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.