Alvin Lucier seems to think along different planes than most people, and whereas many composers are thought of as having redefined the boundaries of music as an aesthetic abstraction, Lucier's works continually redefine music as an acoustical phenomenon. A cursory survey of his output sees him as a kind of musical mad scientist; a deeper reading reveals an intriguing mind that gracefully, carefully, and convincingly combines music with physics, design, electrical engineering, psychology, and performance art. His experiments don't find their validation in the conceptual world, but in the physical one, creating for the listener an experience that is both intellectually challenging and viscerally engaging. Joan la Barbara calls it "supermusic."
So from the same composer who once wrote a piece for an ensemble consisting of oboe, chest of drawers, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, came in 1977 a composition for a single piece of wire. Lucier originally used three- to four-foot-long wires, but gradually lengthened them over the course of several performances. "A short length of wire," said the composer, "would look like a laboratory experiment, but if you thought of it as a sound sculpture, your imagination could take that wire down the length of the room." Commissioned by the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, the "score" instructs the performer to stretch the wire across the length of the performance space, tensioning it over bridges at either end. Both ends of the wire are connected to the output of an amplifier, which drives the wire with a sine wave oscillator. A magnet is placed so that the wire runs between its poles. When the wire is electrified, the current running through it interacts with the magnetic field lateral to it. Microphones connected to the bridges pick up the vibrations, which are amplified. The performer controls the power going through the wire, "producing nodal shifts, echo trains, noisy overdrivings," and a variety of other sonic phenomena.
According to the composer, the idea behind this piece is "an interest in the poetry of what we used to think of as science." He further explains: "I always thought that the world was divided into two kinds of people, poets and practical people, and that while the practical people ran the world, poets had visions about it.... Now I realize that there is no difference between science and art." Accordingly, a full grasp of the rather complicated electroacoustic processes going on isn't essential to "understanding" the piece; in fact, Lucier often goes to great lengths to build some sort of explanation of the piece into the piece itself. The text of his famous I Am Sitting in a Room is made up entirely of a rundown of the acoustical transformations that the spoken text will undergo over the course of the piece. A fascinatingly self-referential aspect of Music on a Long Thin Wire is that the listener can watch the sound as he listens to it. The performer is instructed to "light the wire so that the modes of vibration are visible to the viewers." Thus, as different frequencies and amplitudes are passed through the wire, the same waveforms that strike our ears appear right in front of our eyes.