Alvin Lucier: Clocker

for amplified clock, performer with galvanic skin response sensor and digital delay system



I first got the idea for Clocker in 1978. I wanted to make a work in which a performer could speed up and slow down time, stopping it, if possible, simply by thinking. I bought a Westclox Silver Bell Monogram in a local store and ordered a galvanic skin response sensor (GSR) through the Edmund Scientific Catalogue. A GSR is designed to measure differences in skin resistance caused by changes in emotional state. A small current is sent through the body, the response to which is amplified, producing an output voltage which can be used to control various devices.

I miked the clock with an AKG contact microphone and routed the ticks through a digital delay system, controlling the delay time with the output voltage from the GSR. As I sat quietly with electrodes taped to my fingers, changes in skin resistance produced corresponding changes in voltage causing the ticks of the clock to slow down and speed up. Clocker was first performed at the Real and Imaginary Spaces series at The Kitchen in New York on April 7, 1978. It received a few subsequent performances in the United States and Europe but because of the relatively low sound quality of the delay -- it was an early prototype -- I abandoned the work.

In 1987, Nicolas Collins, who had helped me record some study versions for Clocker several years earlier, called with information about a new digital delay system that he thought would suit my needs -- a Digitech RDS 7.6 with a continuously variable voltage control input. He procured a unit for me and we performed a new version of Clocker at the L’oeil de Poisson gallery in Quebec City on March 17, 1988. With this new equipment, the sounds of the delayed clock now matched those of the original, creating clear copies and with them a more convincing illusion of time expanding and contracting. Later I added a bank of fixed delays which, as the splay out from the voltage controlled delay, create multiple reflections that almost convince the listener that the room is changing in size.

During this time I was reading Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. Throughout the book I would come upon images and ideas which seemed remarkably close to those I used in this work. On page 21, for example, I came across the following: “The thing I’d like most in the to make clocks run backward...No, with thought, by concentrating until I force time to move back.” Later in the book Calvino describes “...the catoptric instruments of the seventeenth century, little theatres of various design where a figure is seen multiplied by the variations of angles between the mirrors.” He wants to reconstruct a “polydyptic theatre, in which about sixty little mirrors lining the inside of a large box transform a bough into a forest, a lead soldier into an army, a booklet into a library.” Perhaps Calvino wouldn’t have minded if I added to his list of lovely images: “A clock into a room full of clocks.”

This variation of Clocker was recorded on June 11, 1991, in the North Gallery of the Center for the Arts at Wesleyan University. The room is 20 feet square, 30-feet high and is made of Indiana limestone. Nick Collins, who supervised the recording, placed six small loudspeakers on sculpture stands at various heights around the gallery, aimed in various directions at the stone walls, in order to produce acoustic delays of slightly various lengths. As I sat still with electrodes on my fingers, Nick routed the clock ticks to the speakers in various combinations, according to a score I had made earlier that month on Nantucket Island.

In December of 1988 Clocker was exhibited as a sound installation at the Jack Tilton Gallery in New York. A philodendron was used to drive the delay system. A leaf of the plant was sandwiched between two electrodes, held in place by an insulated clip. Changes in the plant’s sensitivity to the surrounding environment caused slow voltage swings and subsequent time lags through the digital delay system.

Alvin Lucier
September 20, 1993
Middletown, Connecticut

Art Direction and Design: Nancy Foote, By Design

Recorded by Nicolas Collins.

Edited by Tom Hamilton.

Mastered by Allan Tucker at Foothill Digital, New York City.

Copyright © 1994 Alvin Lucier (BMI)
Art Direction and Design: By Design
© P 1994 Lovely Music, Ltd.