nailing this internet business

#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. 

#6: The Smashing Pumpkins - "Siamese Dream" (1993)

My stepbrother had a lot of posters in his teenage room. I was occasionally allowed in to watch his small TV, finding that my attention would often wander to the walls, landing on one poster in particular.  Floating on clouds, surrounded by stars in an indigo sky, were three figures that looked like marionettes. Front and centre stood a man with his arms outstretched, yearning, dressed in a white top hat and tails. This was the poster for Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by The Smashing Pumpkins. There was something vaguely mystical and Victorian about it that appealed to my 8-year-old self. Looking at it now, it’s simultaneously proto-emo and proto-steampunk. Depending on where your tastes land, perhaps that’s prophetic, but you can’t deny that it’s clearly influential.

Before this week, I hadn’t ever – consciously – listened to anything by The Smashing Pumpkins but starting from that Melon Collie poster onwards, I’ve always been aware of them as a stonking pop-culture reference. A by-word for troubled band relationships, addiction and a particular shade of angst-ridden adolescent lyricism. So I thought I should finally get myself acquainted with their work, as that impetus is pretty much the entire motivation of this entire project. I picked Siamese Dream as it’s been near-universally hailed as their breakthrough album.

What struck me about listening to it is that I had the same sensation of reading Charles Dickens, or how I feel watching the original Star Wars trilogy. I appreciate their importance in the canon, can see how they made a splash at the time and, more often than not, am a fan of artists who reference them as their major inspiration. But the thing itself? Well, I mildly enjoy it at the time but can’t get the same rush. Is that an issue with me not making enough of an effort or is it genuine indifference? I wish I could be a better critic to say something other than ‘meh’. However, this is the Internet and I am constantly learning so please bear with me.

Turns out that I had heard Today already. I couldn’t tell you when or where but it sounds like an indie film soundtrack stalwart. Beyond that, I couldn’t distinguish between one track and the other, which is not unheard of, and probably actively encouraged within the shoegazing genre, but it’s all just… whining to me. Speaking of shoegazing, I’m a big My Bloody Valentine fan. I know many people would be able to fairly levy the same criticism at Loveless as I am at Siamese Dream but there’s a vision and focus to Loveless that is sorely lacking in Siamese Dream. There’s a meandering quality to a piece like Loveless that slowly seduces your attention, whereas Siamese Dream is like the acquaintance who turns up to your house party, stealthily drinks all your booze then shouts about how awful everyone is to them before passing out on your bean bag.

Siamese Dream is a great time capsule but there’s a lack of editorial steer that could have made it a leaner, denser, punchier work. With so many tracks saying the same thing, you can’t help but feel droned at.