Music on a Long Thin Wire


Program Note

I’m going to talk a bit about “Music on a Long Thin Wire”. I made it in 1977. It was my first sound installation. We know that Max Neuhaus was the first composer to have made sound installations, at least he coined the term. I think it’s fair to say that. I first imagined it to be played on a stage. I was co-teaching a musical acoustics class with a physicist at Wesleyan. I didn’t know much about physics but wanted to learn something about acoustics. Our first demonstration was the Pythagorean monochord. I remember we set it up on a laboratory table. We attached a wire to an amplifier, and placed an electromagnet over one end of it, so we could change the flux field. I didn’t understand all this so well but I watched, you know. The wire would vibrate and make beautiful sounds. It was only a meter or so long. Being an artist I thought immediately that this would be a wonderful performance piece, to have a wire on a stage, a performer playing either with the amplifier or the oscillator that drives the wire, or varying the magnetic field. All those variables would change the mode of vibration of the wire. It could be an interesting piece. I found some wire in a hardware store. It was called music wire but it really wasn’t. It was stainless steel wire used in industry to cut materials – fish, foam, things of that kind. I didn’t know much about amplifiers, impedances, resistance, things of that kind, but through trial and error I set it up so I could get the wire to vibrate. I experimented with changing the frequency of the oscillator at the input. I put a microphone on each end of the wire, embedded in little homemade bridges. The sounds were very nice. One night I went home and dreamed of a very long wire. I think it went to the moon and back. I thought of the American West where we have those barbed wire fences that go on for miles. The next thing I did was to put tables on a concert stage and string a length of wire between them. I did not know what to input the wire with. That’s a problem for all of us, I think. We have these systems and don’t know what to put into them.

I performed the wire with some wonderful players and improvisers. I tried putting one person on one end of the wire and another on the other end, each with an oscillator. It was always very spectacular because a small change in amplitude would make the wire radically change its mode of vibration. But the sounds were always sliding up and down, shifting frequencies in interesting ways, but I didn’t like it. It was six of one, half a dozen of another. Is that a German idiom? I found that players would start, go up and come back down again. They’d bend the sounds. It was too predictable. Even though I was trying to make it live, it seemed dead. So I decided to see what would happen if I set the wire up and never touched it. I did the opposite of what I’m saying we were supposed to do, which was to enliven things. I think it was mainly because I couldn’t figure out an interesting way to do it live. If I had been a composer like Cage I would have done something indeterminate, but I wasn’t interested in that. I’m interested in cause and effect but only when something happens between the cause and effect, so that the effect is not really directly related to the cause. It’s hard to do, but anyway that’s what I try to do. I would clamp the ends of the wire to tables that I found in whatever place I was setting it up. I didn’t want to make tables or bring them along with me. I wanted to find them. I don’t know why, it’s just an eccentricity. The tables are not fixed fast to the floor. I couldn’t control, nor was I interested in controlling, the tension of the wire. For some reason I didn’t want to get into those mechanics. I thought of hanging weights on the ends of the wire so I could measure the tension, but that idea didn’t appeal to me, so I would set it up and it would be a little slack or at least not exactly tight. Sometimes one of the tables would move slightly. The ecology of the wire was very fragile. I could never really predict what it would sound like. Nor did I ever figure out – to this day I haven’t figured it out – the relationship between the oscillator that drives the wire, the length of the wire and the slackness of the wire. I have never really figured those relationships out. For some reason I don’t want to control them. – Alvin Lucier

About Alvin Lucier

Alvin Lucier was born in 1931 in Nashua, New Hampshire. He was educated in Nashua public and parochial schools, the Portsmouth Abbey School, Yale, and Brandeis and spent two years…