The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Alvin Lucier
String Noise Dustin Krcatovich , June 3rd, 2020 08:52

The latest collection by the legendary minimalist composer, on Oren Ambarchi's Black Truffle label, finds him approaching old concerns from new angles

There are plenty of legitimate proletarian criticisms of academia, to be sure, but the undeniable beauty of the "serious music" world contained therein is that nobody expects composers to curtail their impulses in the interest of the public taste. Why bother? The lion's share of their income isn't contingent on record sales or public performance. It's a nice cherry on top, sure, but not so much that you gotta blemish your rep with some kinda "crossover" moves, or worse, turn to cornball orchestral pastiche like John fucking Adams. Let the muse gallop wild and free through the hallowed halls of the institution, I say!

The work of minimalist composer Alvin Lucier, highly regarded both in academia and among more vernacular noiseheads, meets nobody halfway. He's been challenging listeners for over five decades; his career-long interest in acoustic phenomena, echolocation, and droning repetition are still of paramount concern, often manifesting as a kind of sonic concept art as much as, if not more than, anything most would call music.

Given this distinction, it's safe to say that String Noise, a set of pieces composed in the last two decades for the titular violin duo, will lose something in the translation for more casual listeners. Were one in the space with the performers, the long tones of 'Halo' would resonate through the body and slowly accentuate one's attention, with the molasses-slow tonal changes assuming more of a pronounced dramatic air. The steady pulse of 'Tapper', a piece consisting entirely of a violin being knocked with the butt of a bow as the soloist wanders about a resonant room for nearly an hour, would attune the listener's ear to previously unheard sonic phenomena. It's surely essential that such pieces be recorded and released, but rarely does the old saw "yeah, but ya gotta see 'em live" seem more apt.

'Love Song', the most compact of the tracks here at just under twenty minutes, has both the most well-translated sonics and the coolest concept. Herein, violinists Conrad and Pauline Kim Harris are connected by a long wire stretched between the bridges of their instruments, thus causing the sounds played on one violin to also be heard through the other. Drawing long tones out of the open E string, they both circle the performance space, altering the wire's tension and creating a wild array of overtones and oscillations, echoes and ghostly shrieks. At the risk of sounding gauche, it's the kind of thing which would sound incredible in a horror film, but adventurous listeners will find the sounds stimulating enough on their own.

At least on record, String Noise doesn't venture onto too much conceptual ground that Lucier hasn't covered before. Given that his work has always been about slow, granular shifts, though, I'm pretty sure that's too broad a way to think about it. It's well in keeping with Lucier's life's work, and a fine addition to his admirable catalog.