Alvin Lucier Shout-Out in NYT Radiolab Feature

“I am sitting in a WNYC studio, different from the one you are in now.

A New York Times feature this week profiles Radiolab, the acclaimed experimental philosophy- and science-themed WNYC radio show hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. The show incorporates strikingly rich, layered soundscapes “to communicate big ideas.” Turns out Wes’ own beloved experimental music maestro Alvin Lucier had a part in inspiring the show’s sonic backdrop:

During my visit, Abumrad listened to a minute-long edit of this passage with Howard and Wheeler. “Do you know Alvin Lucier’s ‘Music on a Long Thin Wire’?” he asked Howard when it ended. “I’ll play it for you.” He had an idea for the sound — not a sound effect, and not music, but a “musical gesture” — to play against the dialogue. “The sound’s going to be going bruup bruup bruup,” he told Howard, advising him to take the pigeon’s point of view. “It’s moving — fhewm, fhewm — through bands, some are thick, some are thin. You know? That’s the part where it’s gonna feel very visual.” [ . . . ]

I asked Abumrad what a traditional radio producer would make of his meticulously constructed bruup bruup fhewm fhewm. “They would say it’s insane,” he said. Early on, he had to deal with “radio people” who thought he was wasting time on “artsy-fartsy namby-pampy” technical distractions. “But do you want to know why ‘Radiolab’ has worked beyond public radio?” he asked. “Because it sounds like life. You watch TV, and someone has labored over the feel. Look at ‘Mad Men’ or ‘The Sopranos’: the mood, the pacing, the richness of it, comes from those fine, quote-unquote technical choices.”

For the uninitiated, “Music on a Long Thin Wire” is a brilliant 1977 Lucier sound piece incorporating a wire, amplifier terminal, sine wave oscillator, and magnet, described as “supermusic” creating ‘”nodal shifts, echo trains, noisy overdrivings,’ and a variety of other sonic phenomena” that one can watch while hearing. (Sorry if that’s not coherent: just read about it here.)

You can hear Radiolab’s processed use of “Music on a Long Thin Wire” here, along with other odd sound effects used on the show. (Click on “Pigeon Navigation.”) For more on Radiolab, click here; for more on Lucier and his 40 years shaping experimental music at Wesleyan, click here. Props to whoever copyedited that headline.


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