The Unique Virtuosity of Lucier's Carbon Copies

ICE will perform three concerts of Alvin Lucier's music at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art this weekend. Included in the series is Carbon Copies, which ICE succinctly describes in their program notes:

"Three musicians gather field recordings from an exterior environment. These recordings are played through loudspeakers to the audience and through headphones to the musicians: a percussionist, a saxophonist, and a pianist. Slowly, the loudspeakers fade out while the sound in the headphones remains. The performers attempt to emulate the natural sounds from the field recordings in real time; the effect is that the field recordings fade imperceptibly into their instrumental simulacra."

The goal of seamlessly integrating the acoustic sounds into the field recordings defines the supreme challenge of this work. I speak from the experience of having participated in a performance of Carbon Copies several years ago. The difficulty begins with creating a field recording that one can precisely emulate. Regardless of location, it is highly likely that the recording will feature some degree of non-pitched or indefinitely pitched material. This fact alone forces the performer to consider the entire breadth of timbral possibilities for the instrument.

In preparing for my performance of Carbon Copies, I ventured around Chicago looking for interesting sounds both obvious and obscure. I remember standing beneath the tracks and recording the El train passing above. Ultimately, I settled on a recording I made by holding the mic out of my car window while driving down Lakeshore Drive. My attempts to match the resultant muffled wind sound involved standing in the crook of the piano with the damper pedal permanently depressed and shaking a square piece of metal flashing (like a mini thunder sheet).

Of the many performances I've been a part of over the years, that one continues to stay with me. I honestly want to try it again because I came away feeling less than satisfied with the result. What appeared initially to be a very simple concept proved extremely challenging. Lucier was present at the dress rehearsal and performance and he emphasized the point that we were not there to capture the atmosphere of the combined field recordings, but to reproduce the sounds as precisely as possible. He chastised the saxophonist for playing slap tongue sounds that clearly did align with the recording (a directive that was sadly ignored in the actual performance).

The experience furthermore drove home the point that, like many Lucier works, virtuosity in Carbon Copies is defined by one's ear. Can the performer pick up the subtleties of the recording? Can the performer translate those subtleties via all sonic parameters (timbre, rhythm, pitch, etc.)? The elegance of the piece's setup hides the fact that Carbon Copies demands a high level of dedicated preparation. It is a test of musicianship that is unique and well worth experiencing.

Review: Ekmeles Performs Martin Iddon, Alvin Lucier and David Lang

The Ekmeles vocal ensemble presented a program entitled "Resonances" on January 11th at The Tank. The concert featured works by Martin Iddon, Alvin Lucier and David Lang, composers whose unique aesthetics formed an engaging and surprisingly coherent triptych.

The evening began with Iddon's Αμαδρυαδες (hamadryads) (2010) for five voices and glass harmonica. The singers, 3 men and 2 women, were seated at a long table facing the audience. Each was amplified and equipped with three water-filled crystal glasses. Director and ensemble member Jeffrey Gavett explained that hamadryads involves the transformation of intervallic content from Josquin's Deploration sur la mort d'Ockegehm. After one hearing, I was most struck by the instrumental quality that persists throughout. Slow vocal glissandi coupled with the sustained tones of the wine glasses produce a string-like sound. Occasional hard consonants break through, reasserting the presence of voices. A somewhat limited dynamic range (primarily between mp and f) and a mercurial yet stable texture add to the atmospheric quality.

Prior to the Ekmeles concert I was unfamiliar with Iddon's works and searched online to learn more about him. I highly recommend visiting this site to view pdfs of his hand-drawn scores. As you can see from the picture of Danäe for string trio (each with two bows) at right, the beauty and inventiveness of Iddon's notation is striking. Additional audio samples are available here.

The second work on the program was Alvin Lucier's Theme (1994) for four voices and sonorous vessels. Each performer recites John Ashbery's poem of the same title into an amplified vessel (vase, bottle, etc.) producing a lulling counterpoint of noise, pitch, inflection and of course, text. I can't think of a better environment for this wonderfully strange poem. The first stanza reads:

If I were a piano shawl
a porch on someone's house
flooding the suave timbre...

I could read that stanza over and over again. It is difficult to imagine "setting" such a poem in the traditional sense. Thankfully, Lucier does not. In fact, speaking the text into various vessels further enlivens the already musical act of recitation. Each word activates the resonating frequency of its "tank" and thus the receiving space colors and even overwhelms the words. (If you have an Rdio subscription, you can listen to Theme here).

The spacious quality produced by the Lucier was followed by David Lang's the little match girl passion (2007), a work that draws upon the Hans Christian Andersen story as well as the passions of J.S. Bach. It was interesting to hear how this piece, the most conventional on the program, seemed to complement the mood of the Iddon and Lucier works. One reason may be that all three involve highly focused, slow-moving sound worlds. And like hamadryads, the little match girl passion requires the ensemble to play as well as sing. Ultimately, the repetitive nature of the little match girl passion strikes me as a bit tiresome. Nonetheless, Ekmeles' performance was quite convincing. 

Overall, Ekemeles performed with great sensitivity and precision. This is not an easy feat given the inherent challenges of functioning as instrumentalists and singers. Especially commendable is their aforementioned ability to highlight the unique aesthetic qualities of each composer while maintaining a sense of programmatic continuity.

Ekmeles will perform John Cage's Song Books along with pianists Vicky Chow and Randy Gibson and trombonist William Lang on February 12th as part of the Avant Music Festival.