A report from Marfa Sounding
To borrow Edward Strickland’s words on Alvin Lucier’s seminal sound work I Am Sitting In A Room (1969), the minute you drive into Marfa, you are no longer an ‘I’ but a ‘town.’ The breezy, dusty atmosphere of the city swallows you in its pervasive sense of community, where self seems little more than a ‘ghostly existence within its resonant frequencies,’ as Strickland put it in Minimalism—Origins (1993). This ‘I’ is absorbed into Marfa’s history: the Donald Judd estate, stories of art world heavy-hitters at local saloons, adobe architecture, Chris Wool’s studio and, of course, the concrete and aluminium variations of the Judd-founded Chinati Foundation.
In this sense, the idea of Marfa, not unlike Raymond Williams’s idea of the rural, is based predominantly on social and cultural residue, which is continuously incorporated into its development. It builds on a mythology of exit from noisy urban capitalism but markets this as an experience you can be guided through before grabbing a cocktail. With the distinctions between urban and rural becoming increasingly meaningless, whatever specificity ‘site’ once possessed now seems a catchphrase for local tourism.
This waning notion of ‘site’ was tackled over Memorial Day weekend in May through a series of performances, installations and talks considering the relationship between architecture and electronic music, particularly during the emergence of minimalism. Organized by Jennifer Burris-Staton in collaboration with Fieldwork:Marfa and Marfa Live Arts, the events of Marfa Sounding took place across ‘sites’ as different as a hotel bar and dusty fields, beginning with a dusk-to-dawn excursion to a lone hillside, where a listening station for Lucier’s Sferics (1981) was installed. The piece converts the notion of long-term observation into sound, with wooden antennae relaying atmospheric interference into headphones. Listening at night, ones body seems detached from ones self, allowing you to focus on sounds as if they are small, abstract thoughts or whimsical notations. Like poetry, Sferics claims its dramatic poise by tuning in to material resonances and impulses..
Performed by cellist Charles Curtis, Eliane Radigue’s Naldjorlak (For Charles) (2006) takes its audience into a similarly indeterminate space – aided, no doubt, by the sweltering hot, dreamlike setting of Chinati’s Chamberlain Building. With the cello tuned to a ‘wolf tone’ (‘the natural frequency of the instrument’s resonating cavity1’), the piece hones in on those affective spaces caused by oscillating tones, conveying with each note a particular intimacy that the audience is invited to dwell in. You are not in the music when you are listening to Naldjorlak, but at its edges, observing without judgement and allowing the effects of the piece to be felt.
Fragility was also central to the following day’s performance of Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room, a work that breaks apart everything but rhythm, deconstructing the performer’s voice into anonymous feedback loops of speech. Experience segues into science fiction, as Lucier eliminates his voice via a repeated process of recording a phrase and replaying it, until all that is left is an echo. The voice, or what is left of it, consigns its personal expression to common ownership, replacing the pressures of poiesis with pure, unfiltered communication. According to the composer, the idea was to ‘smooth out any irregularities’ in his speech, giving rise to a fantasy of assimilation on par with the desire to simply disappear in a room. Acquiescing self into synchronous vibrations sounds like breathing a sigh of relief. It also prods at an escapism not unlike Judd’s: the break made is into a site that dominant culture cannot, as of yet, quite comprehend.
Still, whether avoiding the burdens of subjectivity or signification, Lucier, extant only in acoustics, reminds of utopia’s more totalitarian ideas, such as the hive mind, as it replaces individualism with the dream of a collective voice. That is: not ‘I’, but a ‘room’; a communal consciousness, minds coalescing in cultural legacy. The murky distinctions between self and other, work and leisure, idealism and authority seem here to fit into a single sentence, which in all of its abstraction is mesmerizing to dwell in – not unlike Marfa itself, whether browsing through an art bookshop in a boutique hotel or star-gazing from a picnic blanket at the Judd Foundation.