The Poet Singers

Andrei Tarkovsky,  Solaris  (still), 1972.

Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris (still), 1972.

A speculative writing in-progress between Marfa and Reykjavík (with appearances by Ingólfur Arnarsson, Donald Judd, Alvin Lucier, Eileen Myles, and Pauline Oliveros).


I’m in Reykjavík, sitting in a room, anchored in the north Atlantic sea. Down the street I can visit the fissure between the Eurasian and North American plates. The geology is recoiling, a work-in-progress—we’re moving out here. A digital representation of my voice is being transduced from a matrix of ones and zeros stored on a computer. These computer sounds are vibrating up and down a radio transmitter’s antenna—my words as electrons. Over a pirate radio station (107.1 FM), these radio waves, my voice, exits an exhibition space at Listaháskóli Íslands (the Iceland University of the Arts). At the speed of light, they travel across the road Sæbraut, to the Skarfabakki Pier, across a portion of Kollafjörður Bay, finally—reaching the island Viðey. To make the 3.5 kilometer trip, it takes the radio waves a fraction of a second, a short echo. Perhaps, the composer Pauline Oliveros would talk about this journey as a kind of computational latency—time delays resulting from the transmission of data. Oliveros says, “…our reality is latency…the brain tricks us into thinking it’s present, but it’s not—it’s half a second in the past. We’re dealing with latency all the time.”[1]


I’m bouncing in the back of a pickup truck with the artist James Fei. The stage seems like the Tarkovsky classic film Solaris (1972)—motionless, mysterious, uncomfortable. We are not on Solaris though, we are in Far West Texas, Marfa. “Embrace the noise,” I tell James. “We can’t,” he replies. James is nervous about the electromagnetic signals that will come from the power lines. James explains to me that sferics—electromagnetic storms in the ionosphere—happen in the same frequency range of sound, between 500hz and 15,000hz. Sferics are not sound though, they are magnetic vibrations that can be made audible using the right antenna, amplifier, and filter. In the back of this pickup truck, I feel connected to a NASA-funded effort to make contact with extraterrestrial life. We’re not working for some covert operation: we are working for the composer Alvin Lucier. It’s the first year of Marfa Sounding—a project that makes connections between music, architectural space, and land use.


Between the source of the sound and the reflective surface.[2] The art historian Miwon Kwon writes, “it’s not a matter of choosing sides … between the ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ places … we need to be able to think … of … our contradictory desires for them together, at once.”[3] Reykjavík, Iceland to Marfa, Texas is 6,629 kilometers apart—0.022 seconds at the speed of light.


I’m sitting in one of those small Fort Russell utility buildings in Marfa. It’s Memorial Day weekend, 2016. The Icelandic artist Ingólfur Arnarsson draws noise. We are looking at it. In 1992 the artist Donald Judd invited Arnarsson to Marfa to install a series of 36 graphite drawings that unfold like a score composed by Morton Feldman. The symmetry in each drawing is ever so slightly different. Tomorrow at Mimms Ranch Alvin Lucier will premier a new site-specific composition for the cellist Charles Curtis called, “I Remember Morty.” It’s a commemorative piece inspired by a story Feldman told Alvin: “He said he was sitting on the beach in Far Rockaway, Long Island, and he heard wisps of sound, fragments of conversation, and sounds of transistor radios drawn by the wind.”[4] About a year after this premier, I was talking to my new friend Indra at the Reykjavík-based art space, Mengi. Out of the blue, I expressed my admiration for Ingólfur Arnarsson’s exhibition in Marfa. “Do you know this artist,” I asked Indra. She responded with laughter, “Ingólfur Arnarsson is my husband.” 


I’m back on the island Viðey. Today, Yoko Ono lit her outdoor work, Imagine Peace. The light bulb produces a tower so big that one can see it anywhere in Reykjavík at night. Eleven hours ago Ono tweeted, “Art is a concept. Once it’s in your memory, no one can destroy it.” Yesterday in Marfa, Solange performed her work “Scales” among Judd’s “15 Untitled Works in Concrete.” Rewind fifty years and a reader of the New York Times would find a news item by Pauline Oliveros. She asks: “Why have there been no ‘great’ women composers?”[5] I wonder what Oliveros thought of Solange. I wonder what bell hooks thinks of Solange. I wonder if Oliveros thought about Alvin Lucier’s Sferics as a site on the margins.[6]


Alvin Lucier always talks about Pauline Oliveros. In the late 60s, they zigzagged the La Jolla landscape exploring natural radio frequencies as a kind of real-time performance. Oliveros wrote, 

“I remained hooked on the idea, which seemed to me very poetic: to make an inaudible phenomenon audible, and to reveal and transform that phenomena through artistic intention. How exciting it would have been to actually hear such a powerful natural force as lightning bouncing between earth and the mysterious invisible barrier ionosphere. Since we didn’t, the actual result of the performance was not successful, but the intent was lively and imaginative.”[7]

There’s a new hotel in Marfa called Saint George. When the train passes through Highland Street, the decorations inside vibrate. I watched Alvin notice this as he explained his piece Sferics. Alvin found a how-to book on radio energy, light and sound. One chapter is on antenna building. He called the atmospheric lab in Colorado and asked, “how do I get stereo? Do I put one antenna facing the North Pole and one facing the South Pole?” The answer Alvin received: “Sir, we don’t deal with stereo.”  


“I remember Donald Judd talking about this,” Ingólfur says. We are sitting in a hotel bar in Reykjavík called Holt. We look at paintings by Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval and discuss how the artist Dieter Roth used to bring Ingólfur’s studio class here for dinner; how the artists Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman gave a controversial Fluxus performance here in the beginning of the 60s; how pizza didn’t arrive to the island until the mid-70s.[8] “I remember Judd talking about the similarities between West Texas and Iceland,” says Ingólfur. “Judd would talk about the low bushy vegetation; the similarities between the sense of scale and space.” While the Fluxus-inspired SÓM collective challenged Félag Íslenskra Myndlistamanna (the Union for Icelandic Visual Arts), Judd explored the island with his children. The family traced the Icelandic Laxdæla Saga, set in Breiðafjörður out west, and visited landmarks written in the text. 


I’m talking about the sunshine state with Alvin Lucier. All of a sudden he paused, looked me dead in the eyes and said, "Erik, don’t write music that’s too busy. If you do, the performer won’t be able to listen." That same day I gave a workshop for high school band students in Marfa. They performed Pauline Oliveros’s “Sonic Mediation” scores. The students latched onto the idea that music could make them aware of the quotidian flow of everyday life. Oliveros wrote, “it’s not enough just to play the right notes at the right time in the right way; one must also have the right consciousness. This places the performer in the role of explorer of the interior.”[9]


Donald Judd was invited to Iceland by Nýlistasafnið (the Living Arts Museum) in 1987. He showed his wall works made of aluminum and plywood. The two other artists in the show were the walking sculptor Richard Long and the conceptual artistKristján Guðmundsson. At Marfa Sounding, the cellist Charles Curtis played Éliane Radigue’s “Naldjorlak” in the Chamberlain Building. Just a mile down Route 67, Richard Long’s “Sea Lava Circles” sits on a concrete platform. The city of Reykjavík wanted to buy these circles but it was too expensive. Judd bought them. These rocks of volcanic change from Iceland are now in Marfa, sitting on an old tennis court. Ingólfur explained to me that the Icelandic word for stupid, heimskur, includes a reference to the word home, heima.


We’re sitting in a tiny DIY anechoic chamber—a grass-roofed Kirkja (church). We are approaching the end of a five-hour opera called “Einfaldsóður” written by our buddy Steinni. The tenor in the opera sings with Kvæðamannafélagið Iðunn (Rímur Society). He’s a poet singer. Kvæðamaðurmeans to sing. This style of Icelandic poet singing was about escapism—a fourteenth century leisure activity. Each sung poem usually starts with mansöngur, or whatSteinni calls “the blog.” Perhaps mansöngur was an early kind of field recording about the here-and-now—who left their trash out last night, town gossip with meter, rhythm, and melody—a kind of local radio. Rímnaskáld is someone who writes poetry for singing. Hagyrðingur is a person who writes poetry for singing really fast. Að draga seiminn is to help a singing poet breath by completing their line. Hestavísur is horse poetry. Ólína Andrésdóttir from Flatey wrote a famous siglingavísur (sailing poetry) called “Breiðfirðingavísur. ”Kveða is to come up with a poem and perform it. This takes courage.[10] Singing poets are like radio transmitters.[11]


There is a pair of basalt pillars on the northern part of the island Viðey. The stones belong to a site-specific work called Áfangar by the artist Richard Serra. Above all, it’s an ecotourism destination. Alvin Lucier testified at Serra’s famous Tilted Arc trial in the mid-80s. He provided evidence that the site of Tilted Arc had optimal acoustics for music performance.[12] Skipping ahead, in a public conversation held in the bar of Hotel Saint George in Marfa, Alvin explained, 

“I didn’t know much about what I was doing. I drove up a mountain road. Set up my two antennas. Put one in one direction and the other in another to get stereo. I plugged them into my Sony cassette player. Put on my headphones. And low and behold, there were these wonderful tweaks and bonks—that’s what scientists call them. I recorded all night long.” 

Certain sferics get caught on magnetic flux lines and produce whistlers—downward-gliding signals.[13] Sferics are always happening—right now, they are there—in-progress, gliding. This is what Alvin Lucier does. He taps into things that are happening. This is what Pauline Oliveros does. She taps into things that are happening. They work in-progress. 


Donald Judd would have become a sound artist—something like an Icelandic poet singer. As a sound artist, Judd would have augmented his “100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum” with a multi-channel sound installation that sonifies the boxes glacial movement with the weather. This project would have been a critique of the Anthropocene. Judd would have become interested in sound recording and editing technology to tell stories about sonic booms and nuclear waste. He would have played his sonic ethnographies on Marfa Public Radio. He would have worked with scientists to fabricate new sensors for peering into untold stories of political power. Through sound, Judd would have found something pure, unknown; something different; something truly avant-garde.[14]


Flökkufolk (a nomadic person).


The following is a short email correspondence between Alvin Lucier and me: 

[Alvin writes] Dear Erik, Where are you? If you happen to be in or near or even plan to be in Florida in the near future would you like to help me in an underwater project? Please let me know. 

[I respond] Hi Alvin, I'm in Seyðisfjörður, which is a small town in east Iceland. I’m working on community radio here with the lungA School. I will be in Florida in April. Let me know what you are thinking!

[Alvin writes] Dear Erik, If I mailed you one of my precious Sondols would you like to try waterproofing it and swim with a dolphin or two in an attempt to discover whether or not they recognize it as something close to their echolocation language?

In 1969 Alvin wrote the prose score Vespers.[15] Blindfolded performers are asked to echolocate in a space. They use Sondols—hand-held units that emitshort, sharp pulses of sound. The pulses echo off surfaces. Each echo reveals a little detail of the space; an acoustic photograph that is comprised of many little pixels of sound echoes. During Marfa SoundingVespers was performed in the sunshine at the outdoor Mimms Ranch desert amphitheater. This happened on Sunday May 29th2016 at around 5PM EST. Me, Alvin, and the four performers[16] agreed that the work would end when everyone made their way to the center of the amphitheater. About twenty-three minutes into the piece, one of the performers got lost in the brush. Something like Brechtian theater: Alvin whispers, “what should we do?” I reply, “I think we should go get her.” I slowly walked to the lost performer and guided her back to the amphitheater. Vespers ended and the audience clapped. 


“An encounter with a ‘wrong place’ is likely to expose the instability of the ‘right place,’ and by extension the instability of the self.”[17] The ionosphere is a site on the margins but it doesn’t resist—it’s more like a “gravel pit of hope.”[18] I wonder what Judd would have thought about Solange’s performance in Marfa. Eileen Myles explained to me that Roni Horn’s Library of Water in Stykkishólmur is like a big sad aquarium. They also wrote, “It’s like if America still looked like the Hudson River Valley and painters from all over the world kept coming to paint it … It’s not like I can’t understand why the art stars want to make monuments in Iceland.”[19]


As a sound artist, Donald Judd would have made audible stacks. He would have turned the heat-crackling metal roof of the Chamberlain Building into a dialogue of untold West Texas histories. He would have made heuristic audio documenting the U.S./Mexican border. He would have used the deteriorating adobe wall around his house in Marfa as a symbol for renouncing his avoidance of discussing his politics of power. Judd, like Pauline Oliveros, would have started using networked technologies, like telematics, to perform sound art over the Internet to raise awareness of net neutrality. He would have collaborated with the Icelandic singer Björk on an outdoor sound performance about NASA’s presence in Iceland. This new work would have been featured in the philosopher Timothy Morton’s 2018 exhibition at Ballroom Marfa. 


Alvin Lucier is a poet singer. Pauline Oliveros is a poet singer. Eileen Myles is definitely a poet singer. And perhaps, wherever he is, Donald Judd is now a poet singer. 


I’m sitting on a wooden bench in Maine with Myles. They say, “futurity is ok …Marfa and Iceland are very related. Right? The topography, the obscurity, the cultural hotness … the scale of these two places moves me in some way.” In Eileen’s book, On the Importance of Being Iceland, they say, “I’m writing now and I’ve always been writing this book … the motive for collecting, for writing, is to show the entire approach.”[20] “Eileen,” I say, “this is what connects the composers Alvin Lucier and Pauline Oliveros. In their work, like yours, it feels like it’s happening right now, in-progress—like sferics. All the materials, methods, and intentions are there.” “Right”, Eileen replies, “Buddhists always use the word intention … you don’t get there, you don’t get it, there is no it, you just see what there is."


[1] Jason Robinson, “The Networked Body: Physicality, Embodiment, and Latency in Multi-Site Performance,” in Negotiated Moments: Improvisation, Sound, and Subjectivity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016): 91–112. 

[2] Alvin Lucier, “Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas” in Chambers, (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1980): 127–144.

[3] Miwon Kwon, “The Wrong Place,” Art Journal 59, no. 1 (Spring, 2000): 35–36.

[4] Alvin Lucier, “I Remember Morty,” Unpublished Musical Score (Marfa Sounding, 2016).

[5] Pauline Oliveros, “And Don’t Call Them ‘Lady’ Composers,” The New York Times (New York, NY), Sep. 13, 1970.

[6] bell hooks, “Marginality as site of resistance” in Out there: marginalization and contemporary cultures, Ed. Ferguson, Gever, Minh-ha, West (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1990), 341–343.

[7] Pauline Oliveros, “Alvin Lucier” in Software For People (Baltimore: Smith Publications, 1984), 192.

[8] Pizza arrived to Iceland fifteen years after Fluxus.

[9] Oliveros, Software, 191–192.

[10] Eileen Myles, The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2009), 49.

[11] Hreinn Steingrímsson, Kvæðaskapur: Icelandic Epic Song (Reykjavik, Iceland: Mál og Mynd, 2000).

[12] Robert Storr, “Tilted Arc: Enemy of the People?” Art in America, September 1965, 9.

[13] Alvin Lucier, “Sferics” (Vinyl, LP) Lovely Music, Ltd. 1988.

[14] Kwon, “The Wrong Place,” 42-43.

"The Poet Singers: a speculative writing in-progress between Marfa and Reykjavík (with appearances by Ingólfur Arnarsson, Donald Judd, Alvin Lucier, Eileen Myles, and Pauline Oliveros)," 2018. Copyright of the author.