April 5, 2019
Alvin Lucier, The Queen of the South (1972)
Drawing on the experiments of 18th century physicist and musician Ernst Chladni and 20th century physician Hans Jenny, Alvin Lucier’s The Queen of the South (1972) attempts a direct visualization of sonic vibration. In 1787, Chladni drew a violin bow along the edge of a brass plate sprinkled with a thin layer of sand. The vibrating surface bounced the granules into symmetrical forms—stars, waves, grids, and labyrinths—he termed “sound figures.” Nearly two centuries later, Jenny published the book Cymatics, which further explored and photographically documented the effects of sound vibrations on various substances. Lucier’s score calls for performers to sing, speak, or play electronic or acoustical instruments to activate responsive surfaces strewn with fine materials in order to make visible the effects of sound. The title is drawn from a figure in alchemy, which attempts the transmutation of one substance into another.
Ron Kuivila, Sparkline, with acceleration (2003)
A spark is the visual analogue of a sound: it appears briefly and then disappears, leaving a trace in the memory. Curiously, the sound of a spark has no “body.” Instead of vibrating (pushing and pulling the air), it literally tears the air via a flow of electrons. For Sparkline, with acceleration, Kuivila records sparks as they jump across parallel wires and then plays back these sounds at a slowly increasing rate. Initially sounding five octaves below, the sound of the spark gradually accelerates until it is several octaves higher than the initial sound and stops.
Ultrasound, stun guns, static fields, speech synthesis, weather reports—these are some of the materials and processes Ron Kuivila uses to compose music and create sound installations. Kuivila builds and modifies electronic instruments, and designs software and algorithms that serve his compositional needs. His works not only explore physical phenomena but social phenomena as well, cultivating the creative capacities of non-musicians, for example, or assembling ghostly archives of recorded voices.