Free Radicals is Noisey's column dedicated to experimental music. Each month, we take a look at the trends emerging from the fringes and why they're meaningful.
Alvin Lucier has a flair for colorful metaphors. If you have even a passing familiarity with the composition work he’s made since the early 60s this might come as no surprise. The composer most famous for dryly intoning the words “I am sitting in a room” has made works that involve using his alpha brainwaves to cause orchestral instruments to oscillate, so of course his mind’s good at making connections between disparate fields and forms. In his book Music 109, a collection of essays adapted from lectures he gave at Wesleyan College, he employs more than a few when describing the germinal work of his peers in experimental music like Robert Ashley, Christian Wolff, and Steve Reich.
In one memorably abstruse passage he compares the “doubleness” of John Cage’s Cartridge Music—which utilizes household objects, like a toothpick or a slinky, as the needles of a phonograph cartridge, generating sound from mundanity—to reading haiku. But most often he tends to center his critical meditations in terms of time. He compares listening to the attacks of his friend and peer Morton Feldman’s chords to looking at stratified rock while driving along a cliff face, “You can see geological time in those strata,” he writes. Elsewhere, musing on another Feldman piece, he considered the agency that its score gives performers to stretch out the spaces between notes.
“Time erases memory,” he said. “You know how it is when you look at clouds. As they move across the sky, they change shape. Or when you’re driving across the country, as you come up over a hill, mountains seem to change their relationships with one another.”
Lucier's own best works have a way of calling your attention to the way time passes, the ways people change, and the minuscule variances that arise between moments. His most famous works have their obvious interpretations. I Am Sitting in a Room is, in part, about the way sound exists through air and provides an understanding of what exactly reverberation is. Music for Solo Performer draws explicit connection between thought and sound, translating alpha brainwaves into sound that cause the oscillation of orchestral instruments. But the experience of listening to even those conceptual pieces has a dilation effect as you lean in close and wait for the changes—straining to hear the microscopic differences between sounds as they slowly mutate. You might call it meditative if it weren’t so often harsh, but his is music that forces you to pay close attention the way sound transforms, almost becoming a measure of the passing moments in its own right.
Last month, the sound artist Oren Ambarchi’s Black Truffle Records released the first recordings of a pair of Lucier pieces titled Criss Cross / Hanover. And as much as any of Lucier’s work it seems music that’s concerned with moment-to-moment differences, with the way time changes things.
Played by Ambarchi and Stephen O’Malley—who among his many projects is a guitarist for Sunn O))), themselves droney time-manipulators—Criss Cross is a piece that relies on the oscillation of close tones between two electric guitars. Using e-bows, a magnetic device that gives guitars a virtually infinite sustain, the two players move slowly along the frequencies between a single semitone (which in rock music and traditional western composition is the smallest musical interval).
The miniscule differences in pitch cause an ever-shifting oscillation. As the two frequencies get closer together it pulses more frequently, as they move further apart, it slows. And yet, there’s an illusion of consistency, likely generated from how slowly the players move. If you focus really closely you can feel the movement, but otherwise you snap in and out, each segment feeling virtually similar to the last. Some might call this drone music, given the relative stability of its pitch, but there is a constant movement to it, however small. It has this effect of drawing your attention really closely to each second, observing the way the piece morphs as the clock ticks. It’s a disorienting experience, which is aided by the production production which makes the guitars feel like they’re trying to burrow in (or maybe out?) of your tympanic membranes. It’s grating and otherworldly, just about the most dizzying piece of music your can put yourself through. If it sounds unpleasant, that’s at least part of the point. Sometimes it feels like it moves in big leaps, sometimes it moves in small sighs, but the movement is more or less stable, implicitly posing a grander question: What is time anyway?
Hanover poses similar questions, if less directly due to its expanded cast of instruments. In addition to Ambarchi and O’Malley’s guitars, there’s strings that echo their movements, and piano plinks that occasionally interrupt the reverie. Its guitar drones move in and out of phase with one another, moving in hallucinatory arcs across an empty room. But compared to Criss Cross, which because of its close-mic’d minimalism suggested that it was taking place in a claustrophobic inner space, Hanover opens the blinds to show a world outside. Its meditations are similar, marking the differences in stimulation moment-to-moment, but it also shows that these psychodramas aren’t the only thing worth thinking about, that the life that surrounds us will move on even if we get obsessed with its movements.
These fixations also seem to resonate with a new record by Lucier’s old pal Steve Reich, out February 2 on Nonesuch. While Reich is a composer in the more traditional sense—Lucier once said of himself that he’s more intent on removing anything that “distracts from the acoustical unfolding of the idea”—the opening piece on his new record Pulse / Quartet offers similar temporal tricks. Over a constant pulse—hence the title—of an electric bass and a piano, string and wind instruments arc in loping melodies.
The rhythmic piece at its center is reliable and centered, the sort of thing you can set your watch by, but what goes on around it feels unpredictable, out of sync with the machinic propulsion that drives it. While Reich says he intended the piece as a reaction to Quartet—which contains more key changes than he’s ever worked with before—the melodies and harmonies are still unpredictable and hard to latch onto. It sorta feels like spin art, where abstract unrepeatable patterns emerge from set parameters. Because of this slipperiness, it too has this meditative quality, you zero in on the bassline or the pianos chime because its reliable, and track the moment-to-moment shifts and changes uncomfortably as they stretch out and collapse over the track’s runtime. In a way, its a natural extension of Reich’s longtime fascinations with repetition and phase—you can try to keep things the same, but time inevitably changes them.
Buried in all this discussion of time is that, if we’re measuring in rotations around the sun, Lucier is 86 years old and Reich is 81. There are few worlds in which musicians get to have careers in 7 different decades, especially ones that allow them to ask philosophical questions as heavy as they always have. That’s the best part of music like this. There’s always something out there that can cause you to slow down and contemplate the way the world moves, to mull the way people change, to take stock of the beauty in between moments, to slow down. Some day, if you’re lucky, you will be an octogenarian too, spending music like this can give weight to understanding what all those years even mean.
Colin Joyce is existentially terrified on Twitter.