‘North American Time Capsule’ by Alvin Lucier

Alvin Lucier is an American composer and sound artist known for his experimental use of innovative electroacoustic devices (at least during the years in which he worked), such as frequency oscillators connected to magnets as we can see in his work Music on a Long Thine Wire 1977, biofeedback and reverberation machines in his piece Clocker 1978; probably best known for his experimentations on the physical properties of the sound, as shown in his most famous piece I Am Sitting in a Room 1969.

One piece I found peculiarly interesting is North American Time Capsule performed in a single version in 1966. This piece was composed at an invitation of Sylvania Applied Research Laboratories which offered the artist the possibility of using one of the first prototypes of vocoder, a device that can transform and synthesise human voice. During the creation of the piece he gave precise and extravagant instructions to the choir he directed: they had to sing, play a musical instrument or just produce any sound that could represent that exact situation to living beings far from Earth’s environment either in space or time. Lucier, helped by the professional engineer Calvin Howard, used the vocoder to isolate and manipulate voices of the performance in real time; he recorded 8 different tracks which he then mixed together. The result of this work is impressive: the voices sound like they were produced by other unknown creatures trying to communicate in an unknown language; in the background, a constant unintelligible mumble is produced, like an alien television left on low volume; some of the voices reminded me of a sort of mechanical bee flying close to the ears; other voices sound like extra-terrestrial radio interferences interrupted by robotic siblings  and bursts of white noise; some of them reminded me of the sound of an old squeaking door or a ‘strange’ electric razor.

This composition is considered as one of the most interesting experiments of the non-semantic uses of the human voice and also a very powerful example of speech-processing technology.

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