Spring 2016, Degree Critical

Friday 01/29/2016

Alvin Lucier performing I am sitting in a room**

Sonic Intoxication: Alvin Lucier’s “I am sitting in a room”

by Amelia Rina (Class of 2015)

On September 27, 2014 at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, MA, composer and artist Alvin Lucier sat on a chair under a spotlight and spoke these words:

I am sitting in a room. It is the same room you are sitting 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.

For the next forty-five minutes, he remained seated, motionless, performing I am sitting in a room (1970), his masterful sound composition. The piece consists of Lucier speaking the above monologue, after which an audio engineer plays back a recording of it over a set of speakers. The engineer then records this recording as well as the sound of it being played again, and on and on so that each recording is layered on top of the previous as it also picks up any audible sounds from the audience. During this performance, two coughs from the audience and a series of chair squeaks were caught and added to the layers of Lucier’s speech. All the while, the playback caused a disintegration of his speech into pure reverberation.

Lucier has experienced an extreme and chronic stutter since childhood, which continues to inform his pioneering experiments in music composition, performance, and sound art. Throughout his career, and in works such as I am sitting in a room, he aims to challenge the experience of how we create and receive sound. As the cycle of recorded and projected sound continued, the particularities of Lucier’s speech dissolved into waves of sound that splashed off the walls, floor, ceiling, bodies, in one ear and out the other.

As I sat and listened, the room filled and my body swelled. I am never prepared for the way sound effects my body—to engage in active listening reveals how much of my daily auditory perception goes unnoticed. Our minds censor our ears to keep us from sensory overload. Now in a state of heightened awareness, at a point when the beginning and end of Lucier’s speech remained comprehensible, but the middle muddled into competing high and low frequencies, I experienced periodic chills down my spine. As Lucier’s words splintered into unintelligibility, a low frequency born from the interference of the many layers of recorded sounds echoing in the room made the muscles of my abdomen contract and left me momentarily light headed. The recordings continued to multiply as the individual sound waves interfered with each other, alternately amplifying and negating the frequencies. To further intensify my auditory experience and eliminate visual distractions, I closed my eyes. In the darkness, I felt like I was standing on a floating dock: a visceral wobbling sensation contradicting my previously stable seat in the chair. The individual tones swerving in and out of each other had turned into a feverish whirling cacophony, at once consonant and dissonant. The structural logic of my experience in the world fell away and I surrendered to the sensation of a Dionysian interaction with Lucier, the sounds, the room, and its contents.

Of the Dionysian artist, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that he “has unlearnt walking and speech. But more: he feels himself enchanted and he has actually become something other.”1 For Nietzsche, the exultant performance of song and dance, one that expresses both pain and pleasure while never forgetting its radical impermanence, is the embodiment of Dionysian intoxication. However, intoxication cannot be the only state a person experiences; intoxication must remain balanced with the beautiful appearance of the dream world, which the philosopher designates as Apollonian.

According to Nietzsche, beauty and order also obscure the true nature of the world: “The innermost purpose of a culture oriented toward Schein [to seem, to appear, to shine, to glisten] and measure can only be the veiling of the truth.”2 The antidote to this world of beautiful untruths is found in Apollo’s opulent partner, Dionysus: “It was into such a constructed and artistically protected [künstlich geschützte] world that the ecstatic tone of the Dionysian celebration penetrated. In this tone, nature’s total immoderation was revealed: in pleasure, suffering, and cognition all at once.”3 Both Apollo (beauty, order) and Dionysus (intoxication, chaos) manifested in Alvin Lucier’s work. I am sitting in a room affected my body in an entirely unfamiliar way, variably wrenching my organs with hostile sonic frequencies or allowing me to release my corporeal awareness and let it dissolve into the vibrating air.

I am sitting in a room starts as an Apollonian work. Lucier’s structured speech is decidedly not poetic, so that “the space becomes audible without distractions.”4 Throughout the piece, Lucier reminds his audience that sound consists of vibrations that, like particles of light, are affected by the surrounding environment. Each performance absorbs any concurrent ambient sounds made in the space, including the projected sounds altered by their interaction with the space. By incorporating the interaction of sound and environment into his composition, Lucier plays the room like an instrument.

Here, one might again return to Nietzsche: “the music of Apollo is architecture in tones.”5 In his use of the word “architecture,” Nietzsche refers to the cithara, an Ancient Greek string instrument similar to the lyre. It is reasonable to assume that, by his association of architecture with the “allusive tones” of the cithara, Nietzsche means the tonal scale, which is based on mathematical ratios between musical notes that produce pleasurable sounds, similar to mathematical ratios that underlie the design and engineering of architecture. The Greeks praised the use of natural order (mathematics) for its potential to please the senses, as did Nietzsche’s great influence, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who related music to architecture: “Music is liquid architecture; Architecture is frozen music.”

The essential attribute of Nietzsche’s Dionysian experience is the intertwining of disagreeing states. Unlike Apollo, God of Music, Poetry and other arts, whose associated traits remain in the realm of pleasant, reliable perfection, Dionysus embodies both Apollonian harmony and its opposite: “It is not in alternation between clarity and intoxication, but in their entanglement, that Dionysian artistry shows itself.”6 Why should we introduce Dionysian artistry into our world? Nietzsche writes: “The struggle between these two manifestations of Will had an extraordinary aim: to create a higher possibility of existence and, also, to arrive in this at a still higher glorification (through art). No longer the art of seeming [Kunst des Schiens] but rather tragic art was the form of this glorification; in it, however the art of seeming is entirely absorbed. Apollo and Dionysus have merged.”7

To exist and then produce in two contradictory states is a great challenge in today’s world of binary distinctions, and for this reason, the pursuit is increasingly important. Artists are particularly well suited to take on this challenge because of the creativity’s inherent questioning of the world. Lucier not only questions the nature of truth—in sound, speech, and perception—but he also invites his audience to participate in the investigation with him.

Embodying the Dionysian/Apollonian entanglement, I am sitting in a room is simultaneously a record of the past and an anticipation of the future, manifested in a constantly departing present. Interference underlies the entire piece, in both its performance and its conception. Lucier uses the structure of speech—the basis with which we attempt to understand ourselves and others—but because he has a speech impediment, the otherwise mundane rhythms of dictation are rewritten by chance. The performance begins by telling you exactly what it is and what is going to happen, but, because of the unique interaction with the space in which it is performed, there is no way to exactly predict what will happen.

By unraveling his speech and the audience’s expectations, Lucier speaks to the listeners in an originary language, and through this language creates a sense of wonder. Nietzsche writes of Dionysus: “But where is the force that will transport him into this disposition of belief in miracles, through which he will see all as enchanted? Who vanquishes the force of seeming and relegates it to symbol? This is music.”8 Lucier uses the familiarity of language to generate something entirely untranslatable, enchanted symbols that are wholly his. In that, he finds freedom.

**Note: The above image is from a 2010 performance of I am sitting in a room. A full recording of the piece can be found here.

1. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Dionysian Vision of the World. Trans. Ira J. Allen. Minneapolis, MN: Univocal, 2013. 31. Print.

2. Ibid., 42.

3.  Ibid.

4. “Alvin Lucier in Conversation with Douglas Simon.” Sound by Artists. Ed. Dan Lander and Micah Lexier. Toronto, Ont.: Art Metropole, 1990. 196.

5. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Dionysian Vision of the World. Trans. Ira J. Allen. Minneapolis, MN: Univocal, 2013. 33.

6. Ibid., 32

7. Ibid., 49

8. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Dionysian Vision of the World. Trans. Ira J. Allen. Minneapolis, MN: Univocal, 2013. 50.