Every now and then I like to wax nostalgic over how the Downtown Music Gallery has helped me find the CDs to replace some of the more valued vinyls that I had to give up upon moving into smaller quarters. In the past I have focused on Brian Eno’s Obscure series; but lately, due in part to my writing on Examiner.com about The San Francisco Tape Music Festival, I have found myself listening to the CD collection that replaced the vinyl records included with selected issues of Source magazine. I first learned about Source in the summer of 1968. I have previously described this summer as “the first time I did any serious writing about [Merce] Cunningham's approach to choreography and John Cage's approach to the composition and performance of music,” although it was from Gordon Mumma, who worked with Cage and David Tudor in providing the music for performances by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, that I first learned about Source. Mumma had a keen sense of signal processing, how he wanted to use it, and how he could build circuits to satisfy his goals; so he provided me with many wonderful opportunities to converse about music and technology. He was the one who encouraged me to subscribe to Source; and eventually I managed to acquire a complete set of all published issues (something I still wish I could have done with Die Reihe), which I continue to treasure.
Source was one of the best channels for content about avant-garde music for its time. It included articles, interviews, and scores. It provided me with my first opportunity to examine the score for Cage’s 4’33”. It also facilitated my reflections on my first serious encounter with the avant-garde through a performance given by the Sonic Arts Group, which had emerged from the ONCE Group and would late be known as the Sonic Arts Union. (Under that name they give a performance at the Guggenheim Museum in a series that also offered me my first exposure to the music of Philip Glass.)
Six ten-inch vinyls were included in selected issues of Source during the run of the magazine. There was an emphasis on in-concert recordings of what, at the time, was called “live electronic music,” conceived with an emphasis on performance, rather than conception. However, with the Tape Music Festival about to begin on Friday, I find myself thinking back on “I am sitting in a room,” by Alvin Lucier. Among the avant-garde composers, Lucier was “geographically closest” when I first got to know him, since he was running the Electronic Music Studio at Brandeis University when I was doing my doctoral research in computer music at MIT.
Thanks to WikiProject Classical music, “I am sitting in a room” has its own Wikipedia entry; and it deserves it. Lucier conceived it to deal with his stuttering. It begins with a tape recording of his reading his own speaking voice, describing what he is doing and occasionally impeded by stutters. He then began a repetitive process of recording that tape on another tape, doing the same with the resulting tape, and so on “through many generations,” as Lucier described the process in Source. What happens is that the physics of the room gradually enhances certain resonant frequencies, making the source text less and less intelligible. However, while the frequencies of the vocal formants give way to the resonant frequencies of the room, the rhythm of the speech endures, meaning that the rhythms of the stutters begin to articulate the sounds of the frequencies imposed by the room. This is a gradual process, so listening requires more than a little patience. However, the phenomenon leads to interesting effects that the patient will find rewarding. I am not sure I would call this work a “classic;” but it is one that deserves the attention of anyone aspiring to be a serious listener.