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June 8–June 14, 2–8pm
Reception: Saturday, June 8, 5–8pm
In 1977, Alvin Lucier built an instrument he did not know how to play. He bought some metal piano wire and sent away to the Edmund Scientific Company for a set of clamps and a horseshoe magnet. He extended the wire across a large classroom at Wesleyan University. He clamped it to tables at both ends. He connected the ends of the wire to the loudspeaker terminals of a power amplifier placed under one of the tables. A sine wave oscillator was connected to the amplifier. A magnet straddled the wire. Wooden bridges were inserted under the wire at both ends to which contact microphones were imbedded and routed to a stereo sound system. The microphones then picked up the vibrations that the wire imparted to the bridges and sent them through the playback system.
About all this, Lucier said, “I discovered that by removing my hand from the musical process and carefully tuning the oscillator, the wire could be left to sound by itself. Fatigue, air currents, heating and cooling, even human proximity could cause the wire to undergo enormous changes. All changes in volume, timbre, harmonic structure, rhythmic and cyclic patterning, and other sonic phenomena were brought about solely by the actions of the wire.”
“Music on a Long Thin Wire” (1977)* is well off. You can’t go to school, turn a few corners, and not bump into it. Sound Art, Minimalism, these doors open to it smoothly. A survey class on the History of Conceptual Art, and there it is in the caboose, two train cars behind Sol Lewitt’s “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art.” A class on Adorno and the Culture Industry. Sure, why wouldn’t Adorno brats be interested in a piece of music that has to do with the limits of what one can commodify and consume. Turn another corner and Lucier is in the mouth of a sculpture professor who’s on about how sculpture no longer resides just in material things. But all this academic affection doesn’t wilt the piece into place. To think of it first in material terms (a sculpture, a sound piece) is to start at the wrong end and move away from the corporality it affords you. If you think of it at all, think of it as a transmitter of something metaphysical, and Lucier’s chosen materials as merely a go-between. If ever there were a piece that should be felt, as well as adjudicated, contested, or philosophized, then this might be it. Most “conceptual pieces” ask us to have the capacity to enjoy intellectual pleasures as though they were sensual pleasures, but Lucier affords us an opportunity to get stinky rich in brain and body both.
What did that futurist jock F.T. Marinetti say about looking at older art in museums? Something about it being like pouring our sensibility into a funeral urn instead of hurling it far off. Well, he’s not wrong. It is a mistake to overfish the canon, and the tuna can get dusty in the can, but all the same, the mood in which we show Alvin Lucier’s very known piece is not the fatal one of nostalgia—a passive, consuming undertaking. One cannot just force the past into the present, especially when the piece that is trying to be recouped is particularly unaccommodating of perpetual modernization. We shouldn’t try to keep Lucier’s work from aging. It isn’t contemporary, but it does bring up contemporary questions about the speeds at which we consume culture, and the speeds at which things go from being ideas to canned goods. More than anything, the piece is antediluvian. This makes it difficult and un-contemporary in an interesting way. It is not difficult because it makes occluded references or has a big vocabulary. Attendees should have no trouble listening to it; it makes a lovely sound. It is difficult because it doesn’t accommodate our desire to consume in haste. It is difficult because we are asked only to pay attention to it, and who can afford to do just that?
Alvin Lucier was born in 1931 in Nashua, New Hampshire. He was educated at Yale University and Brandeis University. Since 1970, he taught at Wesleyan University where he was the John Spencer Camp Professor of Music. Lucier was a member of the influential Sonic Arts Union, which included Robert Ashley, David Behrman, and Gordon Mumma.
Thanks to The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Elliot Mylott, Ed Sinclair, and Don Vollum for their support of this program.
Thursday, June 20, 7:30pm
In 1980, Ellen Fullman built an instrument she did not know how to play. Room sized, made of taught wire 50 to 150 feet in length, her Long String Instrument (1980) has ancestors—Alvin Lucier and Pythagoras(1), of all people—but it isn’t overcrowded with meaning or history. The form didn’t come nailed down with attitudes or vocab, half a foot thick. It was Fullman’s to teethe. Sure, she had help. She collaborated with musicians and technicians, Bob Bielecki among them, but even today her instrument is her solitude. She, like all artists who enlist their own form, has the task of creating the taste by which they are to be judged. Fullman said something beautiful about her piece, the Long String Instrument. She said that the activity of its composition had become her personal music school. It led her to read and study as the information she sought got put to use in very practical ways.
About Fullman, Alvin Lucier wrote, “The first thing one observes is that the string vibrates as a whole. You can see it moving up and down its entire length. The sound it produces as it vibrates as a whole is the fundamental pitch. That’s the tone you hear and identify. Its pitch is determined by the tautness, weight, mass, and length of the string. Any mechanical system that moves periodically faster than sixteen times a second makes a musical sound. The pitch of an organ pipe is determined by how long it is; the column of air is vibrating in that length. All things being equal the longer the vibrating medium, the lower the sound; the shorter, the higher. That’s why the piccolo sounds higher than the tuba. At the same time the string vibrates as a whole, it vibrates in half, producing a sound an octave higher than the fundamental. The string also vibrates in thirds, fourths, fifths, and so on. Each mode of vibration produces a tone that is heard at the same time as the fundamental, but so quietly that you don’t hear it individually. You hear it as timbre. That’s why musical sounds are so interesting and have such beautiful timbres, they’re composed of so many overtones. At first, Ellen worked with long strings in a haphazard way, then she got interested in tunings and trying to figure out what the basic principles were. She was relearning the history of acoustics.
“It’s difficult to understand how something can vibrate in half at the same time it’s vibrating as a whole and in thirds. It’s hard to believe that strings vibrate simultaneously in all these ways. The overtones contribute to the timbre of the sound. Just because I move my arm one way, doesn’t mean my elbow can’t be moving at the same time. There’s a myth about basketball superstar Michael Jordan. Some people think that when he’s in mid-air he can jump up even higher. That’s why he’s called ‘Air Jordan.’ But that’s physically impossible. He would have nothing solid to jump against. They discovered that he simply changes his center of gravity. He can move his body while he’s up in the air in a way that makes it seem as if he were jumping higher. Physical systems are hard to explain. Every physics book I’ve ever read never quite explains these things enough. How can you explain the magic of sound? Every model is too simple. I think the question has to do with whether there are certain innate properties, perhaps universal properties, that have to do with acoustics. I don’t think that this phenomenon is ever adequately explained. It just happens.”
Alvin Lucier. Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2012.
(1) Pythagoras invented the monochord, a single stringed instrument, which when plucked and bowed allows one to observe its modes of vibration.
Ellen Fullman was born in 1957 in Memphis, Tennessee. She graduated from Kansas City Art Institute in 1976. Over the years she has worked with Pauline Oliveros, choreographer Deborah Hay, and Keiji Haino. She has performed at the Berkeley Art Museum, the Walker Art Center, and Issue Project Room, NY.