Alvin Lucier – I Am Sitting in a Room

This semester, I have been taking a class on Minimalist music. I will be posting occasionally on what I hear as I work through a recording syllabus. They will be in the category Minimalism.
“I Am Sitting in a Room” (1969) has a simple premise at heart. A man records a short phrase on a tape machine. He takes it into an empty room, then runs the tape, over-dubbing the tape with the loop echoing around the room, then repeats for 40 minutes.
This process, this set of actions is simple, yet it yields extremely interesting and, yes, beautiful music. As the loop repeats and builds upon itself, the words become less distinct. Consonants become muddled, then disappear altogether. The reflections off the walls break the contrast of the clear tones produced by speech, they become dull and blend together. High freqency tones die out, and these mellow, deep tones (not unlike a Rhodes keyboard) become the “song.”
I started listening to this piece with the expectation that I would not like it. I am generally wary of music, especially avant-garde music, that is dependent on a single technological process to make it distinctive, but I was blown away by the distinctly musical patterns and tones that emerged from the repetition. It was also the case that every time I thought that I could skip the rest of the recording, I heard a new, unpredicted, pattern.
These patterns became important in minimalist music. The repetition we usually associate with the style likely came from other inspirations, however when the style first began to emerge, there were many composers experimenting with tape loops and phasing, most notably Steve Reich with Come Out (1966) and Piano Phase (1967). This piece can also be considered in the context of other composers that were investigating the potential of computers and recording technology to make music, such as Terry Riley and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Alvin Lucier (1932-) is an American composer and recordist. His music explores the possibilities found in psycho-acoustics, sound installations, and electromagnetically created sound.

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