52A/52W

#20: ALVIN LUCIER - "I AM SITTING IN A ROOM" (1969)

This might be one of the longest tracks but shortest albums that we will cover on this project. It could also be said to be one of the most 'out there', as it's not musical in the orthodox sense but is still an artist's intention expressed through sound, recorded and distributed. Reading about Alvin Lucier and I am sitting in a room made me think that reviewing it looked set to be more craic than any of Steve Reich's offerings at least. I fancied delving into something genuinely experimental and came out the other side feeling pretty relaxed. Though that may have had more to do with the fact that I listened to it in the bath. I entirely recommend doing this yourself, incidentally, especially if, like me, you're not much of a bath person either, thereby doubling your helping of experimentation.

The experiment is as follows. Lucier reads out a piece of text, no more than four or five sentences, explaining what he is doing and predicting what will happen. So far, so science. What Lucier is doing is recording his voice reading this text, then playing it into the room that he is sitting in, recording that and playing it into the room, repeating this process until the natural frequencies of the room completely obscure Lucier's voice - apart, he notes, from possibly the rhythm of his speech. The version I listened to is, I believe, the original 1969 recording lasting just over 18 minutes, not the higher-fidelity version recorded in 1981 that is about 45 minutes long. Turns out that 18 minutes is plenty of time to layer ambient frequencies over a human voice to obscure it entirely with a not unpleasant drone and feel sufficiently soaked.

Admittedly, listening to I am sitting in a room isn't super experimental for me in the sense that I've listened to albums of this kind before. As I've told anyone generous or socially obliged enough to have bought me a glass of red wine, The Disintegration Loops by William Basinski is one of my favourite pieces of music and, if the bottle is finished and the whisky brought out, what I hope it will sound like in my head when I die. During a particularly dark time, Basinski found tapes of his old compositions that were beginning to disintegrate. He recorded playing them over and over, recording the act of decay and creating something new. Or was it merely the documentation of something falling apart? The slight rise of hiss and grain that eventually blooms like a fireball and devours everything in its path. A sonic Sorites paradox. When did it stop being that thing and become the other? Repetition's effect on the brain - or mine, anyway - is to accept what information has already been offered and truncate it, skip to the end. But I am sitting in a room helps hold your attention after several goes round because they aren't actually repetitions but iterations with incredibly slight differences that build to something almighty.

Not one for the wedding dance floor playlist but if you have a spare 18 minutes and fancy something both meditative and oddly energetic, run yourself a bath and sink deeply into both. 

#1: Bruce Springsteen - "Born in the USA" (1984)

First of all, we’re doing a thing this year on Mookbarks Dot Net: every week either Emily or I will listen to an album that we don’t know very well but perhaps feel like we ought to by now – and on a Sunday morning we’ll blog about it. I suspect, gentle reader, that there will be some things that you really like, and are surprised that we’ve not got around to yet. There’ll probably also be some things that you don’t know, or haven’t hitherto been interested in. For me, Mookbarks over the last few months has been about broadening my horizons, and discovering interesting things where I might not have expected to come across them. I very much hope you’ll join us here.

A friend once described my music as “the beards and cardigans playlist”. I’m going to come out of the end of 2017 with a modicum of taste if it kills me.

 

I cannot tell whether it is irony or just aptness that this week I have sat in my childhood bedroom with my headphones in, listening to Bruce Springsteen.

Some music seems to attach itself for me to being a particular age, or the feelings that come from being a particular age. “Born in the USA” is straight up painful early twenties: that time where you’re not studying any more, you have to get up and start doing whatever it is you want to be doing for the rest of your life, and maybe you’ve been trying to do that for a year or so but you’ve still no idea what direction it is you’re actually heading in. It’s that combination of restlessness and dissatisfaction, with a dash of political militancy and a mighty great wodge of mixed feelings for the place you grew up in. The moment when you know what the question is – it’s “What do I want to do now?” – but the only answer you can come up with is a list of negatives: not this place, not this dynamic, not this office, not this quantity of paperwork. I want something else. Will somebody please tell me what that something else is?

It’s funny, because I didn’t expect straight-up insecurity from a Springsteen album. Perhaps that’s more a function of my biases than a reflection on the actual music, though – I think far more people (and I count myself one of them) have a certain, quite brash idea of what “Springsteen music” is like than have actually listened to it. When I happened to mention this was a thing I was listening to this week, a family member asked, “Oh, is that the shouty album?” But surprisingly enough, it’s not really. This is the album that brought us this:

…and that really speaks to me.

I suspect part of the reputation of “Born in the USA” comes from the title track, which you either know from massive rallies for a certain kind of politician, or from other people (hello!) explaining how that’s actually a gross misuse of it and it’s actually pretty anti-authoritarian, anti-war, not very jingoistic at all. In fact, it references the treatment of Vietnam veterans – and here is a moment where I had to look things up, because the Vietnam War finished in 1975, and “Born in the USA” came out in 1984, and again there’s this nostalgia there for a time of youth and simplicity, for battles we know we can win because they’re a decade or two in the past and we know how they end. That follows through in the rest of the album, from the catalogue of misfortunes in “Downbound Train”, to “Bobbie Jean” about the escape of a childhood friend. In “Born in the USA”, the difference between teenagerdom and adulthood is the difference between certainty and uncertainty, between the possible and the immovable. It’s affecting, and it’s not at all what I was expecting – but with approximately a squillion thinkpieces over the last few years about how popular culture these days is so heavily based on nostalgia, “Born in the USA” makes me feel like it’s nostalgia all the way down. There never was a golden age, was there? I wonder, in another decade, how we’ll remember the 2010s.

Lest it sound like this album is actually a bit of a downer, I would like to draw attention to two things. The first is the album cover, featuring That Shot of Bruce Springsteen’s trousers that is probably the best-known thing about the whole album. Am I sorry? No I am not. A+ iconic cover; would memorise again. And the other is that there are worse things than uncertainty out there. 2017 seems like a good year to remember that.