Sounds Heard: Alvin Lucier—Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas
“Xylophone” from Alvin Lucier’s Still and Moving Lines…
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Alvin Lucier: Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas
Nick Hennies, mallet percussion
You might want to lower the lights before hitting play on Austin-based percussionist Nick Hennies’s recording of four pieces from Alvin Lucier’s 1972 work Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas. In fact, it probably wouldn’t hurt to recline into a pillow, close your eyes, and sink into the architecture of the tones that are coming at your ears. It’s not an experience of sensory deprivation, of course, but certainly of sensory focus. All other stimuli would do well to fade to the background.
What Hennies presents with this recording is only a portion of the full work. Lucier’s original conception is in four parts, the second of which consists of twelve pieces. On this disc, Hennies showcases the four sections of that twelve-part set that are scored for mallet percussion—marimba, xylophone, glockenspiel, and vibraphone—and sine wave.
The content is relatively simple: a series of struck tones of varying speeds set against the drone of the sine wave. But the impact of the pitch tension from start to finish is magnificent. In his liner notes to the full recording of Part II (available on Lovely), Lucier explains the effect:
For the mallet instruments, whose pitches cannot be altered, the player varies the tempo of a series of repeated strokes. The pure waves are tuned in such a way as to cause a basic beating pattern every time a tone is struck; then, as the player speeds up or slows down, the basic pattern becomes shortened or lengthened. In the marimba solo, for example, a pure wave is tuned a half cycle below the instrument’s D-flat. Every time that note is struck, one beat every two seconds is sounded. The player begins in “unison” with this pattern, and with each successive series of strokes, gradually increases the tempo until, at about one stroke per second, the beat is “cut in half.”
Because of the relatively short decay times of these percussive sounds, their spatial characteristics differ from those of sustaining instruments. Compared to certain wind or brass instruments, with which players can hold sounds for thirty seconds or longer in one breath, the longest sounding time of a mallet stroke is not more than about eight seconds. Vibraphone strokes, for example, have decay times long enough to produce smooth movement across the stereo field, while the shorter, more rapidly decaying strokes of the glockenspiel seem to place themselves in different locations in space.
On Hennies’s recording, the tracks transition seamlessly from one to the next without an audible pause. The marimba chimes with the weight of a clock while the glockenspiel ratchets the tempo and pitch up high enough to scrape the ceiling, more closely conjuring a flock of chattering birds. The vibraphones take things closest to a seasick edge, swirling around as if in flight.
Still, there is a powerful meditative quality to Still and Moving Lines… that’s hard to exhaust. Hennies actually just brought a brand new recording out, Psalms (Roeba), which includes both his own compositions and another Lucier piece, but Still and Moving Lines… has never been far from my stereo since it arrived last spring, and I wanted to offer it one more shout out before moving on.