Composition analysis : I am sitting in a room by Alvin Lucier

This analysis was done in June 2019 for my CEM (Certificate of Musical Studies) in electroacoustic music and composition. The audio samples that accompany the analysis are available online at the bottom of the page.

How does this play integrate the room into the play?

"‘I am sitting in a room’ is certainly the most well-known piece of American composer Alvin Lucier, born in 1931. Following in the footsteps of John Cage, Alvin Lucier is firmly rooted in the landscape of experimental music with works that blend science and art. Whether through physics or psychoacoustics, Lucier regularly incorporates natural phenomena as a central element of his language.

In ‘I am sitting in a room’, it is the natural reverberation of a room that he places at the heart of the work. The piece revolves around a simple concept: a voice reading a recorded text in a room, then played back and re-recorded a significant number of times. The reverberation of the space gradually adds itself to the original recording. Here is the translation of the text:

‘I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear then are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.’ [1]

This text, present from the beginning of the piece, explains the composition in detail, creating a listening contract between the listener and the performer. His voice gradually disappears from the stage through the automation of the recording and the successive addition of reverberation to the spoken text.

Since the creation of this work in 1969 and its recording release by Lovely Music [2] in 1981, Lucier has performed it in various exhibition halls, concerts, and festivals [3]. The quick enthusiasm surrounding this piece is due to the fact that Lucier succeeded in making the architecture of a concert hall audible. Consequently, each performance becomes unique and entirely dependent on the production location. It is therefore interesting to ask how this composition integrates into the space where it is produced. To address this question, I will first show the genesis of the work as well as its production context, then in a second step, I will analyze the evolution and overall behavior of the piece. Finally, it is important to note that this work is still widely performed and is an integral part of pop culture.

Alvin Lucier

Let's begin by understanding the genesis of the work. After studying in a parish school, Alvin Lucier continued his education at Yale University and the Portsmouth Abbey in art. He went to Rome in 1960, where he met Frederic Rzewski, a virtuoso pianist and composer who introduced him to the performances of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and David Tudor. These encounters with composers, choreographers, and musicians opened up new horizons for him through a less conventional education.

In 1962, he decided to return to Boston to Brandeis University as the university choir director. There, he presented classical and modern pieces, as well as commissioned works. Following this experience, he continued to work as a choir director in New York City Hall. Lucier met Gordon Mumma and Robert Ashley, two experimental music composers, there. In 1966, they founded the "Sonic Arts Group" together, which thrived until 1976.

It was during this period that Alvin Lucier stood out for his use of scientific processes in the composition of his works. In addition to resonance frequencies, the composer based his work on the physical properties of sound and the space in which it propagates. He then used composition as a means of highlighting one or more physical phenomena. This work on sound was also accompanied by a pedagogical aspect seeking to show the invisible and highlight science through its own language.

Indeed, the use of devices and methods normally used in the laboratory opens up the language of the composer. This encourages listening based on the observation of the evolution of physical phenomena, which are sometimes extremely subtle. This approach then offers a listening experience that showcases a new and delicate poetry.

Creation of "I am sitting in a room"

The creation of "I am sitting in a room" began in 1969 following a conference at MIT where Amar Bose described how he tests the characteristics of his speakers. He explains how he records and plays back the audio signal produced by his speakers. The technique of generative loss is born! Thanks to this method and a multitude of iterations, Bose is able to determine the "color" of his speakers. If the speaker is centered on the bass, the bass will be more prominent in the recordings and vice versa. Of course, Bose did not want to be hindered by the characteristics of the room, so the technique was performed in an anechoic chamber, a place where the room no longer affects the sound modification. This allows the scientist to focus on the characteristics of the speaker, the object of his attention.

Lucier takes hold of this basic idea and highlights not the speaker like Amar Bose, but rather the room where the sound is recorded. This is how the first recording of "I am sitting in a room" took place in 1969, in the composer's kitchen using equipment from the Electronic Studio at Brandeis University where Lucier teaches. This recording was then played in 1970 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The recording was 15 minutes long and consisted of 10 iterations [Track 1]. Later in 1981, he published a second, higher-quality recording of about 40 minutes with 32 iterations on the Lovely Music label [Track 2].

In an interview with Douglas Simon, Lucier stated, "My first instinct was to use various musical instruments that played a wide variety of sounds, but I rejected that idea because it seemed too 'composerly.' Instead, I decided to use speech, which is common to almost everyone and is a wonderful sound source. It has a reasonable frequency spectrum, noises, stops and starts, different dynamic levels, and complex shapes. It is ideal for testing the resonance characteristics of a space. It is also extremely personal." These last words are even truer because Lucier stutters. The irregularity of his speech then becomes a signature. [5]

All the beauty of the piece is then trapped in this irregularity, giving it a rhythm. After reading the introductory text without accompaniment, analog processing iterations begin and add up. The listener is then faced with several iterations, transforming syllables and phrases at each passage into increasingly marked resonance. As the text progresses, it becomes incomprehensible, with words mixing and transforming into tonal sounds. Spoken language then becomes a harmony sung by the piece itself. Exploded into several main pitches, language deconstructs and magnifies the space.

The location becomes more than just a production setting. It becomes a full-fledged instrument. The architecture then finds a sonic dimension, transforming space into sound. Alvin Lucier achieves the feat of a poem based on the rhythm of his text and stuttering, with vocal accents exciting the architecture. Because it is not the resonance frequencies of the voice or the room that appear in the work, but truly the intersection between the two. Humans are thus confronted with their sonic environment. A real communion between the room and the listener comes to life. The sample duration dilates due to successive addition of reverberation. The loss of reference due to the dilution of meaning of the words makes us lose the notion of time in the evanescent tonics. Alvin Lucier transports us into another language, another relationship with time and place.

Concepts behind the piece

To fully understand the subtleties of the behavior of "I am sitting in a room", it is important to focus on a physics concept at the heart of the piece: the impulse response. The impulse response is a signal representing the acoustic color of a space. What is called "color" is determined by the geometry as well as the material of the volume's coatings. Just like an organ pipe, every volume has its own resonance frequencies. Thus, by using the performance hall as a resonator, Alvin Lucier places himself with the listener at the center of the instrumentation of the work, at the heart of the organ, flute or resonator of any type of instrument.

The evolution of the work depends on both the performer and the space where the recordings are made. The voice directly communicates with the piece, exciting the resonant frequencies of the location. In order to observe how the sound evolves in general, we will focus on the recording from 1981, which has the most iterations, a total of 32 iterations.

By observing the evolution of the sound spectrum (see time-frequency spectrogram below), it is noticeable that the piece acts as a low-pass filter. This means that its color gradually removes high frequencies, as shown by the arrow below. In addition to this, there is the chaining of sequences - visible here by the vertical lines - forming tonics and harmonics. Musically, something is being born.

The voice not only excites the resonance frequencies of the room, but the space itself also responds by sympathetically oscillating. This phenomenon can be observed on pianos. To demonstrate it, simply softly press a note, for example, an A3, without producing any sound, and then strike the same note at the octave, an A4. The A3, though not struck, begins to resonate and sound. This case of resonance is observable higher up in the rectangle without dots. Once the room has reinforced certain tonics, they are transposed to the octave by resonance, bringing out frequencies that were almost nonexistent when reading the text.

Ultimately, there is only a sequence of evanescent heights articulated by Alvin Lucier's voice stuttering the reproduction notice of the work. The decision to include the score within the work was undoubtedly what allowed "I am sitting in a room" to pass into posterity. Alongside this text is a note written by Lucier's assistant - Hauke Harder - explaining the technique used as well as the possible openings expressed by the composer. This document, whose translation is found in Appendix A, explains pathways for those who wish to reinterpret the work and make it their own. Whether through changing the text, the language, or even the order of iterations, Lucier creates a framework that always allows for the reproduction of a phenomenon.

Impact of the play and its interpretations

Since its creation, "I am sitting in a room" has been reinterpreted around the world, notably on social media and YouTube. Many videographers such as ontologist [8] [Track 3], look mum no computer [9] [Track 4], and acapellascience2 [10] have started using Alvin Lucier's work to alter their image and voice. In these cases, it is no longer the resonance of a place that is at the heart of the work, but rather audio and video compression codecs.

To better understand this piece and its impact, I too have created a digital interpretation of "I am sitting in a room" from recordings I made in a classroom at the Polytechnic of Turin. As the composition is free, I chose to reverse the order of the samples in order to not lose language but instead to rediscover it. This freedom also includes a change in the text. It now explains the mathematical principles that I implemented in a program reproducing Alvin Lucier's composition process [11]. This version was presented on May 23, 2019 at the Musixte concert in Brest. Alvin Lucier's message shines through this piece and its numerous reinterpretations: to take possession of the elusive. Amar Bose's method at the heart of the composition transforms the invisible of a room into a song. The transparency of a codec becomes a distorting prism. This highlighting of faults or qualities makes us capable of judging, contemplating, or simply dreaming. The work "I am sitting in a room" gradually integrates the room in which it is performed, becoming an imprint of that environment through each iteration. The contrasts of this environment are pushed to the extreme in order to better discern its contours.

Alvin Lucier provides us with a tool to apprehend reality with both poetry and objectivity. He becomes a photographer of the invisible, a choir master of the mute.

Sound examples


[1]: Translation of the text from Alvin Lucier

[2]: Producer Alvin Lucier's website

[3]: Lucier's Presence at the Guggenheim Museum in 1970 Andrea Miller-Keller (15 January 2012).

[4]: Meeting with Amar Bose, founder of Bose Corporation - Alvin Lucier: Music 109 - Notes on Experimental Music

[5]: Trace of interview between Lucier and Douglas Simon - Alvin Lucier and Douglas Simon, "Chambers," Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 1980.

[6]: Hauk hardern's website, assistant of Alvin Lucier

[7]: Notice of reproduction of the work

[8]: Video of ontologist "VIDEO ROOM 1000 COMPLETE MIX

[9]: Video of look mum no computer ”Recording A Room in A Room 20 Times - Audio Inception”

[10]: Video of acapellascience2 “I Am Streaming in A Room”

[11]: Modeling project of "I Am Sitting in A Room