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Malcolm Riddoch, Decibel, Still and Moving Lines Malcolm Riddoch, Decibel, Still and Moving Lines
photo Gemma Pike
PERTH AUDIENCES LIKE TO THINK OF THEMSELVES AS UNBEARABLY ISOLATED, SO WHEN LOCAL ENSEMBLE DECIBEL DECIDED TO PERFORM THE COMPOSITIONS OF ONE OF THE CANONICAL FIGURES OF EXPERIMENTAL MUSIC, ALVIN LUCIER, THEY ATTRACTED A GOOD CROWD. LUCIER WAS A GOOD CHOICE FOR THE FIRST OF DECIBEL’S COMPOSER SERIES IN THIS REMOTE CAPITAL, BECAUSE HIS WORK LENDS ITSELF TO THINKING ABOUT WHERE YOU ARE IN BOTH SPACE AND TIME.

After the lateral philosophies of the late New York school, Lucier deconstructs the usual arrangement of composers, performers, listeners and sounds. It is as if his pieces are more realised than interpreted, demonstrated than performed, as sine wave oscillators collide with clarinets, voices echo into nothingness and a Beatles melody is played through a teapot.

Nothing illustrates Lucier’s special place in the history of the acoustic arts more than the first piece performed here, Shelter (1967). Malcom Riddoch manipulated the difference between sounds that could be heard through the venue’s walls and their amplification inside, picked up by contact microphones placed around the building. As one sound mirrored another, the walls seem to dissolve in the mix. What Lucier has designed here, through the slight phase change between outside and inside, is a way for an audience to become aware of how our ears construct the spaces around us, and Riddoch’s achievement is to orchestrate the resonance of these spaces. Lucier’s pieces realise the simplicity of sound’s presence, beyond the range of the home stereo, bringing to his work a quality as timeless as the idea of the room itself.

So in the classic I am Sitting in a Room (1970), the sound of a recorded voice is played back and recorded again and again, until the recording is muffled by its own resonating, spatial echoes. Here the former West Australian newsreader Peter Holland came out of his ABC studio to bring the piece a particular resonance for its local audience, his familiar voice becoming unfamiliar as it diffracted into space. In these early pieces the room itself is an instrument, while later Lucier works turn to the sine wave oscillator as an instrument, combining it with the clarinet, flute, saxophone and piano to investigate tonal relationships. Decibel’s program was largely made up of these later works, in which the appearance of classical instruments alongside the purity of an electronically generated pitch rendered them grotesque, the human breath a distorted and messy medium with which to investigate the greater goals of Lucier’s spatial sounds.
Tristan Parr, Decibel, Still and Moving Lines Tristan Parr, Decibel, Still and Moving Lines
photo Gemma Pike
In Memoriam Stuart Marshall (1993) sets a clarinet against an oscillator, and demands that the instrument match its pitch. Here clarinet player Lindsay Vickery struggled for some minutes to engage with the precise sound of the oscillator before meeting it with his own. As if in a colossal battle between human and machine, Vickery’s breath came to create a series of sound effects that produced negative images in the oscillations, outlining resonant frequencies that sought out an exact spatial collusion. The performance became nothing short of sensational, as the ear attended to magical shifts of pitch, tone and even rhythm that appeared as pulsing shapes shifting from one side of the room to the other. Vickery’s triumph came at a price, however, as his sweating brow revealed the frailty of the human instrument system of sound production against the cleaner, digital sound source. Lucier’s simplicity, his attendance to singular effects, appeared to edge this archaic instrument into obsolescence.

Lucier’s pieces may be better conceived as scientific experiments or works of conceptual art than as music in a compositional sense. So his commissioned Beatles cover, Nothing is Real (Strawberry Fields Forever; 1990), is here performed on piano by Stuart James and played back through a teapot, its lid lifted and replaced, as per Lucier’s instructions, by Decibel’s director Cat Hope. We are no longer listening to the famous melody, but instead to its duration and spatial presence: in Directions of Sound from the Bridge (1978), James altered an electronic tone played from a cello’s bridge to show how the shape of the instrument changes the way this tone is distributed around the space. Lights placed around the room brightened and dimmed according to the changing pitch and the cello’s sound shadow. Thus Perth was treated to a lesson in acoustic phenomena, an interrogation of the conservatism of the concert format, and an ecstatic experience of sound at its most sparse.


Decibel, Still and Moving Lines: The Music of Alvin Lucier; Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Perth, May 13; http://decibel.waapamusic.com

RealTime issue #97 June-July 2010 pg. 43

© Darren Jorgensen; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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