Isolation Chamber: Alvin Lucier’s Nothing Is Real

Circumstances change how we hear things. Our ears, connected to our minds, connected to our bodies, moving through the air, touching and being touched, penetrating and distancing, hear differently in different situations.

This was clear to me today as I listened to Alvin Lucier’s Nothing Is Real (1990), the first in a series of weekly free downloads offered up by Cologne’s Ensemble Musikfabrik to help us all through the Long Distancing of 2020. The late afternoon sun streaked through my open window; my children were playing in their bedroom: their laughter, through my study doorway to my right, mixed with birdsong, traffic noise – still – and the occasional train to my left. In between, from my desk, Lucier’s distillation of the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever, played by pianist Ulrich Löffler.

This charmingly, disarmingly simple piece is one of my favourite of all Lucier’s works. It is, like so much of his work, a piece about resonance and location, space and sound; its relationship to Chambers (1968) and I am Sitting in a Room (1969) is clear, but Lucier makes two capricious tweaks in Nothing Is Real to the analytical stance of these pieces. The first is the already mentioned use of John Lennon’s melody for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, attenuated by Lucier into a series of slow, monodic phrases that hover on the edge of abstraction, rather like the semi-disjointed sentences of I am Sitting in a Room. It is a credit to Lennon’s songwriting (and no doubt one reason for Lucier’s selection) that despite this rarefied state, the original song, with all its baroque psychedeliary, is present in our minds too.

The second is a humorous, theatrical gesture that is nevertheless what makes this unmistakably a Lucier piece: the addition of a china teapot into which a miniature playback device is inserted. For the first half of the piece this records the solo piano music; for the second, it plays it back, from inside the teapot, like a mystic genie, or the tannin remains of an afternoon with cake and crumpets: an image that Lennon himself would surely have enjoyed. By opening and closing the lid, the pianist can create roars and whispers and entirely new tunes out of the overtones, seemingly by magic. ‘Strawberry Fields’ is reconstructed across an entirely new, yet strangely sympathetic sonic landscape.

I am waiting for the official confirmation letter from my GP, but today I begin twelve weeks as one of the 1.5 million of the UK’s most vulnerable individuals. Twelve weeks during which I am advised not to leave my house except where absolutely essential. I’ve felt this or something like it coming for some time now, and I’ve been pre-empting the government’s advice for ten days already, since I left hospital last Friday. Until now I’ve permitted myself trips outside to run or cycle, along the Thames path only, avoiding all contact, but now it seems even these are to be avoided. I have been acclimatising myself to the new chamber that is my house: how I move through it, what I touch and don’t touch, how I connect with members of my family and the world outside, how I construct a temporary, new version of me. In these circumstances, Lucier’s piece acquires an entirely new and unforeseen set of resonances.

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