New York

Drawing Sound Part II: Alvin Lucier at the Drawing Center

To enter the main gallery at the Drawing Center for a recent performance, we couldn’t use its front doors. Instead, we had to descend the stairs near the lobby, walk along the lower-level corridor from the front to the back of the building, ascend the rear stairs, and pass through the smaller gallery called the Drawing Room. There, the walls were adorned with several wooden beams with quivering strings. The installation, Echoic Memory (2015) by the sound artist and composer Spencer Topel, consisted of a series of wood pieces hung vertically, each fitted with a single magnetically resonating string that reproduced delayed sounds from the adjacent main gallery throughout three days of performances, the second installment of the Drawing Center’s series Drawing Sound. On September 11, 2015, the main gallery housed a performance of three compositions by the renowned sound artist Alvin Lucier: Music for Snare Drum, Pure Wave Oscillator, and One or More Reflective Surfaces (1990), Tapper (2002), and Bird and Person Dyning (1975).

2.Alvin Lucier. Bird and Person Dyning, 1975 (performance still); Drawing Center, New York; September 11, 2015; Alvin Lucier, performer. Courtesy of the Drawing Center. Photo: Chris Bradley.

Alvin Lucier. Bird and Person Dyning, 1975 (performance still); Drawing Center, New York; September 11, 2015; Alvin Lucier, performer. Courtesy of the Drawing Center. Photo: Craig Howarth.

Our detour through the building’s underbelly forced us to pass through several architectural environments before reaching our final destination upstairs. The journey was one of cumulative perception, as opposed to the immediacy of directly crossing a threshold between two spaces. As a result, aspects of the Drawing Center’s interior became elements of the evening’s sound performances. The disruption of the expected gallery visit nudged us out of perfunctory interaction; we began the evening in a state of heightened awareness.

One of Lucier’s greatest skills as an artist is his ability to reveal the preternatural qualities of sound that go largely unnoticed in everyday life. He does this not through elaborate manipulation but through immersion and simple repetition. In No Ideas But In Things: The Composer Alvin Lucier (2012), a documentary by Viola Rusche and Hauke Harder, Lucier explains: “When you let something happen and don’t make big changes, you start to hear the acoustic phenomena.” Tapper, written for and performed by the violinist Conrad Harris, embodies the descriptive potential of a prolonged perception of acoustic events. In the performance, Harris repeatedly tapped the violin body with the butt end of the bow. This banal act was transformed into a complex articulation of the instrument’s structure, the room’s architecture, and our bodies within it. The first thing I heard was the attack of the bow’s metal screw against the violin’s lower bout, which made an unsurprising metal-on-wood sound. A revelation occurred after a few minutes, when I began to distinguish the nuanced reverberations and sonic reflections that fluctuated as Harris slowly turned 180 degrees: Suddenly, high-pitched pings were added to the mix of oscillating echoes. After about fifteen minutes, the repeated sounds became disconnected from the corresponding actions; my understanding of what it means to strike one object with another lost its significance, and instead I perceived the sonic mapping of the space through the sounds reflecting from bodies, objects, and walls.

1.Alvin Lucier. Tapper, 2004 (performance still); Drawing Center, New York; September 11, 2015; Conrad Harris, performer. Courtesy of the Drawing Center. Photo: Craig Howarth.

Alvin Lucier. Tapper, 2004 (performance still); Drawing Center, New York; September 11, 2015; Conrad Harris, performer. Courtesy of the Drawing Center. Photo: Chris Bradley.

During each of the four Lucier compositions that I have experienced in person—the three performed at the Drawing Center and his 1970 piece, I Am Sitting in a Room—I lost track of time. The performances’ combination of extended durations—the works are at least fifteen minutes long—and repetitive sounds made apparent my brain’s inability to solidify the radical impermanence of durational work into a stable memory. However, the result was not chaos but an uncanny sonic experience and portrayal of space. While performing Bird and Person Dyning, Lucier spent approximately thirty minutes walking about twenty-five feet toward two loudspeakers emitting the looping chirp of an electronic bird call. Lucier wore binaural microphones in his ears, which, as Lucier explains in an artist statement, “realistically reproduce sounds as one hears them, as they deflect around the head and in the folds of the ears.”[1] He used the microphones to track the effect of his movements through the space on the amplified twitters, shifting the bird sounds from one speaker to the other. With small movements of his head, he controlled the feedback that sometimes occurred between the speakers and microphones in his ears. The most remarkable sonic manifestation was when the acoustical mixture of the bird calls and speaker feedback generated a heterodyne effect, a phenomenon that created phantom twitterings that seemed to originate inside my head and swirl around it like a localized tornado of sound.[2] At first, the experience was extremely unsettling—some frequencies caused involuntary spasmodic cringes and chills—but I was surprised how quickly I adjusted to the auditory anomalies. I stopped trying to make sense of what was happening and surrendered to the experience.

On the most basic level, Bird and Person Dyning involves the looping bird sounds and undulating feedback, but with Lucier’s intervention, it became a singular experience that challenged my notions of perception. I felt as though the sounds existed in my head alone, disconnected from the other audience members packed into the gallery, though logically I knew this wasn’t the case. Furthermore, not only were other people having similar experiences, we also collectively affected the auditory expression conducted by Lucier. Through his utilization of sound waves to describe the invisible energy surrounding and embodied by us, Lucier revealed the physical state in which we all exist: an interconnected mass of autonomous bodies subjectively perceiving collective experience.

Alvin Lucier performed at the Drawing Center in New York on September 11, 2015.

[1] From the Drawing Center event program. See also a 2006 performance program from the University of Virginia: http://www.virginia.edu/music/archives/pressrelease/06-07/programs/lucier091506.pdf.

[2] “‘Dyning’ is Lucier’s abbreviated version of ‘heterodyning,’ a term introduced in the early days of radio transmission. It describes the phenomenon that if two waves are mixed (in a nonlinear medium), two extra signals are created with the sum and difference in frequency. This phenomenon can also occur when sound waves reach our ear, with the exception that in the ear mainly ‘difference tones’ are produced.” See “Bird and Person Dyning (1975),” No Ideas But In Things: The Composer Alvin Lucier, film website: http://www.alvin-lucier-film.com/bird.html.

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