The Queen of the South Returns: Alvin Lucier March 15, 1973

Last spring I reviewed Alvin Lucier’s ‘The Queen of the South,’ in which a metal plate about four feet by four feet was vibrated by amplified voices, gradually jiggling sand into beautiful designs. The piece has grown quite a bit since that time. The presentation at the Kitchen on March 5 lasted two hours instead of 30 minutes, and involved three vibrating plates instead of one. Sheets of wood, plastic, and metal were stimulated by purely electronic sounds, and several colors of sand, along with other ingredients such as coffee grounds, grain, and purple Tang, were used to create the visual patterns. Six television monitors projected the images, but most of the audience preferred to move around from one section of the room to another to view the patterns directly.

Two musicians operated sound equipment at each of the sheets. The sounds tended to be sustained, and the musicians adjusted them quite delicately as they searched for frequencies which would vibrate the sheets most effectively.

It may seem odd that a group of people would spend two hours watching minute particles vibrate and listening to the sounds that vibrate them, but there is an odd attraction to this symbolic activity, and most of the audience stayed until the very end. For me, the strongest association is with Navajo sand painting. But instead of a medicine man, the laws of physics are in charge of the mysterious rites. Lucier told me at the end of the evening that his own strongest association is with alchemy and that ‘The Queen of the South’ is an alchemical term.

He was attracted to the idea because of an appreciation for basic substances and for the mystery of how they interact with one another. Those with scientific backgrounds or with backgrounds in the visual arts would probably have made other associations.

The sounds were quite interesting in their own right, and it seemed like a rare opportunity to be able to watch these sounds as the many beautiful designs took form on the sheets. I felt I was getting a clue to the mysteries of the laws of the cosmos. What more can one ask of a work of art?