Milwaukee: Killer Sound Art

Justin Schell
Justin Schell

Alvin Lucier’s sonic works often take after the man himself: quiet, gentle, and unassuming. Such is the case with his Music on a Long Thin Wire, originally conceived of in 1977 and recently featured at the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Schroeder Galleria, part of the Santiago Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion. When the Museum officially turned off the work at the end of May, however, it also closed a chapter on one of the institution’s more bizarre episodes, showing that even the gentlest of sounds can have the most visceral of consequences.

Music on a Long Thin Wire was brought in as part of the museum’s On Site series, where artists and artworks are brought in to literally reshape the space of the Schroeder Galleria. Instrumental in bringing this particular work to Milwaukee was Joe Ketner, the museum’s chief curator. Ketner has a long history of working in new music, kinetic art, and sound art, including two previous projects with Lucier. Ketner wanted to explore what “immaterial forms like light and sound” would be like in the architectural space, and Lucier’s work seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

Christopher Burns, a composition professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, also was involved in bringing Music on a Long Thin Wire to Milwaukee. “Given the unusual acoustics of Calatrava’s space,” he said, “it seemed like an interesting place to perform Lucier pieces…that explore the acoustical qualities of a given venue.” The Galleria’s multi-angled marble, glass, and concrete surfaces offered ample opportunities for unusual reverberation.

Milwaukee Art Museum
Milwaukee Art Museum, Quadracci Pavilion, Schroeder Galleria

Like many of Lucier’s works, Music on a Long Thin Wire is constructed with relatively simple means. A single metal piano wire of variable length is strung between two small wooden bridges, its ends clamped to two tables. Embedded in the bridges are contact microphones, which are routed through an amplifier and into a stereo system. On one end of the wire stands a large electro-magnet. The ends of the wire are connected to the amplifier, which is itself connected to a sine wave oscillator. Once the oscillator is set to a specific tuning, the wire will begin to emit a range of sounds corresponding to the aural dynamics of a specific room. Any number of factors, including pressure, temperature, and even the number of people moving about in the space could change the sound produced. Because of these variables, the sound one would have heard in the Galleria could change with each step taken.

Lucier was in attendance for the opening in mid-February, but it was on this first night that things started to go wrong. For some Museum employees, the quiet sounds of the wire went beyond ambient, as they complained of feelings of nausea after listening to the work for extended periods of time. Ketner, Lucier, and Lucier’s technician, Haucke Harder, set out to adjust the work in hopes of alleviating these symptoms, especially after OSHA was contacted about the situation. One theory proposed was that the sheer length of this particular version of the work was responsible. Running the length of the Galleria, the wire stretched nearly 300 feet—the longest version of the piece ever installed. Such a length, combined with the unique acoustical signature of the space, could have produced inaudible, subsonic frequencies that could have had an adverse effect on listeners’ health. Ultimately, however, neither Ketner, Lucier, Harder, nor any of the specialists brought in to adjust the work could alleviate the employees’ symptoms before the installation’s scheduled end. The only viable solution was to reduce the length of the wire and route the piece through headphones.

When I donned the headphones, I was treated to a sound hovering around a medium-range F# that provided an ongoing, if slightly metallic, aural snapshot of the Galleria. Voices and footsteps within the gallery, when registering on the wire, were distant, almost ghost-like. It was like playing telephone with two cans and a piece of string. Even more interesting, however, was the effect that other music had on the wire, in this case a small choir singing a movement from Rachmaninov’s Vespers. Whenever the choir would swell to a greater volume, the wire seemed to come alive, as the sound began to scurry with sympathetic overtones.

These sonic phenomena are indeed interesting and seem to keep to the spirit of Lucier’s work, regardless of the mediation that the headphones bring about. When I spoke to Ketner, he seemed disappointed with how things turned out, but not enough to deter him from bringing more sound art to the Milwaukee Art Museum in the future. What’s unfortunate about the situation, however, is that Lucier’s piece of audience-constituted sound art was reduced to the level of a portrait. With its inherent interactive element all but removed, it became something to be looked at—or in this case, heard through tethered headphones—only from a distance.

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Justin Schell lives in Minneapolis. A graduate student in the Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society program at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, he is currently working on a study of world music, globalization, and the Olympics. He has recently returned from a one-year performance hiatus to join The Gated Community, contributing backing vocals and an arsenal of auxiliary percussion to the Twin Cities’ newest country/bluegrass/experimental band.