An introduction to Alvin Lucier – and his impact on the sound of Se7en
Better late than never. Last month’s theme at Designing Sound was Acoustics but one person we really wanted to include during July had to get moved slightly – so here is a belated feature on one of the world’s true pioneers when it comes to exploring acoustic phenomena and auditory perception: Alvin Lucier.
The American avant-garde composer was born in 1931 and composed chamber and orchestral works since 1952, but Lucier and his critics count his 1965 composition Music for Solo Performer as the proper beginning of his career. It was the first work to feature sounds generated by brain waves in live performance – it’s written for ”Enormously Amplified Brain Waves and Percussion” (sic!) – and space, sound and psycho-acoustics are combined in fascinating ways in Lucier’s work, all the way throughout his career. The long-time music professor is still very active to this very day, moving between sound art, installation and abstract classical pieces.
Other key pieces include North American Time Capsule (1967), which employs a prototype vocoder to manipulate speech elements; Music On A Long Thin Wire (1977), in which a piano wire is strung across a room and produces changing overtones and sounds; Crossings (1982), in which tones play across a steadily rising sine wave producing interference beats; Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas (1972), which utilizes the interference tones between sine waves create moments; and Clocker (1978) – ”for clock, galvanic skin response sensor and digital delay system” – which uses biofeedback and reverberation. As this list shows, Lucier has been consistently developing his methods – and a lot of his work really dissolves the borders between sound and music.
”Thinking of sounds as measurable wavelengths instead of as high or low musical notes changed my whole idea of music from a metaphor to a fact and, in a real way, has connected me to architecture,” Lucier said in 1969. And this way of thinking is beautifully exemplified by Lucier’s best known work, I Am Sitting in a Room, which is often hailed as one of the masterpieces of twentieth century music, merging processed music, minimalism, and self-reference into an utterly absorbing work.
The instructions for producing the piece are, in fact, the piece itself. The composer 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, and so on. Little by little, the ”natural resonant frequencies of the room” erode the source material, softening hard edges, blurring boundaries between words. It starts out totally naturalistic but slowly becomes more and more ambient and at the end sounds like an ambient piece by Brian Eno.
Here it is – all 45 minutes of it:
If you’d like to scan through it quickly, then check out the way the sound develops for each playback (approximate timecodes):
01.20 – 2nd playback
04.03 – 4th playback
08.08 – 6th playback
15.05 – 10th playback
33.25 – 17th playback
43.40 – 25th playback
A very inspiring way of using sound and acoustics and this piece was a major inspiration for the sound of David Fincher’s Se7en. On the dvd/Blu-ray commentary track, Fincher’s highly acclaimed sound designer Ren Klyce talks about Lucier’s influence, and Ren agreed to discuss the influence further for this article:
Designing Sound: How did you get introduced to Alvin Lucier’s work, I Am Sitting in a Room?
Ren Klyce: I was introduced to Alvin Lucier at UCSC by composer and professor, Gordon Mumma. In the late 1960’s, Mumma and Lucier were in an experimental music composition group called the Sonic Arts Union. The group specialized in experimental music, and pushed the boundaries of what was considered ’traditional music’ by using sound as a substitute for traditional instruments. Gordon taught a class in the history of electronic music, and would spend much of the time exposing us to unusual pieces such as Edgar Varese, Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer and others. I Am Sitting in a Room was one of those pieces. What is so inspiring about the piece is that it is Lucier’s way of transforming his voice from something he dislikes into a beautiful musical sound.
DS: How did it influence your work on Se7en?
RK: Fincher wanted the textures of the tenements to feel oppressive. While he rarely had images of other people, he wanted the sound to to convey this by feeling the neighbors upstairs arguing, and people in the alleyways. What I liked about the Lucier piece was how Lucier’s voice starts from a dry sound, then to sounding like it’s in the next room, then down the hallway. (Lucier played a dry recording of his voice in a room from one tape recorder, and re-recorded it to a second recorder, picking up the sound of the dry voice but with the acoustics of the room.) I thought that this would be a perfect way to produce the sounds of the neighbors, as the sound would be a real/authentic texture (as apposed to a digital reverb effect).
We hired some local actors in San Francisco, wrote some scene descriptions for them, and recorded them in various alleyways and locations. After editing the best takes together. I applied Lucier’s technique and played back the takes in various rooms with acoustics that matched Fincher’s images. I also experimented with moving the perspective of the microphone so that we would have a library of various ‘distances’ with which to edit. We also did this with music as well. This was a bit complicated as we had to ensure we had the licensing prior to doing the re-records.
DS: I really love the way that the voice recording in I Am Sitting in a Room at the end turns into abstract ambient music. It actually reminds me a bit of the factory interrogation scene in Zodiac where the background sounds of the factory almost become abstract music. I don’t know if this scene was directly inspired by Lucier but for me it had some of this extraordinary Lucier feeling where the acoustics of a room is used in atmospheric ways.
RK: The chemical plant factory ambience in Zodiac does have a similar sound to the end of the Lucier piece indeed. Fincher wanted the ambience to feel realistic during the beginning of the interrogation scene, but we realized that towards the end we needed an eerie texture to come in – almost like music, but not as deliberate. That is where the Lucier like overtone ambience creeps in.
DS: I Am Sitting in a Room utilizes some of the same methods that film sound people know as worldizing – re-recording a sound in a natural space. This concept was invented by Walter Murch, I think. I know you know Walter a bit – do you know if Lucier’s work has influenced Walter’s idea of worldizing? I Am Sitting in a Room is from 1969, and Murch used the worldizing method in American Graffiti in 1973. (American Graffiti actually premiered almost exactly 40 years ago – on August 11, 1973!)
RK: I’ve never talked with Walter about the Lucier piece, but I do know that his worldizing is very similar, only better in that he kept the dry signal on a separate track and the ‘wet’ room record on the second, and then blended them later on during the mix. I wish I had thought of that during Se7en as our recordings had both wet and dry combined which, at times, made it a bit difficult during the mix when we needed to make the sounds feel closer.
Alvin Lucier website: http://alucier.web.wesleyan.edu
Thanks to Michael Raphael