Susan Philipsz & Artangel
City of London 3-1-11
With the rest of the family with flu, I spent a bank holiday walking around the city of London, with barely a human on the street. Whole blocks were deserted. No shops open, no stockbrokers. It felt like a 1980s Sunday or a tidier 28 Days Later, however, this was no mere dérive, I had a purpose. I was to meet folk singer friend Jo, and we were to visit six outdoor locations to evaluate madrigals and other Elizabethan pieces broadcasted from loudspeakers at specific sites around London’s financial district. This of course was an artist’s intervention – Turner Prize winner Susan Philipsz’ Surround Me, produced by Artangel. Jo and I thought that together we’d work at complementing each others’ perspectives – I was to provide an artist’s view; she, a singer-of-songs ear.
I also wanted to take a camera phone picture at each location and see if any themes emerged visually, in a tour within a tour. I will show you some of the images here and you can decide for yourself!
Philipsz arranged this ‘song cycle’ in a rough circle around the Royal Exchange at Bank, approximating the boundary of the old city of London from Moorgate to London Bridge. You could walk it as a circle, or even as spokes of a wheel – but I guess most people would walk it with the shortest destination between each ‘station.’ The Thames is the final ‘destination’ in the project (if you follow the pieces sequentially) and themes of water – both as tears – and as the pulse of the city, pervade the sonic journey. Whilst that wasn’t initially obvious to me, as you progressed on the walk you felt yourself getting closer and closer to the river (if you knew your London). It did feel like you were trickling down a watery journey, or perhaps even a watery grave.
I’m no stranger to artist’s tours that work with sound recordings, I’ve made three. One of them, ‘Polyfaith’ was a web/bus tour in Edinburgh, where audiences were challenged about what they are seeing as tourists, using the techniques of ‘paraedolia’ and ‘simulacratic forms’. Then followed “Select Avocados” (an anagram of Advocates’ Close) again in Edinburgh, where derelict specimens such as smashed windows were appropriated, authored and evaluated as art. Finally, there was “Surreal Steyning” in which an entire Sussex village is given the similar treatment (and on a decent budget!). The audio in my tours is either spoken by me live or on downloadable mp3 files. So I was quite interested in experiencing a more music-centric / sound centric piece with big loudspeakers. I’d made a special pilgrimage to this tour as it was the last day of the work being exhibited and I was ecstatic a sound art piece had won the Turner Prize, despite not knowing the artist’s work terribly well.
I love what little I’ve experienced of Artangel’s projects and on the big day (it was a big day – all my physical excursions need planning due to constant exhaustion) I was excited, feverishly trying to find location number one. For someone who is supposed to be a kind of psychogeographer, I started the day fumbling with maps and going in the wrong direction. Maybe that is psychogeography in and of itself.
Artangel are great producers of psycho-spatial experiences but these damn printouts – the maps downloaded from the website, were clumsy and missed off many street names. Given the benefit of doubt, I think they may have been deliberately vague – forcing the audience to seek, stop and listen, then move on a bit – and sense if you were getting closer. A bit like an sonic sniffer dog. This bit was actually quite fun. It was obvious when you ‘arrived’ at a location as you could hear distant ghostly voices, and even when you couldn’t find the loudspeakers, you knew you were on the right track as there was always a small crowd ahead of you. As is often the case with this sort of thing, you could tell from the demographic of the gatherers that art was close by!
I arrived at number one, “Weep, O Mine Eyes” – at Moorfields ‘Highwalk’ not far from Moorgate Tube and found myself in a fairly dilapidated concrete courtyard. Any sounds of singing had ceased and a few bon vivant art kids were loudly chatting in the centre. Thankfully, they got bored and left leaving me wandering around in peace. Jo was coming in an hour. So I had chance to really drink this one in and also walk all around the neighboring streets and soulless plazas.
“Weep, O Mine Eyes” was written by John Bennet (c.1575 – after 1614), a composer of the “English madrigal school.” This piece is a homage to composer John Dowland who is also the composer Philipsz used in some of the other treats to come.
The first thing that went through my head when I spied the four speakers cornering this dated quadrangle was nuclear war. I think the choice to see the source of the sounds, these black iconic Tannoys (I would have preferred them to be hidden in some ways) was deliberate. They weren’t pretty – just utilitarian loudspeakers. The pauses between the song (about five minutes) gave a genuine sense of anticipation. I drifted off, thinking of the Muslim call to prayer and thoughts of Mao’s China came to me as I photographed concrete.
The four-part harmony kicked in:
WEEP, O MINE EYES, AND CEASE NOT ALAS,
THESE YOUR SPRING TIDES ME THINKS
O WHEN BEGIN YOU TO SWELL SO HIGH
THAT I MAY DROWN ME IN YOU?
THAT I MAY DROWN ME IN YOU?
(Note: The exact phrasing on Artangel’s website differs slightly from what ended up on the sign below)
The rough playing field of research I am currently pursuing is examining an artist’s life with M.E. or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome as it is inaccurately known. One of the quirks of having M.E. is a struggle with ‘continuity of thought.’ One of the symptoms, in myself, is frequently getting word-order wrong, or in an idiosyncratic pattern and sometimes even accidentally fusing words together. After listening to the piece in situ, I had to read the above text several times over and come up with a less poetic translation so that I understood the song, so I wrote down in my notebook:
EYES, DO NOT STOP CRYING
THEN MY TEARS WILL INCREASE THE SPRING TIDES
HIGH ENOUGH TO DROWN MYSELF IN THEM
WHEN WILL THIS FINALLY HAPPEN?
Because of this word-order thing, I find I can relate to the song. Bennett’s original words written down in their formal poetic form, now suddenly feel personal when accompanied by their audible romantic and dramatic melancholy which always ticks my boxes. I mention this only because I found most of Philipsz’s actual installations quite cold. Not necessarily a bad thing either, there was a general vacant and cold dystopian air about the whole day. It was also literally freezing and I was wearing inadequate clothing. I warmed up in the tube and waited for Jo to arrive.
It’s not everyday you get to experience an outdoor quadraphonic song, and so when Jo came we both stood in the middle of the quadrangle and perused each speaker.
Straightaway Jo asks me “Is it meant to be out of sync?” I reply “Is it not in sync? I mean, I can hear a delay between the first weep out of two speakers and then the others follow.”
I stop and listen. I’ve worked a lot with sound recording so I’m quite good at finding faults, but it’s interesting, I thought it was intentional. On reflection, if Philpsz finds it difficult to sing, she may be listening for the root note in order to harmonise with it on the recording.
“No,” says Jo “It’s really slack, I think it’s too loose. I sing this with a friend. Is she actually a singer, this artist?”
“She’s an artist singing. I think there were a few people who didn’t like her getting the Turner as it is basically singing – she won the Turner with a video piece as well I think but for me, it’s more than that, the context and the way I’m getting the song delivered and how I can walk around it.”
“Well,” I added, “I like the fact that this squeaky escalator near the entrance to the square, can be heard quite clearly if you stand near the first speaker. I like these two things together, it’s like it’s making a piece of music in my head. And I suppose that the piece sounds very different from other angles. Do you want to go to the next one?”
I think Jo had found the piece impersonal and badly sung and I can see it from a singer’s point of view. But I asked her if she thought that maybe having a non-trained voice singing it, did it not make the piece more democratic?
“I don’t see why it can’t be both. We’ve come out to listen to music – I think it doesn’t do the pieces justice”
“But have we really come out to listen to music? It’s not really stand-alone music is it? perhaps if it was a really polished voice, you’d be judging the sound only… Maybe by it being an untrained voice you examine the sound as a component of the rest of the piece”
“The rest of the piece being, the visual aspect of it you mean?”
“Yes, and I suppose the other element is time and walking, so there’s almost a cinematic effect going on – except that we are inside the cinema and it has multiple angles. There didn’t seem to be just one point of view at the first one.”
As we went round the entire show, it was important to us that we saw every single piece in the series. Artangel’s website suggested that you could get to all the pieces within an hour. Well, we were nowhere near that figure! And I’ll not speak about many of the rest of the pieces, because the basic form of the first piece was pretty much replicated on each other vocal exhibit… except one, which sounded like a kind of small instrumental chamber piece, which was definitely my favorite of the entire day.
Lachrimae or Seaven Teares, John Dowland, 1604
This was an instrumental piece at quite an interesting junction that felt neither pedestrianised nor appropriate for much traffic – and it was the longest piece at a running time of 36 minutes, unlike the rest of the works, some of which were only a minute or two long. Not that duration automatically equals depth, but the nature of the sounds (a violin-like instrument) and the reflective glass everywhere made for quite an interesting environmental meditation. You couldn’t not feel immersed by the seven channels of sound.
Also, the issues of whether we were listening to music or a musician or whether Philipsz is a talented enough ear to be working in this field were dissipated by these apparently random sustained notes, sometimes colliding beautifully together and sometimes the sonic clusters faded and almost dodged each other.
There was a nagging feeling that none of this was particularly new. It sounded very much like generative music, where the rules of the composition are to define some sort of scale and sonic rulebook – and then say that timing and placement of notes is almost arbitrary – patterns will naturally emerge within the composition and a “feel” will pervade the piece. And it did.
Not being terribly au fait with 17th century composition, I can’t say how much of this piece was similar to Dowland’s song, of which this is one of several instrumental versions. The seven ‘tears’ are given a loudspeaker each here and the effect is a shimmering series of sustained ‘organic’ drones bouncing off the clinical backdrops. (Note: I was slightly disappointed that the aesthetics of this chosen loudspeaker were different to the other ones in the tour, these seemed more audiophile-like – and they felt a little more discreet, but they didn’t match the ‘set’ – forgive me for being a pedant, but I figure that if you want to be taken seriously for not being a singer, and an installation artist, surely the devil is in the detail? – Audiophiles would say that these units were suited to the appropriate sound so maybe I am being pedantic!)
Anyway, these thoughts do not detract from the efficacy of the piece, it would have been fine for it to be a solo exhibit within it’s own right, and it was presented roughly half way into the walk. The seven channel piece did give a sense of falling, or descending. I would have preferred the speakers to be a little wider apart to take advantage of the geography, but I guess doing public sound installations (which were displayed only on the weekend due to work issues) are filled with loads of metropolitan red-tape and politics.
But we needed to tick boxes. And I think that “ticking boxes” or “bagging” the exhibits detracted slightly from the ability to spend longer periods of time in each piece. I have the kind of all-or-nothing mentality with this kind of art that we MUST complete the tour.
In retrospect, it was brilliant to share the walk with a friend but I wonder if this kind of experience is somehow better as a solo walk?
We finished the tour and spent a long time at the last installation under London Bridge which was a terrific location for another Dowland piece, Flow My Tears, this time sung by Philipsz. There was an interesting effect at this location, which was that the speaker was hidden, and the words were not completely audible, as it battled slightly with the Thames and the wind. And for the first time, I really studied that iconic river and decided the theme and point of the day was ‘accumulation’ – of both tiny drops and sonic eddies that become raging bodies of water, furious and powerful, but also that Philipsz’ installations had a sum-of-their-parts amplification by the end.