I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of r-r-r-rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity nnnnnot so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to s-s-smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.
This is the text of Alvin Lucier’s “I Am Sitting in a Room,” and it describes what he does over the forty minutes of the piece. The piece is described by Christopher Burns as “conceptually rich, sonically beautiful, and…achieved with an extraordinary economy of means.” Beyond the pure sonics, it’s the elegance that’s most impressive. The “score” is more of an explanation; the basic score is contained in the text itself.
Lucier didn’t have to use speech; any sound would have done. His use of speech, however, gives him the natural irregularity contained in speech rhythms. By the end of the piece, they are more apparent than they were at the start, since listeners take the arrhythmic nature of speech for granted. When the spooky, echoing resonances are left at the end, phasing in and out without any obvious organizing principle, the arbitrariness of the source material is evident.
Lucier slurs and stutters at several points, to generate more jagged and variable sounds and emphasize said “irregularities” in his speech. These too become difficult to pick out by the end. Their initial presence serves mostly to alert the listener to the disintegration of organization that is coming.
Yet Lucier talks about the irregularies being “smoothed out.” From a tonal perspective this is true, as the non-resonant frequencies disappear, but the experience is not that of reduction to a purer substance, but of turning up hidden content inside of speech. Compare it to Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” (or Rene Lussier’s superior “Le Tresor de la Langue”), which imitate the inflections of human speech very carefully with instruments. (The general tradition goes back further than I know.) The sensibility there is to emphasize an intrinsic musicality in speech and manipulate it as one would an instrument. With Lucier, the distillation decontextualizes, as the originally dominant content disappears. The process provided by the room “destroys” as it smoothes out.
Though I didn’t perceive it this way originally, that destructive effect stems from a conflict Lucier identifies between speech and the environment it exists in, one in which the environment slowly triumphs.