the voice of Alvin Lucier
The aural practice of Alvin Lucier, as he has suggested himself, may be understood as premised on the importance of “carful listening”. The possibilities of listening, when not limited to the linguistic, are properly a concern of musicality. What one comprehends beyond the realm of totally signiﬁcant information, of apparently constructed signs, beyond the margins of semiosis, is an augmentation in meaning and an expansion of what would be a general evaluation of truth. When we think of pure music in contrast to prose, there appears immediately a disjunction in the notion of truth. In his 1970 work
I am Sitting In A Room
, Lucier dealt with this disjunction in a brilliant and profound way. The piece was constructed by the artist precisely as is described in the work:
I am sitting in a room different from the 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.”
By the end of the recording, one hears an almost constant, yet rhythmic ambient sound in which musicality is constituted by both the physicality of speech and total noise, resonance. The gradual disappearance of linguistic truth gives way to the pure truth of musicality. But there is a destabilizing factor on both sides of the transition: Alvin Lucier has an occasional yet consistent stutter. This factor is not only self evident in the recording as well as implicated by the literal information provided in speech, it is also instrumental in the production of the music, in its process of production. We process our mental chaos into linguistic produce, we produce meaning via our emersion in language. Lucier’s stutter represents a kind of feedback or haptic obscurant in this process. When we listen not to a word but to the sound of what would otherwise be a word as it is stuttered, we are listening to the sound of speech, we are witnessing the form of the sign, a signal amidst an endless process of formation. In the context of the sentence - and as happened so serendipitously in the recording - words are strangely emphasized. In these instants truth’s form mutates as it unfolds. The process of the artist’s speech is warped and momentarily disintegrated just as the
sound of his speech - with all the information readable therein - is transformed through a resonant process. Non-linguistic sound, as with optics, constitutes an expansive connotative possibilities for signiﬁcation. But when we must recognize the contingency in one’s determination of the signiﬁcant: When we ask what we know or do not know to be a sign, we should do so upon the notion that knowledge is perhaps only information that cannot be ignored. Within this framework we determine truths for ourselves, but it is possible that regardless of our particular determinations, truth is unstoppable, it cannot be muted. Barthes tells us that “in order for something to be known it must be spoken; but also, once it is spoken, even very provisionally, it is true.” As long as we are listening, the truth will haunt us and make us its readers. The function of “careful listening” is here an almost hermeneutic one.
I am Sitting In A Room
is a kind of disappearing act, but one that includes an emergence of substantial content, by which the work’s initial premise is eclipsed or subsumed. As the artist disappears, I am struck by the one weak link in the chain of logic presented in the recording: What is heard by us is never really speech: through audio speakers we may hear digital, analog or radio signals, but only from the human body may we truly hear speech. The artist in fact disappears from the work the moment he stops speaking and presses play, and from our point of view neither he nor his speech was ever totally present, merely appearing. What we then continue to hear could be considered a representation of the inescapable fact of his technical, fundamental and initial disappearance. Recording is itself a posthumous disappearing (or unappearing) act; when it is heard, the producer is typically absent. Lucier documents the process of his own disappearance: speech disappears, and with it dissipates the trace of the speaking subject. In this way, analogously, the recording also documents a transition from the discursive to the phatic. By the time we are left with no trace of the linguistic, a distinct tonality begins to emerge. Soon an almost algorithmic-sounding melody surfaces. These beautiful, ambient tones seemed hidden in the artist’s (by then recorded) speech the whole time. Gradually, as strangely and seamlessly as it emerges, the melody gives way to a total ﬂattening out of sound; the resonation of this sound in this room seems to integrate all tones at once. We are left with a rhythmic wall of noise. At the end of the spoken statement, the artist tells us he wishes to “smooth out any irregularities [his] speech might have.” About half way through this process of recording and playback, all phonetic, oral features are kneaded out into ﬂuid timbre. At this point Lucier is free of his stutter. In a piece like this, which is likely to strike many as thoroughly conceptualand abstract, it is easy to miss one very unseeming signiﬁcance: this artwork says something, in a discreet yet direct way, about the body’s relationship to the reproduced sound of the work, to the production of the work itself. I ﬁnd an emotionally impactful dimension to this work: When I think of this aspect, I am reminded of a friend of mine who has an analogous experience: she has a bodily disability which limits her freedom of movement. However, she loves
to swim, and it is in the water that she experiences the ﬂuidity and ease of movement that is impossible otherwise. She can move her body freely, unrestricted by its requirement to support itself. She is free of irregularity, unhindered and able to exist as she wishes; her movement becomes reﬂective and conﬁrming of her thought; her will is only then fully resonate through her. Her body may then listen to her will. In is his struggle with such a stigmatized or socially awkward thing as speech irregularity, the artist procures a reprieve for himself, and only in the most profoundly charming and felicitous way. Lucier ﬁnds a way to mend the disruption in the linguistic process of meaning production, he reconstitutes his truth. The work is thus a document of a kind of empowerment and relief; Lucier is unbounded. We hear a document of his presence in which the facilitation of his speech is ﬁnally unburdened by what had prevented his body from carefully listening to his thoughts.