Inspirations 1: Alvin Lucier’s “Music On A Long Thin Wire” (1977)

One of things I find most frustrating about life on planet Earth (and suspect I probably always will) is how humans tend towards setting up scenes and communities, with all of their inherent rules, shared values, mythologies and hierarchies, only to eventually become enslaved by the very institutions they perpetrate. Neitzsche argues that such an urge to join together, so as to exert greater influence than one might alone, is fundamental, and necessary: the [communal] “will to power” (Neitzsche, Kaufmann & Hollingdale, 1968) .

Fair enough. It’s nice to be part of something, to feel a sense of belonging and to enjoy all the rewards forthcoming when you do “good” according to the (often unspoken) rules of the group. The problem is that ‘the feeling of being “apart together” in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms, [all too often] retains its magic beyond the duration of the individual game’ (Huizinga, 1949, p. 12).

When we can no longer distinguish where (and when) the boundaries of such games are located, or don’t want to because the perks are so good, therein lies the danger. Many are unaware perhaps that such boundaries even exist at all (just whispered about in legend). And for those who would question the rules of the game-clan, ostracism awaits.

‘It is curious to note how much more lenient society is to the cheat than to the spoil-sport. This is because the spoil-sport shatters the play-world itself. By withdrawing from the game he [sic] reveals the relativity and fragility of the play-world in which he had temporarily shut himself with others. He robs play of its illusion-a pregnant [sic] word which means literally “in-play” (from inlusio, illudere or inludere). Therefore he must be cast out, for he threatens the existence of the play-community.’ (p.11)

I prefer the term “spoil-sport” to that of iconoclast since the former shows up the status quo for what it is – just one of many possible games people play. Arguably the most influential artistic spoil-sport of the 20th century was Marcel Duchamp, followed closely by John Cage (the two would often play chess together). Their example paved the way for a new wave of composers eager to challenge the self-important gate-keepers of the “art world,” labelled (by those that just can’t cope without a “scene” or manifesto to ties things all neatly together) as fluxus artists and/or minimalists.

Alvin Lucier is one such individual whose work opens our ears to an array of beautiful sonic experiences only made possible by filtering out so much of what is assumed to be fundamental or necessary to music. Importantly, his work shares with the two former “movements” an accessibility and a playful, child-like, sense of wonder.

A case in point is Lucier’s “Music on a Long Thin Wire.” The piece is generated by suspending a taut long wire (up to 80 feet in some cases) between miked up bridges (the musical sort, not the ones you drive over) and allowed to vibrate with the help of a magnet and oscillator set at a fixed frequency. The system is highly susceptible to the slightest influence – “Fatigue, air currents, heating and cooling, even human proximity could cause the wire to undergo enormous changes” (Lucier, 1992).

I first heard this piece in a “Materials of Music” class when studying at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music. My lecturer, Stephen Emmerson mentioned before playing the piece to the class that in the late 1970s it had been broadcast on public radio for five straight days and nights without interruption and that New York cabbies had tuned in en masse. This meeting of the avant-garde and mundane (both being one and the same in this case), fascinated me and made a very big impact -as did the performance of the Philip Glass Ensemble I witnessed around about the same time (despite being performed in a concert hall setting the volume was rock-concert loud).

In an interview with Jason Gross (2000) Lucier explained his inspiration for the piece: “I was sharing an acoustics class here at Wesleyn with a physics instructor. We were doing the Pythagorian experiment with a monochord on a table. We had an electro-magnet that was driving the string and an oscillator.  It was sort of a cut-and-dry sound experiment. I just got the idea to extend that in size-to have an really extraordinary long wire would really generate something amazing. When I started making the piece, I just didn’t bother to do any analysis or learning about the wire tension, mass and weight. I just set it up between a couple of tables and discovered that the imperfection of the way it was installed made a very interesting and wonderful sound. It was always changing. That’s the interesting thing about it- it isn’t fixed like a string on a piano. It’s subject to all kind of internal and external things.”

Whilst I never had the desire to perform the piece myself (as many have done since), I did pay homage to it as part of the Australian indie band The Young Adults in a 1993 mini-album. First musically, on the track “A Piece of Paper” by strumming at length behind the bridge of my Fender Jazzmaster guitar, so that all manner of harmonics and exotic tones emerged out of an extended wash of distorted sound (listen here). And secondly by name, with an awkward lyrical reference in the (equally awkward) song “I Wanna Be Loved.”

Buy Alvin Luciers’ “Music on a Long Thin Wire” at Lovely Records HERE.

References:

Arts at MIT (2015, June 5). Evan Ziporyn interviews minimalist composer Alvin Lucier [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=daDdiITVuWU.

Gross, J. (2000, April). Alvin Lucier on “Music on a long thin wire.” Perfect sound forever [Online magazine]. Retrieved from http://www.furious.com/perfect/ohm/lucier.html

Huizinga, J. (1949). Homo ludens: A study of the play-element in culture. London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Lucier, A. (1992) Liner notes. In Alvin Lucier: Music on a long thin wire [CD]. New York, NY: Lovely Music.

Nietzsche, F. W., In Kaufmann, W., & Hollingdale, R. J. (1968). The will to power. New York, NY: Vintage Books.