Musarc folk meet on a midsummer day until dusk – I am Standing in a Room

(all images by Yiannis Katsaris)

On Saturday 20 June I was involved in a performance of Alvin Lucier’s I am Sitting in a Room, as part of a Musarc concert at the Hackney Round Chapel.

Musarc is one of London’s most progressive amateur choirs. It is at the heart of a research project at The Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design, London Metropolitan University, which explores performance and composition in relation to the creative process and investigates listening in the context of society, architecture and the city. The ensemble regularly collaborates with composers to develop work that challenges traditional ways of making music, and brings together art, performance and education (Taken from Musarc website).

149_YK2015_026D_0002_MG_7551The concert was fantastically programmed and divided into three sections. There were performances of works by Meredith Monk, Bach, Messaien, and Terry Riley amongst others.

I was excited to be involved in a performance of I am Sitting in a Room as it is a piece which represents a cornerstone of my PhD research. The piece evokes the ‘musical qualities’ of a space by play an original recording into a the space whilst re-recording it, and repeating this process. The effect is a gradual transition where with each iteration of playback and recording the sound emitted by the loudspeaker is further from speech and closer to music. This effect is due to the fact that with each new iteration, the recording picks up more of the ‘room’ sound, and this becomes reinforced with consecutive iterations.

An excerpt of the score is included below (Alvin Lucier, Reflections (Germany: MusicTexte, 1995)):

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The Hackney Round Chapel was a very special location in which to perform this piece, due to its cavernous size, and its natural resonance. I set up the and performed the piece with Joseph Kohlmaier.  We used a single AKG C4000  set to an omni polar pattern, placed in the very middle of the space. The loudspeakers needed to be relatively large in order to excite the space, we used a pair of Mackie SRM450s. These were positioned at the edges of the space, backing out underneath the balcony, but both facing the microphone. The central element to the performance was the fantastic Max MSP patch, written by Eric Lyon of Queens University Belfast. This patch automates the whole process of performing the piece, starting by recording the audio into the buffer. Joseph stood about a foot from the microphone and read the text and then the piece was underway. Another clever aspect of the patch is that it normalises each new recording, reducing the build up of digital noise.

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The performance was a real success. The process was slow enough to reinforce the meaning of the piece, with the text being fully heard about 4-5 times. The space was extremely responsive and the ambient noise from the audience didn’t interfere with the performance too much. In the last iterations, the initial recording had morphed into a sea of different sustained pitches, blending into and out of one another. These ranged from feedback-like high squeaks, to the most enormous low booming. I think one of the most exciting elements of the performance was how many of the resonant frequencies of the space the recording managed to excite, and therefore how rich and interesting this made the end product.

It was fantastic to have the opportunity to perform this piece to a large audience. It was apparent that it invoked a range of reactions, but it seemed that for the majority of people the response was meditative. Drawing human attention to the sonic qualities of space as this piece masterfully does is something which can evidently be rather profound. I look forward to exploring this further in my PhD research.

I thank Joseph and Musarc for involving me in this project.

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