Alvin Lucier’s “I am Sitting in a Room” (1969)

“Every room has its own melody, hiding there until it is made audible” – Alvin Lucier

Having been interested in applying Deleuze’s philosophy to music over the semester, I’ve noticed the ways music can work as a purely affective art form, engendering the new through a visceral response that  moves listeners outside of habituated thoughts or feelings. Music, as pure sound, can cause a full affective response, often more immediately than other art forms. Alvin Lucier’s 1969 piece “I am Sitting in a Room” for tape and voice does something much different. A classic piece of the avant-garde, “I am Sitting in a Room” does not seek an affective response so much as it asks listeners to reconsider space in new ways, lending itself to other connections to Deleuze’s philosophy that is inherent in how most music works (with and in space), but to which this particular piece explicitly brings to the front.

The idea of “I am Sitting in a Room” is simple – Lucier records himself reading a piece of text into a room; he then plays the tape back into the room and records it, plays that recording back into the room and records it, and so on. As the recordings move further and further from the original, something really interesting happens: the tape begins picking up the resonant frequencies (ie, the sound bouncing off the walls) of the recording being played back into the room. As the recordings progress from the original, Lucier’s voice becomes unintelligible as the reverberations of his speech within the room begin to dominate the recording. Lucier says, “the space acts as a filter; it filters out all the frequencies except the resonant ones. It has to do with the architecture, the physical dimensions and acoustic characteristics of the space … by playing sounds into a room over and over again, you reinforce some of them more and more each time and eliminate others” (458).

It’s not the easiest thing to listen to (I’ve managed to get through it only a couple times), but the idea and the process of it are so totally simple and awesome that I can’t help but love it. In terms of Deleuze, what I find to be really interesting is the idea that through this process, a totally new space has been evoked; one that was always in the room, yet remained hidden until someone like Lucier attempts to search it out and make it known. Of the process, Lucier says, “I am not as interested in the resonant characteristics of spaces in a scientific way as much as I am in opening that secret door to the sound situation that you experience in a room” (459).

If you look around the room you are sitting in now, it is pretty much knowable – you can see the walls, floor, ceiling, and the objects within it. A room seems like the perfect example of a striated space. Sure, you can move stuff around and change the arrangement of objects within the room, but it’s form will always remain the same (more or less).  Lucier’s process attempts to open up space, to work with the resonant characteristics of its architectural structure and the objects within it to find what’s hidden beneath our delimited, (visually) subjective understanding of the space around us. In this way, “I am Sitting in a Room” allows one to be a sedentary nomad by attempting to smooth out striated space in place. Similarly, the piece also works to open the limitations of the human voice into pure sound. This is reiterated in Lucier’s text for the recording when he says, “I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.” A known stutterer, Lucier’s process deterritorializes his own voice, removing the striations imposed by his speech impediment and turning it into pure rhythm. If the process of smoothing out striated space entails a “mode of spatialization, the manner of being in space, of being for space” (D&G 482), Lucier’s piece succeeds in opening space toward a completely new spatialization by finding what is hidden and opening sound to new, multiple directionalites in what we believe is a “known” (striated) space.

Similarly, in other Deleuzean terms, this piece is also completely virtual. The same process can be used in any room (Lucier has done recordings and performances in many spaces) to discover its hidden resonance. Lucier also keeps the piece in pure virtuality by maintaining that any piece of text can be used to perform “I am Sitting in a Room”; thus, the resonant frequencies of a space can never be fully actualized. If one were to perform the piece with Lucier’s text, and then perform the same exercise with another text, two completely different kinds of resonant spaces would be evoked. Cool!

(Works Cited: Lucier, Alvin. “I am Sitting in a Room.” Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1998.)

– Chris P.

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2 Responses to “Alvin Lucier’s “I am Sitting in a Room” (1969)”

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