Alvin Lucier's Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas is a collection of pieces for instrumentalists and fixed sine waves and is one of the earliest and most influential examples of Lucier's research into the nature of the basic building blocks of sound.
The percussion pieces are unique from the pieces for strings and winds/voice in that, because percussion instruments are not capable of performing microtonal pitches, the performer is asked to make precise adjustments in rate of attack rather than changing the pitch of the instrument. The interaction between the varying playing speeds and the sine waves creates a sonic environment where the sound is seemingly moving around the room. Presented here by percussionist Nick Hennies in the original program order specified by Lucier, the four pieces comprise a continued listening experience that is both fascinating and deeply hypnotic.
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.
The Wire Magazine, Philip Clark
Lucier's original 1972 Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas was part sound installation (where multi-directional sinewaves rotated around the performance space), part dance spectacle (where dancers moved by zoning into the contours of sinewaves). part instrumental showcase (where musicians provoked harmonic interference by sliding against sinewave drones). Percussionist Nick Hennies concentrates on the marimba, xylophone, glockenspiel and vibraphone sections - interesting to hear, because mallet percussion instruments don't have a capacity to bend notes - and these pieces necessarily operate differently from their woodwind and voice stablemates. By concertina-ing his rate of attack against the sustained sinewave, Hennies uncovers a sub-clause within acoustics that scatters microtones around the recording environment. Anybody with space in their life for the electronic inscapes of Eleh or Oneohtrix Point Never will find this resonates in sympathy.
Cyclic Defrost, Joshua Meggitt
Alvin Lucier’s work concerns itself with intense investigations into the nature of sound, functioning more as laboratory studies into auditory phenomena and the perception of hearing than as musical composition. These early duets for sinewave and tuned percussion find Lucier toying with the limitations of these instruments – their inability to perform microtonal pitches – and the relationship established between the two incongruous voices.
Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas of 1972 features four compositions, for sinewave and marimba, xylophone, glockenspiel and vibraphone respectively, which ask the performer – here Nick Hennies – to make precise adjustments to the rate of attack rather than changing the pitch. So the listener hears static sine tones over which rhythmic taps of percussion occur, becoming faster, slower, or stopping entirely. The effect of these shifts on our perception of the sine tone is where the drama lies: the flow seems to waver and shift, beating against our eardrums or becoming more streamlined, texturally changing from smooth to rough. At times it sounds like something on Raster Noton or Sahko, raindrop plinks of xylophone against a near-painful whine, or the sound of two ball-bearings clacking over a warm oscillating undertow. Submitting to these auditory effects can be a sublime experience.
Vital Weekly, FDW
Alvin Lucier's work as a composer is one the best I know. Yet, I hardly ever play his music. Partly of course being occupied with a daily flood of new music for Vital Weekly and also because a lot of his work is not always easy to digest. Yet his search for spatial sound qualities has resulted in a great body work. I always say to myself I should play it more and especially on such occasions as with this one. Nick Hennies performs here this older work (from 1972, although in 1984 he made a new version for 'female voice, clarinet, flute, horn, mallet instruments, string quartet and pure wave oscillators), which comes in four parts. Hennies is a percussionist, so he performs it on a marimba, xylophone, glockenspiel and vibraphone. Not very likely Lucier instruments (which usually deals with string and wind instruments), but Hennies plays them with great care, keeping in mind Lucier's instructions for Part 2, Numbers 5-8. I have the score here (as found in 'Reflections'), while listening to the music. The wave oscillators are pitched together and then Hennies plays along with them. Its gorgeous music! Very minimal of course, with these sine wave sounds and the percussion being played precise, making blocks of sound. Definitely a work to play loud and while doing so, you should move through the space you are in and note how the subtle the variations are in the piece. Hennies' version is a great one. An excellent execution of a great piece. Yes, I definitely should be playing more Lucier soon. And to start this one should be on repeat for a while.