Festival Explored Sound & Space
Published: Thursday, November 1, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 1, 2012 23:11
Smith College presented on Oct. 25 “An Evening of Music” by musician Alvin Lucier as part of the Festival of Sound & Space, a series founded by Greg Brown and produced in collaboration with the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, and which features artists who explore sound and space through their performances.
Mozart fans may not enjoy Lucier. He has had a long fascination with the basic resonances of a room, the use of brain waves in live performance and acoustical exploration. He is interested in the physical properties of sound itself – the very impact of sound intrinsically affecting the audience in the absence of harmonic variation. Yet Emma Phipps ’14 believes Smith students who attended the event were able to “experience something they can’t experience on their iPods.”
Judith Gordon performed the first piece of the night: “Music for Piano with Amplified Sonorous Vessels.” Vases were placed inside the piano, and microphones were then inserted into the openings of these vessels. The result was a haunting and dark progression. Though played “simply,” there was nothing simple about this piece. Remaining in the lowest registers of the piano, there was an eerie grace throughout, and Gordon’s subtle control of the dynamics was masterful.
“Vespers,” performed by Spencer Ellis Hoyt, Mia Pond ’13, Ninette Rothmueller (lecturer, architecture program) and Rosalie Smith ’15, came next. For this piece, the lights were shut off to the surprise of the audience. The four players – each in a separate corner of the room – were blindfolded, given custom-designed echo locating devices known as “Sondols” and tasked with meeting back in the center of the room. To use Lucier’s phrase, the players sought each other “like bats,” using the echoes to carry back information. As they slowly reached the middle of the room, drawing close to the rows of seats, the mounting tension induced sporadic giggling from certain audience members.
After a brief pause, cellist Jessie Marino performed “Charles Curtis.” The piece calls for cello accompanied by slow sweep and pure wave oscillators. The resulting effect is remarkably distinct from the live instrument and the prerecorded tone. Throughout the piece, I felt as if the sounds were tangible and translatable to the somatic sense – I felt as if I were being submerged underwater. I later described this juxtaposition to Lucier, who said without blinking, “That’s not the intention of the piece.”
Earlier that day, during a lecture, Lucier recalled American musician John Cage telling him that the “intention is more important than the success of the piece.” I thought that there were quite a few intentions during the final piece, “Carbon Copies,” in which the performers – Philip Dupont on piano, Jake Meginksy on percussion and Jason Robinson on the saxophone – first listened to an audio recording of an indoor or outdoor environment, and then, wearing headphones, imitated the recorded sounds and played along. In the final portion of the piece, the recording faded away until only the performers’ version was audible. Eventually, the performers took off the headphones and continued to play either from memory or how they imagined the sounds would continue. The recording sounded like chaos. But as the performers placed themselves within the sound, they seemed to make sense of this chaos – or, at least, seemed to fit in with it.
As I chatted with Lucier after the concert, he talked about how, in listening to his music, “some people … become aware of how they’re listening.” When I told him that I was new to this type of music, that I often felt as if I were missing some greater, big point, he replied, “My whole life has been like that … I listened to Cage, and I thought, this is crazy. Now I love it.”
Leaving Helen Hills Hills Chapel, I remembered how the audience had responded and contributed to Lucier’s piece; how the shuffling of feet and rustling of papers had transformed the composition. During a Lucier performance, audience interaction is crucial as well as affecting. Perhaps the question is not what Alvin Lucier can do for you, but what you can do for Alvin Lucier.