I. I am sitting in a room
As the tenor of the coronavirus became amplified in March of 2020, so too did the memes. In those early days of the first lockdown, there wasn’t much else to do besides spend time indoors, cycling through facts and farce with the attention span of a goldfish, and occasionally stepping into the bathroom to wash one’s hands.
This repetitive, again-and-again ritual of hygiene lent itself nicely to one of the first viral memes of the pandemic: Replace the text of a CDC-style instructional poster that synced proper handwashing moves with the lyrics to “Happy Birthday” (the ideal length for effective ablutions). There was Dolly Parton. There was Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot” speech. There was the opening credits to “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
And, for me, there was Alvin Lucier’s “I Am Sitting in a Room.” Having just moved from Brooklyn to Berlin at the end of February, 2020, I was marooned in an Airbnb while waiting for my lease to start on a long-term sublet and cycling through a hall-of-mirrors–style series of feedback loops: total cases, reproduction numbers, confirmed symptoms, shutdowns whose goalposts were continually being reset. Very quickly, the specifics of these updates became lost in a larger resonant frequency of uncertainty.
Across twelve images of two hands demonstrating basic hygiene standards, I parsed out the text of Lucier’s landmark 1969 work and hit “post.”
II. Different from the one you are in now
Memes succeed when they are relatable; the word itself shares a root with the Ancient Greek “mimesis,” or imitation. That same root is visible in a word like “mimeograph” or “mimic.” Unrelated etymologically but nevertheless apt, the term also resembles the French for “same,” or “même.”
This doesn’t mean that an audience to the meme must experience the exact same sequence of events depicted therein. The original intent behind a work or photo that is parodied or recontextualized may even be totally lost (the birth of the memer must be at the death of the author). What’s most important is that it hits upon a similar emotional frequency. The medium, when massaged, becomes the message. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Lucier coaxes a similar effect out of “I Am Sitting in a Room,” which begins by him stating that he is sitting in a room “different from the one you are in now.” I’ve heard Lucier perform this work live, adjusting this line to be “the same one you are in now,” but, if you want to fall down a logistical and metaphysical rabbit hole (and, really, what else is there to do during a lockdown?), both can be true at the same time. Once the initial spark of “I Am Sitting in a Room” is recorded and played back again and again, each iteration room becomes a millimeter different from the one preserved in the initial recording. Each generation introduces new bits of sonic dust and ephemera. Plus c’est la même chose, plus ça change.
III. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice
Lucier scores “I Am Sitting in a Room” for voice and electromagnetic tape. Two tape recorders are called for: one with a microphone attached, the other with a loudspeaker. With this gear, the soloist is instructed to “choose a room the musical qualities of which you would like to evoke.” The now-iconic text that Lucier provides for the score is porous, and can, he writes, be replaced by “any other text of any length.”
With a fresh tape, the soloist reads this text into the microphone of the first tape recorder. Then, rewinding the tape to its beginning, they transfer the cassette to the second recorder and play it back into the room, while recording that iteration. Lather, rinse, repeat.
“Continue this process through many generations,” writes Lucier. “All the generations spliced together in chronological order make a tape composition.” He also invites the soloist to consider variations on this theme: Recycling the initial recorded statement through different rooms. Recording different languages in different rooms. Recording in different parts of the same room.
All roads lead to Rome: At a certain point, the words become indistinguishable from the acoustic qualities of the room itself. Like a meme, “I Am Sitting in a Room” becomes a conceptual framework for infinite variations. Layers on layers.
IV. And I am going to play it back into the room
Of course, “I Am Sitting in a Room” is much longer than “Happy Birthday.” But each time, as I washed my hands after sneezing or picking up the mail, I imagined that same ritual looped onto every other iteration of it from that day. A tiled bathroom invariably makes for good acoustics—the hiss of the tap, the wet suck of water between the palms, the velveteen foam of soap. Linear chronos time became the more cyclical kairos time.
A similar temporal shift takes place in “I Am Sitting in a Room.” The work doesn’t evolve from text to texture in a gentle upward slope, but rather in fits and starts from one generation to the next. The feeling that you’re listening to something underwater soon gives way to the feeling that you’re listening to the water soon gives way to the feeling that you’re listening as the water. Lucier himself describes the process of repetition that transforms speech into music as more alchemical than authorial.
V. Again and again
Without much room for middle ground, repetition in the past year became either balm or burden. There was the banality of doing the same thing every day, in the same space, with the same lack of certainty that tomorrow would be any different. Still, these routines also served as spiritual footholds; even a routine built from necessity and neuroses provides some comfort.
Anxiety also thrives on patterns and manifests through a series of mental routines, often in a similar stop-and-go progression versus a gradual slope. If you’ve ever had a long cry on your kitchen floor because you spilled a bowl of cereal but really it’s because you have no idea what the future holds and have been forced to accept your own lack of control over a situation like a global health crisis but want to feel anything but this discomfort which you weren’t aware of before your cornflakes fell like confetti over Times Square on New Year’s Eve… you know what I’m talking about.
Shifting the tape between Lucier’s two recorder system, anxiety catastrophizes the worst possible outcomes. You ruminate on the one thing that seems like the lynchpin to all of your problems, or you attempt to predict the future without any grounding in reality. The specifics of your anxiety eventually erode until all you’re left with is the high-octane buzz of a drone.
VI. Until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves
This, as one can imagine, is not a terribly comfortable space to be in. The only way of getting past it is to go through it, with curiosity and without judgement.
I liken this to Lucier’s own biography: He was smart in high school, but didn’t study, which led to him graduating without any prospects for college. While he had an idea of going to study in Ireland that stemmed from reading Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, his mother made the executive decision that he needed a remedial year at a boarding school. (Lucier credits his mother with pushing him in the right direction at a moment where he was poised to go the wrong way.)
Boarding school was a “confined atmosphere” for Lucier, as he told Andrea Miller-Keller in a 2011 interview. But its confines served in part as an artistic catalyst for the burgeoning young composer, forming a matrix of insight and experience that became the basis for his life and work.
VII. So that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed
Lucier was prone to getting into trouble at school, and one disciplinary action involved him staying on campus during a holiday break. At the same time, a group of Trappist monks were rooming in the school’s dormitories after a fire in their monastery. Lucier spotted one of the monks in the school’s chapel, deep in contemplation, and was struck by how he looked:
He wasn’t praying the way I remembered pious parish priests prayed. He wasn’t pious at all. I got the idea that he was simply thinking. I went back a couple of hours later and he was in the same kneeling position. I thought if there’s any such thing as pure thought, this man was doing it. Pure thought would have to be thinking about something specific, without tension or argument. With contemplation one focuses the mind on some thing or idea; with meditation one is supposed to empty the mind. That experience has stayed with me all my life.
VIII. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room
This is one of the things that I love most about “I Am Sitting in a Room.” It is a work without tension or argument that focuses the mind on one idea. It’s not about emptying the mind, but rather training it, with curiosity and without judgement, on the hidden patterns and invisible threads that connect our world. The non-judgement part is key: “To think in terms of either pessimism or optimism oversimplifies the truth,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh. “The problem is to see reality as it is.”
Lucier, whose 90th birthday last week was marked with a marathon stream of “I Am Sitting in a Room,” performed by 90 artists, came to the scene a generation after John Cage. He was particularly drawn to Cage’s preoccupation with chance operations and using the I Ching to create a “non-subjective” form of music. In Lucier’s own process, he similarly sought out “neutral procedures” that would eliminate his own “personal choices or predilections.” The mechanics of a tape being recorded, played, and re-recorded, enhanced by the tonal qualities of the room in which this is done, are out of Lucier’s control and represent reality as it is. There is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.
IX. Articulated by speech
I once listened to a recording of “I Am Sitting in a Room” while sitting in front of Bruegel’s vast ecosystem of “The Harvesters” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, turning my attention slowly from the granular detail to the landscape as a whole. One work illuminated the other. It was a moment of synchrony between the visual and the aural, two concentric cartographies.
I’ve thought about Bruegel a lot in the last year. One of the last things I did in Berlin before the first lockdown in 2020 was to go to the Gemäldegalerie to see its own large-scale work by the artist, “Netherlandish Proverbs.” More than 100 proverbs and adages are depicted in literal terms: A scattering of playing cards reminds us that everything is up to chance (“It depends on the fall of the cards”). A man attempts, and fails to, sear a herring, indicating that not everything goes according to plan (“The herring doesn’t fry here”). Another man bangs his head against a brick wall (this one is pretty self-explanatory).
An alternative name for “Netherlandish Proverbs” is “The Topsy Turvy World,” which felt like its own metaphor for the months that stretched ahead. At first, watching the caseloads spike in the US, it felt like a stroke of dumb luck to be in Germany, a country that had kept its case numbers relatively low throughout the summer. But I was still prepared for the worst-case scenario. I pointedly moved away from people on the subway whose masks didn’t cover their noses and fought with cab drivers who flat-out refused to wear one. I developed a new routine of showering first thing every time I came home, afraid of what I may have tracked in.
And then, among a series of milquetoast lockdowns, I watched as the first vaccines were administered in Germany at a glacial pace. A new presidential administration in the United States had set more aggressive deadlines for doses administered, moving priority groups along. Many states were ahead of schedule. By March, I would have qualified to book an appointment in New York. Meanwhile, in Berlin, we were stuck on a cyclical calendar that seemed to revolve around the same priority groups and the request that the rest of us wait until we receive an official invitation in the mail. All of this changed last month when Germany allowed physicians to begin administering doses to their patients. I expected that this would still result in a long wait time, and was therefore pleasantly surprised when I called my own GP, who had in part been treating me for asthma, and was scheduled for my first jab the following week.
X. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact
“If you feel anything, you must say so,” my doctor told me before ushering me into the waiting room, where I was instructed to sit for 15 minutes post-vaccination for monitoring.
This had seemed like a momentous occasion. I watched friends on social media plan outfits for their two vaccine appointments. New Yorkers had the option of getting their vaccine at a walk-in clinic directly under the giant blue whale suspended from the ceiling of the Museum of Natural History. If you were getting or administering vaccines on a certain day and time at Berkshire Community College, you may have been treated to an impromptu Yo-Yo Ma recital.
Here, however, it was just me and three other patients—the maximum that my doctor would allow into the office at a time. I didn’t feel the needle go in or come out and my physician was not there to be sentimental. It was, by definition, a completely neutral process. I decided, then, to cue up “I Am Sitting in a Room” as my own way of marking the moment.
Over the first few loops, I could hear two of my fellow patients speaking to one another from across the room. Just a few feet away, the front desk’s fax machine spat out paper with a dot-matrix cadence; metal filing cabinets screeched open and shut. The man sitting across from me mumbled something into his phone, his Arabic double-helixing with Lucier’s gentle, New English rasping of: “with perhaps the exception of rhythm.” Throughout all of this, I also had one ear on alert in case my name was called, and another part of my focus trained on whether or not I felt any side effects.
This wasn’t a moment of marking something as over; this was adding more chaotic fuel to a topsy turvy fire.
XI. But more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have
Which was, in hindsight, exactly what I should have expected. As poetic as the idea may have seemed in my head, I was ultimately trying to orchestrate an experience with my own personal choices and predilections. I had come into that appointment expecting quietude—no bustle of a large center, no airport hangar-style recovery areas. My doctor’s office had, for vaccine hours, converted one of its examination rooms into a recovery room, but this meant jamming four socially-distanced chairs against more immoveable pieces of furniture—an exam table, a white metal cabinet stocked with jade-green scrubs, a sink—like Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Amid this asses-to-elbows chaos, the ceiling light (which resembled a head-on collision between Liberace and Swarovski) looked even more out of place.
Still, Lucier’s speech, marked by a natural stutter, invariably smoothed out as it continued to matryoshka in on itself and resolve into sonic dust. (Dust we once were, and to dust we shall return.) And, at a certain point, it worked in tandem with the din of the office, versus against it. The irregularities remained, but while the sound doesn’t become untangled, I was given a chance to examine those knots. I became hyper-aware of the squeaking of shoes on the parquet as one of the patients leaves, followed by another. As someone flushed the toilet in the restroom, the buzz of the office’s ancient plumbing resonated like the droning aura of Lucier’s tape in its final loops.
I hadn’t come into this appointment thinking I would leave feeling a complete and total return to normalcy. I don’t even know how much more settled I’ll feel when I get my second shot. As someone who has made an almost transcendental practice out of imagining the worst case scenario, I know that a vaccine on its own won’t do much to tame the 10,000 loops of catastrophizing and ruminating going on in my head at any given moment. But, in the face of worrying without data, here was a demonstration of a physical fact.
“Feel anything?” my doctor asked me at the end of my 15 symptom-less minutes.
“No.” It was a statement both true and false.
I left the room. ¶