In 2019, Big Ears presents two composers who, during the last half-century, have changed the world’s very conception of music: Alvin Lucier and Joan La Barbara.
Fifty years ago, Alvin Lucier penned a peculiar piece called I Am Sitting in a Room, a transformative work of twentieth-century art. Indeed, Lucier sat in a room, recorded himself reading text that doubled as a score for and explanation of the work, played that recording aloud in the room, recorded that playback, and repeated the process until the the haunting resonant noise of the room, amplified with each repetition, engulfs his speech. Dubbed “the most profound statement about what it is to be human and have ears that has ever been produced” by The Guardian, it is a beguiling beauty. At Big Ears 2019, Lucier will again sit in a room and perform this landmark.
I Am Sitting in a Room is but one part of a program meant to celebrate Lucier’s prolific career. During its first concert ever in the South, the Ever Present Orchestra—launched in 2017 to play Lucier’s music—delivers several of his hypnotic works for larger ensembles. (Big Ears veterans Stephen O’Malley and Oren Ambarchi, who presented the North American premiere of Lucier’s Criss-Cross at Big Ears 2014, are Ever Present members.) Lucier himself will also perform the quixotic Bird and Person Dyning. Clad in microphones and holding an electronic bird whistle, Lucier slowly moves through a space, eliciting feedback between the bird and surrounding speakers. Nearly impossible to capture through recordings, Bird and Person Dyning is something you must witness.
Joan La Barbara, who has been singing Lucier’s works since 1972, joins his celebration. But she also presents a rare program of her own transfixing vocal compositions titled Voice Is the Original Instrument, the title of her groundbreaking 1976 album. For decades, La Barbara has been one of music’s most distinctive and exploratory singers, a composer and performer who has boldly used her voice as a laboratory of experimental sound. A true innovator of extended techniques for the voice, she learned circular breathing, much like horn players Evan Parker or Roscoe Mitchell. She grunts and growls and coos and cries, turning each of those sounds into pieces that challenge our perception of what the voice we all share can do.
This essential quality is what unites Alvin Lucier and Joan La Barbara: For half a century, their work has stretched our understanding not only of how music can sound but also what it can be. That is itself an animating principle of Big Ears, the proud host of these two titans in 2019.