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

One of things I find most frustrating about life on this planet 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 the urge to join together, so as to exert greater influence than one might alone, is fundamental to the human condition: 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, as Huizinga (1949) puts it, 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’ (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. And for those who would question the rules of the game-clan, ostracism usually 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. Their example paved the way for a new wave of artists and composers such as the Fluxus and minimalist movements, likewise eager to challenge the self-important gate-keepers of the “art world.”

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. According to my lecturer, in the late 1970s the piece had been broadcast on public radio for five straight days and nights without interruption and New York cabbies had tuned in en masse. This meeting of the avant-garde and mundane fascinated me and made a big impact on my musical ideas ever since.

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.’

Many of Lucier’s compositions are informed by a curiosity of how sounds are produced and interact together. For those who might find his work inscrutable, an understanding of the cultural context out which it arose might provide an ‘in.’ Lucier  studied composition at a time when the musical ‘establishment’ was dominated by post-War (Darmstadt School) composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio and Pierre Boulez. Each, in his own way, had taken the ‘serialist’ compositional approach developed by Arnold Schoenberg in the 1920s to its extreme. Even the mighty Igor Stravinsky, who had long been a vocal critic of Serialism, was composing in the style by the 1950s. The influence exerted by the Darmstadt School – typified by music that was atonal and uncompromising in its pushing performers to ever-increasing levels of exactitude – was so all-pervasive that by time I was studying music in the mid-1980s it was still considered the norm for composers.

A number of attendees at the annual summer Darmstadt ‘International Vacation Courses for New Music’ later reacted against the serial orthodoxy thanks to the influence of John Cage, a visiting American composer and a former student of Schoenberg’s. Cage’s music – influenced by Dada, Marcel Duchamp and Zen Buddhism (via the lectures and writings of D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts) – rejected the idea that the composer should always be in control. While his lectures at Darmstadt in the late 1950s failed to make any significant impression on Stockhausen et al, Cage’s ideas resonated powerfully with attendees Lucier, Nam June Paik and La Monte Young.

One of the gripes that Lucier had about ‘total serialism’ (along with his contemporaries Steve Reich and Philip Glass) was that for all the precision and order that informed not only pitch but timbre, note duration and expression, a sense of comprehension of those structures was not part of the listener’s experience. Lucier’s work, since then, has been an attempt to explore sound at its most fundamental level, framing various sonic phenomena (such as the beating produced by simultaneous tones, evolving harmonic spectra and resonance etc.) within coherent compositional premises that invite the audience to open up to the world of sound that we so often take for granted.

In this second, more recent, work, Lucier applies the technique he made famous in his composition I am Sitting in Room (1969) to excerpts of Beethoven’s The Consecration of the House. It is performed by a live orchestra inside Ostrava’s House of Culture in the Czech Republic: rerecorded over and over so that ambience increases as the original dry sound source decreases.
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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.

Burns, T. (2017). Alvin Lucier (Lecture). Available online: https://www.redbullmusicacademy.com/lectures/alvin-lucier-lecture (accessed 29th March, 2022).

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.