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.

By contrast, John Cage’s Ryoanji for flute (Nurria) and percussion (Brian Dungan), which evokes the breathy world of the Japanese shakuhachi, seemed lush, lavish, unfettered. The French composer Éliane Radigue’s new OCCAM XVI for bass clarinet (Carol Robinson) seemed utterly homeopathic, issuing soft, spaciously separated notes in a slow sequence, as if ushering them into the air to glow and make a unique mark before fading. At the end of the performance, Robinson explained that the not-so-low level of background noise in the venue had prevented the music from working as it should have.

Radigue’s cusp-of-silence music was among the installations that featured in Saturday’s Musicircus, an “anything goes” idea by John Cage in the spirit of a happening: whatever you like for as long as you like. Saturday included simultaneous and overlapping contributions from early Irish (harpist Siobhán Armstrong), traditional Irish (sean-nós singer and fiddler Saileog Ní Cheannabháin), a reading of Cage’s Indeterminacy (Vincent Woods), Richard O’Donnell’s Percussion Quartet and Friday’s performers, without Lucier.

The long, narrow venue didn’t seem to encourage the kind of unpredictable blending that Cage so loved, although Cage was so all-embracing it’s hard to imagine him having been anything other than delighted with the proceedings.

The use of prison cells certainly kept some of the music in a world of its own, although the percussion regularly made its presence felt in no uncertain fashion, like a wild animal leaping unexpectedly out of its cage.

The most interesting conjunction for me came when the readings of the ever-patient Woods would suddenly register, a presence as calming as Cage himself amid a Babylonian riot.

 

Something in the Pipeworks

The 2014 Pipeworks Festival, a celebration of organ and choral music, got under way at Christ Church Cathedral on Wednesday. This used to be a Dublin event, but artistic director Mark Duley has turned it into a national one, and the festival’s integral Dublin International Organ Competition takes place this year in three locations – Maynooth, Dundalk and Belfast – where the finals on Friday will feature performances with the Ulster Orchestra under Paul Brough.

The two concerts I got to were strong on the representation of living composers, but not exactly persuasive in the quality of the contemporary music they offered. At Christ Church, Pier Damiano Peretti featured as an organist, composer and conductor (of the Crash Ensemble in his new Antifone). The evening struck me as sturdy, worthy and a little bit dull.

Orla Flanagan’s Mornington Singers showed themselves an able choir at the Pro-Cathedral on Wednesday. But the main interest turned out to be the organ-playing of Sophie Véronique Cauchefer-Choplin, who improvised interludes between some of the choral works.

Her contributions were reflective and connective, quite the opposite of the showy, everything-including-the-kitchen- sink improvisations that so many organists love. Those demonstrations are usually about the player. Cauchefer- Choplin showed that she has form in that department too. But mostly what she offered was music about the evening’s other music; a kind of commentary on a concert that I’ve never heard before. Utterly fascinating.

mdervan@irishtimes.com

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