Back in May, I set off on a quest to see an orchestra live in concert and ended up attending a very odd (but very good) music festival involving collaborations between orchestral and electronic musicians and composers. The Glasgow incarnation of the Tectonics festival deserves a piece in its own right, but for now I’ll focus on one particular element in the festival: a sound installation by Alvin Lucier.
The festival stretched over the City Halls and the Old Fruitmarket across the weekend, but this particular piece took up residence in one of the recital rooms all weekend. It was pre-programmed to run at regular intervals throughout the weekend, but I was lucky enough to get to see Alvin Lucier perform it live. Generally when you see sound art, its entirely divorced from its original performance, in most cases pre-recorded and unchanging between repetitions. (Not necessarily a bad thing, and some might even argue that the fixed nature of these pieces is what makes them art installations rather than musical performances.) This on the other hand was far more like a musical performance, the score he was playing from might have been exactly the same but the way he performed it was full of little differences in tones, expression and timing. Sitting on the floor of the room amid dozens of other people squished together cross-legged engaging with or being baffled by the performance in front of us.
Technically Music for Pure Waves, Bass Drums and Acoustic Pendulums (for slow sweep oscillator, loudspeakers, bass drums and suspended Ping-Pong balls) is really just four bass drums being hit by Ping-Pong balls suspended on fishing line, with the vibrations being converted by an attached to sine wave oscillator into very different sounds. However, that really doesn’t do justice to the swooping strangeness of the sounds produced, or the surreal yet whimsical experience of watching it being created. I’m sure there are other ways (easier ways even) to hit the drums in the same manner but something about the Ping-Pong balls hanging from one of the beams on fishing wire, made it seem both tailored to the space it inhabited (as though it had been designed specifically for the space, even though it had not been) and to inject a sense of fun into the whole proceedings.
Equally it was interesting to compare the experience of watching him as a performer in a small space and later seeing one of his lesser known orchestral compositions get the full wide-screen interpretation at the hands of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
This felt very much in sync with the spirit of the wider festival, that all these performances and pieces were both serious, sometimes challenging, works of art and fun experiments that pushed the boundaries of what is possible or practical with the instruments at hand.