails. The heightened sibilance that resulted was at times physically painful to have to listen to, and there was one iteration that introduced another rogue sound like a feedback howl, which didn’t get filtered out.

The transformation of the speech seemed to be impeded by the problems. But it was all allowed to run its course and the intelligibility of the words was lost to the resonances. Even the purest of concepts can find itself mired in the impurities of the real world.

The purity that Lucier so loves seems to me to belong to the world of the étude, and to be close in spirit to Chopin racing along in splayed-out arpeggios or incessant octaves, Debussy narrowing his focus down to the intervals of the fourth or the sixth, or the more fantastical excursions of Conlon Nancarrow or György Ligeti.

One of Lucier’s obsessions is the myriad ways in which musical lines can interact to produce beats – from slow, woozy ones and the faster, sweeter type to the rapid, tremulous ones. It’s hard to think of a good analogy, but maybe pasta will do, given the variety of shapes that can be produced from the same basic ingredients.

Lucier’s For Charles Curtis for cello and oscillators (played by Francesco Dillon), Navigations for Strings (Kairos Quartett), and 13 Degrees of Darkness for flute and recorded flute (Manuel Zurria) are as focused on beats as pasta is on durum flour.

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