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Friday, February 15, 8pm (promptly): $10;
Saturday, February 16, 8:30pm (promptly): $10;

Charles Curtis is a cellist. Upon graduation from Julliard in 1985, Curtis was appointed to the faculty of Princeton University. He also became a founding member of the group King Missile. A figure in the American experimentalist tradition, Curtis is noted for his interpretations of major works by La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, Éliane Radigue, Alvin Lucier, Morton Feldman, Cornelius Cardew, and others. Since 2000, Curtis has served as a Professor of Contemporary Music Performance at UC San Diego.

Over two evenings, Curtis will perform the following compositions which were written expressly for him.

Friday, February 15, 8pm:
Naldjorlak (2005) by Éliane Radigue

Saturday, February 16, 8pm:
Slices for Cello and Pre-recorded Orchestra (2011) by Alvin Lucier
Untitled (2010) by Mieko Shiomi
Rice and Beans for Charles Curtis (2008) by Alison Knowles


In an empty soccer field on a university campus in Southern California, as far as possible from the reflective surfaces of nearby buildings, two loudspeakers were set up some ways into the field. At a distance from each other of perhaps 30 feet, the two speakers projected identical sine waves of 96 cycles per second out into the expanse of the soccer field. By placing sound outdoors in an open environment, free of the layerings of wall reflections and the diffusion characteristics of room materials, it was hoped that the overlapping of only two identical sound sources would articulate something close to the simple behaviour of sound as described in physics textbooks. In particular, the participants hoped to experience total cancellation of sound at the null points in the soccer field where the inversion of wave fronts results in silence.

This exercise was framed as a ‘performance’ of a score from 1973-1974 by Alvin Lucier, Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas. The score instructs performers to ‘create standing waves in space caused by constructive and destructive interference patterns among sine waves from loudspeakers’. We regarded this outdoor interpretation as a rigorously specific realisation possibly not anticipated by the composer, but closely in keeping with the intent of the piece. Visitors were invited to walk in the soccer field in search of silences.The silences in fact were there, but they were very hard to find.They proved to be tiny points, almost too small to accommodate an entire adult head.With patience, one could work one’s way through the gradually louder and softer sequences of sound peaks and troughs spread out across the field, and, following a trough carefully to its lowest point, get positioned in a genuine dead silence. Finding the silent points necessitated a certain amount of slow and patient gyrating and wiggling of the head and body, and staying in the silence was not comfortable, as one had to stoop over a bit with one’s head tilted just so, and then remain completely motionless, other-wise one would bump into the very faint neighbouring sound. What ensued was a sort of spectacle of movement: in the California sun, awkward undergraduates in shorts and T-shirts roamed the soccer field slowly and self-consciously, moving and contorting in strangely slowed-down, meditative steps; one might have suspected a cult engaged in a slow-motion ritual or an expressive dance.

Discovering the silences was a shock, as tiny as they were; we had not expected sound to behave so perfectly. Placing sound in an unbounded field seemed of benefit to all of the constituents. The drone of an airplane overhead created perfectly audible acoustical beats with the sine waves, and the beats slowed down gradually as the Doppler shift of the disappearing airplane swept downwards and out of earshot.

* * *

These pages will be no more than a formless record of my reveries. I myself will figure largely in them, because a solitary person inevitably thinks a lot about himself. But all the other thoughts which pass before my mind will also have their place here. I shall say what I have thought just as it came to me, with as little connection as the thoughts of this morning have with those of last night. But on the other hand I shall gain new knowledge of my nature and disposition from knowing what feelings and thoughts nourish my mind in this strange state …

To accomplish this task I ought to proceed with order and method, but such an undertaking is beyond me, and indeed it would divert me from my true aim, which is to give an account of the successive variations of my soul. I shall perform upon myself the sort of operation that physicists conduct upon the air in order to discover its daily fluctuations. I shall take barometer readings of my soul, and by doing this accurately and repeatedly I could perhaps obtain results as reliable as theirs. However, my aim is not so ambitious. I shall content myself with keeping a record of my readings without trying to reduce them to a system.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, First Walk

The notebooks containing the Reveries are said to be filled with the tiniest of scripts, readable only with the aid of a magnifying glass. The ‘formless records’ of the botanising walks Rousseau took during the last two years of his life were scribbled on playing cards – to be shuffled? – then apparently transferred, with extensive editing, to the notebooks. ‘I write my reveries only for myself,’ Rousseau claims; and here he recasts the writer as reader in a double sense: as later reader of his own reveries to con- sole himself in old age, and as reader, or receiver, of his environment, his feelings, the ‘variations’ of his soul crystallising through an ongoing interaction with his environment. The act of walking seems to be central to his project; it cannot be achieved in sedentariness. The emphasis is placed on motion, walking in an environment, and on observation, both of environment and of self. An extraordinary collaboration between subject and environment is proposed, the subject neither imposing himself on his environment nor standing back in awe of it, but moving through it, continuously alert to it, recording this collaboration in a ‘formless’ form dictated to him by the experience of moving through it. This situation is then equated with the dream-state of the reverie:‘… my entire life has been hardly more than a long reverie, divided into chapters by my daily promenades,’ he notes on one of the playing cards.

* * *

Music and Light Box (1967-1968), by La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, is a kind of portable, single-object sound installation.The black acrylic cube sits in the middle of a dark room, black light from inside illuminating a band of intricate line drawings applied to the acrylic panels as a litho negative.Two speakers mounted in the box produce two sine waves tuned at the frequency ratio 64:63. The eye is drawn inward towards the glowing patterns; but the body is drawn outward to the amplitude peaks and null points of the sine waves, which radiate and stand in the room like the spokes of a wheel. One is almost compelled to walk around the box; as one does, one steps through a continuous cycle detailing one or the other or both sine waves, at amplitudes determined by the alignment of standing waves in the room.The rhythm of the cycle is determined by the motion of the listener.

Music and Light Box anticipates by one year the first public presentations of Dream House, a space in which listeners and musicians can remain in the presence of continuous sound and light for long periods of time.1 Dream House, as large rooms or sometimes entire buildings, denotes not the walls or structural elements or membranes, but rather the space contained in them. Hanging mobiles and coloured lights project coloured shadows that move slowly in response to the motions of the air. Arrays of continuous sine waves – as many as 45 at once – radiate such close patterns of standing waves that even minute motions on the part of a listener reveal new frequencies audible at that specific location. Some listeners enjoy leaping or running in the Dream House to accelerate the rate of frequency change; others walk in measured paces, or simply turn and change their listening axis; others remain motionless.

One is tempted to think of Music and Light Box as an architectural model of the full-fledged Dream House. One looks down, from the outside, at what one will eventually, once it is built, get inside of. At the same time, in its orientation, and in the manner in which its energy engages the beholder, it is the Dream House inverted: sound and light are inside and coming out, whereas in Dream House the beholder is contained within sound and light. But it is not a preliminary model for Dream House; in fact, Dream House existed as a continuous environment in Young and Zazeela’s private living space for a number of years before the conception of Music and Light Box. It is a variation of Dream House, and it is striking to observe that despite the single-point-location of the sound source as compared to the broader diffusion of sound in Dream House, it is not the source of the sound the listener is aware of, but the space around a listener which is articulated by the sound.Thus, even as a variation of Dream House, the experience for the participant is essentially the same.

* * *

Often we can see, spread over even the most indifferent objects, an enchantment, which lies more in the illumination of the air between ourselves and that object, than in the lighting of that object’s forms.

Philipp Otto Runge, letter to Goethe of July 3, 1806

The discourse around spatialised sound, and sound placed in an environment, in general strangely overlooks the simple fact that sound, considered as energy that travels in waves, is inherently spatial. The term itself, ‘spatialised sound’, is jarring, suggesting that sound is in need of having this done to it. A confusion ap- pears to have set in, in which ‘sounds’ are cast as discrete objects to be placed here and there, the emphasis falling exclusively on the locations of sound sources; numerousness of sound source locations is then considered confirmation of the spatiality of sound. In fact, the exclusive emphasis on source locations and their distribution in a space is the de-spatialising of sound, the denial of sound’s integral being in and with space, independent of what has been done to it.

Considered primally, sound is movement between and around a vibrating source and a listener; whether from speech, wind, a motorcycle, a piano in a living room or a sine wave emanat- ing from a loudspeaker, sound is that audible range of variations in air pressure activated by the vibrating source. As sound propagates through space, it does so ideally in an expanding spherical shape, moving out in all directions from its source. It pursues a journey from air molecule to air molecule that is determined both by the characteristics of the sound and by the shape, size and materials of the space it moves in.

Sound has specific size: its rate of travel, a nearly fixed value, and its periodic frequency as long as the sound is unchanging, yield as quotient the actual physical size of sound waves called wavelength; and in the special case of sustained sound resulting in standing waves, we perceive this size in a given space as marked out by points of greater and lesser pressure, or peaks and troughs in the succession of waves. At 96 cycles per second, for example, depending on air temperature and humidity, sound will have a specific wavelength of roughly 11.77 feet; when this frequency ‘stands’ in space, the points of greater and lesser pressure will be positioned in space as multiples of this value.

* * *

All those with whom I was in most intimate harmony have died and left me. Even Ennike, our best tuner, has gone and drowned himself; and so I have not in the whole world a piano tuner to suit me.

Chopin, letter of August 18, 1848

Historical reports of the piano playing of Chopin suggest that he played very softly; his pianos were tuned in unique non-equal temperaments resulting in vivid acoustical effects; the ideal habitat for his performances was the salon, the living room, the home; and his listeners were transported in raptures bordering on hallucination.

The close, non-equal tunings – which today we are at a loss to reproduce since they were not documented – activate highly particular acoustical patterns of beating and resonance which equal temperament seeks to make uniform. It is quite credible to think that Chopin composed some of this acoustical activity into his pieces in response to the tuning of his piano.The close quarters of the salon would have rendered the acoustical imprint of his playing vividly, in ways which would be nearly lost in a large auditorium. The effect of a tuning unfolds in the immediate environment of its sound- ing, and attenuates rapidly over distance.[2]

The intimacy of Chopin’s music is its presence in a space; indeed, in a lived, personally interesting space.The function of his music, conceived as a way of activating that space through sound, suggests an entirely different affect from its rhetorical, enacted function in the neutral space of the concert hall. In the modern concert hall, all of the constituents that transform space into a tactile presence – the closeness of the listeners, the unique tuning and the extreme softness of touch – tend to be absent; and the music conveys something like a nostalgia for its origins, a set of evocatively associative tunes and rhythms, a hinted-at atmosphere vaguely associated with the distant past. As a tactile, spatial phenomenon, on the other hand, the listener is touched by sound in the present, by the presence of sound, and there is no time for nostalgia.

* * *

The novelty of the music of the common practice era is the way in which sound is studied as a non-spatial phenomenon. Its spatial characteristics are trimmed and neutralised; sound is made camera-ready for the proscenium stage – for all intents and purposes a flat space – as well as for the pages of the score and the flat backing of the music stand. The stages of this process are numerous, involving the gradual fixing of sound as notational image, as expressive affect, and as a finite time structure.Tonal music is characterised by an almost exclusive focus on the beginnings of sounds, with duration generally curtailed to avoid the building up of standing waves in space.[3] A distancing process is implied, bearing witness to a new conception of music as a thing to behold from outside of it, or from above. Sound is deployed as an element in a comprehensive object which can be claimed as a single totality; its maker stands in a position of transcendent control.

The interest in the music is in the resourcefulness with which composers swapped out felt spaces for allegorical, narrative and psychological spaces. Space is alluded to, or evoked. But for all this, sound remains a motion in the air around a source and a listener; and engage- ment with the felt space of sound can still be traced throughout the nineteenth century, especially in music not conceived for the concert hall. ‘Chamber music’ is a designation specifically announcing a relationship between sound and the space it occupies, a relationship that arguably goes well beyond (yet still includes) the social functions of the spaces thus engaged. One could speculate that the preponderance of unresolved suspensions in Schumann, the oblique and unprepared modulations in Schubert, the complex figurations in Chopin (which in fact approach a kind of continuous sustaining of piano sound) and the fully integrated dissonances in late Liszt, joined with the intimate spaces in which their music was played and the muted dynamics so characteristic of the Romantic sensibility, attest to a sustained reflection on acoustics and rooms.There are caesuras in all of these composers’ works that seem to convey the sense that the music is stopping to listen as sound lingers in the room.Very often these moments are the exact correlates of Romantic ideas of fantasy, reverie, impromptu and dream. It may well be that in these special cases, space is composed into music in ways that we are no longer attuned to, and which we do not expect from this music.

* * *

In both Music and Light Box and Dream House, La Monte Young’s famous interest in ‘getting inside of sounds’ is elaborated in non-metaphorical ways that are obvious to anyone who directly experiences these works.The notion of ‘getting inside of sounds’ as an actual possibility presupposes a palpable dimension of sound in space.The performance of Lucier’s work in the soccer field puts this same notion in the negative: the participants are ‘getting inside of’ silences; and this experience is so unexpected that ‘being inside’ is given emphatic meaning. But it also raises the question of what is there that one is getting inside of, and what is the nature of that experience.We suppose that we are always inside of space, and it is hard to conceptualise a silence that we are outside of. Silence and space are both thought of as negative concepts waiting to be filled with sounds and objects; yet space is not objects, and Lucier’s silences, at any rate, are not a vacancy to be occupied by other sounds.[4]

‘To get inside of’ also means to know, and not just casually or accidentally or after the fact. If, therefore, an awareness of sound as the audible imprint of space is possible, then the kindred possibility arises that space itself – whatever this may be – can be brought to bear upon our awareness in meaningful and continuous ways through the observation of sound in it. Following this thread further, one could propose that sound is the sentient complement of space; not defining its boundaries or placing things in it, but that which uniquely renders positive and palpable the seeming negative of space.

* * *

Dream House renders sound as that which it truly is, audible space. The only meaningful position from which to apprehend it is from within it. In fact, there is no manifestation of Dream House which stands for all of its parts at once; it cannot be heard from the outside, as a totality.There is no synopsis, diagram, map or volumetric, no score, photo or recording that stands in any adequate relationship to the experience of it; it defies any attempt to circumscribe it.[5] The totality one does then experience is the sheer accumulation of particular points in space, felt or heard in a succession of particular moments. Dream House proposes a parataxis of sound figures that stand in actual space, to be ordered as a consequence of a listener’s volition. That sound can stand in a kind of perfect complementarity between all of its parts without sacrificing the meaningfulness of even the smallest of those parts is the revelation of Dream House. As particular as every point in space is, its meaning is never conditional upon supporting or governing any other. The familiar habit of music, some would even say its defining feature, of compelling or directing the unified response of all listeners, is dispensed with entirely.

When space is not ordered for the observer, there is no single vantage point. A single vantage point, even multiple discrete vantage points, can only convey space as an abstraction, as we cannot take in, or comprehend, as a direct sensation, the totality of space. To experience space is, however, to avowedly not comprehend it, but to be in it and to move in it. Rather than a vantage point, the position of the observer is then more a condition of alertness that is open to what it does not comprehend.

The act of walking, pausing and observing in movement through space – the solitary walking of Rousseau – takes the place of a central point of view for the discovery of sound.Walking is the act of filling in, even completing, the spaces between that which is placed in space. Works in sound that follow the integral being of sound in space are discoverable in this manner, and inversely, space too may reveal itself through sound. Not insisting on a totality, but mobilised by curiosity and a continuous attention to difference effected step by step, the relationship of the beholder to the work can perhaps be expressed with a sort
of conundrum: the listener’s experience is incomplete with respect to the work, but complete with respect to the listener. Thus the space articulated by the work is incomprehensible, but knowable.

1 Dream House is the classification for numerous individual installations, each one uniquely created (and titled) for its respective environment. Typically, a single chord tuned in whole-number frequency ratios is sustained in sine waves that remain unchanging for the duration of the work, usually months or years at a time. Coloured lights and hanging mobiles are angled likewise in unchanging relationships, creating calligraphic shadows on the walls in carefully calibrated colour relationships.The visitor is immersed in a room saturated with sound and light, in which change is restricted to the very slight motions of the coloured shadows due to the minute turning of the mobiles, to the differences in sound dependent on the listener’s position in the room, and, to a very slight degree, to subtle fluctuations effected by the movement of other listeners in the room. Dream House was first presented at the Gal- erie Heiner Friedrich in Munich in 1969, and numerous incarnations have followed in the intervening 39 years, including the current Dream House: Seven + EightYears of Sound and Light at the MELA Foundation site in lower Manhattan, 275 Church Street, New York.

2 Resonance is most audible when the primary, played or struck, sound is very soft, so that its acoustical result is not masked by the attack. This fact also accounts for Alvin Lucier’s preference, expressed in numerous rehearsals over many years with performers, for the lowest possible dynamic levels in performance. Something related to this may be at the heart of Morton Feldman’s preference for extremely soft dynamics.

3 One of the primary objectives of concert hall acoustics is the elimination of standing waves.

4 John Cage’s project to make a silence which would highlight the sounds impossible to banish or erase is of an entirely different nature.

5 This, in itself, goes a long way towards accounting for Young’s well-known reluctance to release his music in the typical industry-standard formats.

Charles Curtis’s essay, “Incomprehensible Space” was published in OASE 78: Immersed. Sound and Architecture (NAi Publishers, 2009)