Saturday, January 13, 2007

I Am Sitting in a Classroom

One of the things I love about teaching music is the chance to play great music for students. That sounds obvious, but it really is a special thing. Particularly in a large public university like mine, where the undergraduate students have had their lives so thoroughly instrumentally-rationalized for the past 18 years, and where even the music majors are on a frantic pace to earn credits, get good grades, accomplish the right extra-curricular activities, and do the right internships, particularly in this situation I love making my students sit still for a moment to listen to music. It's not like a lecture, there is no note-taking. It's not a film, which tends to zonk them into television-viewing mode. It is one of the few times in their hectic lives when they have to plop down, be quiet, and be mindful.

The professor I am currently TAing for values this as well, and has no problem with using copious amounts of class time just for listening. The entire Tristan Prelude? Sure. A few scenes from Boris Gudonov? Yes!

But I just want to briefly pay tribute to the very first music class I ever took in college, where I learned the value of listening carefully and quietly to music. I had been a musician in high school, but not a very good one, and when I went off to college I didn't really intend on studying music. History, maybe, or Political Science. But I had an spare slot in my schedule, after French II, History 201 ("Medieval Europe"), and a special freshman seminar in early Arthurian literature. So on a whim, I registered for a class called "Introduction to Experimental Music." It seemed like it might add some pleasant variety to my life.

The first day of class, I nervously made my way to a cavernous dungeon of a classroom, a former recording studio buried several stories underground. It was a large class, probably about a hundred people. The professor was an elderly man with a bushy moustache and a pronounced stutter. His name was Alvin Lucier, and although I had never heard of him, when I flipped through our textbook--a xeroxed copy of Michael Nyman's then-out-of-print Experimental Music--I saw that he was mentioned frequently in the text as an important composer. It was a great class, and his stutter soon became permanently impressed in our brains. Like most speech impediments, it seemed to get worse when he had to speak loudly, or to a large crowd, and especially when words began with the letters "r" or "s." He never talked about it, though, and we soon got used to the long pauses and quirky rhythm the stutter gave his lecturing.

Fairly early on, Lucier played for us his piece for which he is most famous: I Am Sitting in a Room. Many of my readers will know it, but some won't, so let me describe it. It is a tape piece, and starts with Lucier sitting in his apartment in Middletown, recording himself speaking this text:
I am sitting in a room, different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice, and I am going to play it back into the room again and again, until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves, so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration as a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.

And that's exactly what he does. This text recorded, he then plays the recording out loud, and with another tape machine recorded the sound of the text being played in the room. Rinse, wash, repeat. As he records, plays, and records, certain frequencies of the recording begin to be absorbed by his room, and others are amplified. By the end of the forty-five minutes, you can no longer make out what he is saying, and you are left only with a beautiful wash of ringing sound. You can listen to the original fifteen minute recording from 1969here.

Like any piece Alvin has ever done, it was a very conceptually clear work. He picks a process, and sticks to it. But also like all of his works, there is a surprising amount of hermeneutic interest. What could be dry, almost scientific music, actually contains within it multitudes of personal meanings. For even when recording himself speak, Lucier stutters--the "r" of the word "rhythm" is particularly obvious, and you can hear him leaning heavily on several other words. And so this piece of music is not only about demonstrating the physical properties of the room, as he says, but also smoothing out his speech. And although one critic has read this as his attempt to consign himself to "sonic oblivion," it was always clear to me that for Lucier himself it was nothing of the sort. I still remember him standing in front of the classroom, with the lights turned down low, and playing us the entire 1980 recording. He looked so proud. He had never spoken to us about his stutter, and he didn't need to. We could hear it, and for Lucier just hearing was the important thing. And once you just heard his stutter as a sound, you realize that it can sound beautiful. But what I like even more about Lucier's music, more than Cage's rather stern formalism, is that the lesson to be drawn is not that all sounds are beautiful. Lucier was proud to have created these beautiful sounds with his own voice. Sounds are beautiful because they involve people. I think that is the important lesson I learned in that class.

In the craziness of my first semester of college, his stutter soon became a comforting presence, a reminder that for twice a week, for one and a half hours, I could sit quietly in his dimly lit classroom and just listen to sounds. I learned a lot about music history in that class; nine years later I still occasionally consult my notes. But as a teacher, I always hope to reproduce that moment where we can also sit quietly and listen to one another.

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