Alvin Lucier – “I Am Sitting in a Room” (1990)

November 1, 2009 at 9:17 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

This piece (originally from 1969), by experimental composer Alvin Lucier, definitely should be heard. It’s a spoken-word piece that magically evolves until it sounds like some strange organ-cello-synthesizer combination – yet there are no other instruments beside the human voice. All due to the magic of tape recorders. 
This review and explanation of the piece comes from the
AllMusicGuide website and was written by Brian Olewnick…

 

 

“I am sitting in a room, different from the one you are in now.” So begins one of the masterpieces of 20th century music merging processed music, minimalism, and self-reference into an utterly amazing and ultimately beautiful work. The instructions for producing the piece are, in fact, the piece itself. The composer sits and describes what will happen, and then it happens. Lucier tapes these instructions (about 80 seconds worth), tapes it, replays that tape into the room, tapes that, plays the second tape into the room, etc., and so on. Little by little, the “natural resonant frequencies of the room” erode the source material, softening hard edges, blurring boundaries between words. Different rooms will, presumably, give different results depending on their individual architectural properties. After ten or 12 repetitions, the listener already has difficulty distinguishing individual words, though the rhythmic pattern remains. But, and this is one of the cruxes of the work, all is not entropy. As the text becomes indecipherable, elements of undeniably musical tones emerge from nowhere, as though they were embedded in the original speech and only came to light after the surface structure was eliminated. Indeed, small melodies can actually be heard and the effect is absolutely magical. Fifteen minutes into the composition, Lucier’s speech has become a hazy cloud of wavering, bell-like tones interrupted by the occasional sibilance, the latter generated by the composer’s stutter, which adds an element of poignancy to the piece’s conception. Halfway through, no aspect of the speech can be gleaned except a rough cadence; instead, the listener has been transported to a sound world at such a far remove from the initial text as to leave one both baffled and awash in wonder. I Am Sitting in a Room is a unique, extraordinary idea/composition, a landmark among late 20th century avant-garde music and a touchstone for a generation of composer/theoreticians. It’s a rare combination of sensual beauty and intellectual rigor, and should be heard by anyone interested in contemporary music.

Brian Olewnick

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