in conversation with Susan Philipsz
How does sound transform the spaces we inhabit? four by three talks to artist Susan Philipsz about her practice, sound as a form of sculpture, the politics of silence and song, vocalising forgotten histories and the ethical challenges of remembrance.
The radio-inventor Guglielmo Marconi once remarked that sounds never fade to silence but continue to echo across the universe. In a way it’s a terrifying idea, with its suggestion of being surrounded by the clamor of every utterance and noise to have occurred in the cosmos. But it also offers boundless potential. If everything has a trace then it can be remembered, re-interpreted and heard, no matter how forgotten it might otherwise be. The scope for capturing these sounds, and retrieving hidden moments, becomes endless.
Marconi’s remark is just one of many past sounds to have interested the artist Susan Philipsz. Re-appropriating songs rich in historical meaning, Philipsz creates immersive sound installations that transform our experience of the spaces they occupy. Using recordings of herself singing or instrumental performances, her work alters our perception of public institutions by playing often private and emotionally charged songs within them. Although an interest in history and memory has been present throughout her practice, over the past few years her work has turned to explore major collective events. Her recent show at Tate Britain, War Damaged Musical Instruments (2015), examined the ethical challenges brought up by remembrance and war, whilst her earlier exhibition, We Shall Be All (2011) at The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, evoked the political legacy of the Haymarket Affair, in which numerous people on strike were killed by the authorities.
We spoke to Susan about the relationship between sound and sculpture in her practice, the power of the human voice and the subversive potentials of song.
You’ve often described your practice as a form of sculpture, using sounds played from speakers to transform our physical and historical experience of the spaces in which they are installed. What first drew you to using sound, and in particular re-appropriating songs, in your work? In what sense is it sculptural?
Susan Philipsz: I’m interested in the way sound can define space. It’s a medium that doesn’t manipulate or change space in a physical way but it can change your perception of it. I think that is the best way to describe it. When I was studying in Dundee I used to make solid physical sculptures, wax sculptures that explored inner body space. I became aware of the movements of my own inner body space especially when I was singing; the physicality of breathing, the way the diaphragm moves to expel breadth from your lungs when you sing. I also began to think about the physicality of projecting my voice out into a space and filling that space with sound, the relationship between sound and architecture. You become aware of how sound relates to the architecture and that can draw your attention to its physical characteristics, how sound can define distance or how sound can cut through space. It’s sculptural in that sense. It was during my MA in Belfast that I began to record my own voice and then I looked for inspiration in music that I was familiar with, from a time when it really meant something to me. As a teenager growing up in a small house with other siblings it was hard to find your own space and listening to records alone in my room was something I did a lot then. I could spend hours every night listening to them and trying to find meaning in the lyrics and to find something that I could identify with. Thinking about it, I go back to the small room where I listened to records a lot. It was my retreat from the world where I could lock everyone out and dance around to Cabaret Voltaire and get lost in the words of Ian Curtis and David Bowie. Now I think of songs as found objects. They have a history and taken out of context and inserted into others, like singing Radiohead in through the PA of the the supermarket, that displacement can create new meaning.
We often think of the act of listening as one in which we forget ourselves. However, your use of sound in space has the opposite effect of creating a heightened self-awareness. How do you think the act of listening relates to and creates this?
SP: When you listen to music at home or at a concert, you can get lost in the music; the idea is to take you out of the here and now and transport you to another place. That was definitely the case in my bedroom as a teenager. What I try to achieve in my installations is to become aware of the space you’re in and to become aware of yourself in that space. It’s a simultaneous experience of being with the sound but also grounded in the present. Especially when the work is placed in a gritty urban setting, you’re prevented from fully entering into a state of reverie. In Filter (1998) for instance, a work I made for a bus station in Belfast, I found the bus station to be a particularly melancholic place; it was very modern but it wasn’t used much so it had this empty feeling. And the people who were waiting there were all pretty disengaged, just waiting to be somewhere else. The songs I chose for the work were very much about escapism and longing. But hearing the lyrics of Radiohead’s Airbag sung in a plaintive way through the public address system has a disarming effect. There’s a kind of tension between the sentiment of the songs, the way I choose to sing them and the environment into which they are being played. Happening upon a sound is something I like to play with in my work. When you hear an unexpected sound your attention is immediately drawn to the place you are in and that can heighten your self-awareness. Sometimes people arrive at a site where they know that I have a work installed but because the work is only played at intervals they can just be there at the site waiting and listening. It’s funny when people recount their experiences they often describe the physical conditions at the exact time they heard the work, like they are hyper aware of everything around them at that moment in time.
The voice plays an important role in your work. However, you never give live performances where the singer (often yourself) is physically present and it is often noted that your songs sound as though they are private - not sung for or at an audience - with the result that the voice becomes haunting and spectral. Could you say a bit about what interests you in the human voice and why you employ it in that way?
SP: The voice is a very simple but powerful tool, everybody has one and it is part of their individuality, in my case it is the artist’s voice. I don’t like singing live but in my recordings the voice is stripped of any musical accompaniment and that can have a surprising effect. The resulting gaps, silences and absences where the instrumentation should be, are suddenly more apparent and you become more aware of the intimate and personal, aspects of the voice. The pauses and the breathing are all more apparent. The way I sing is also quite natural and untrained so there is the sense it could be anybody’s voice. I think that helps to connect directly with the viewer. Everyone can identify with the human voice. The timber, intonation of the unaccompanied voice, the spacing of the words and the tune can be emotive in itself. Also the disembodied voice, floating in the air, not attached to a body, makes it more spectral. Sometimes it appears to emerge from the space itself. For example at London Bridge in Surround Me (2010) I pointed the speaker towards the pier of the bridge so the sound bounced back towards the Thames walkway making it appear like the voice was coming from the middle of the river.
There is a remarkable historical sensitivity in your work and the idea of tuning in to forgotten sounds seems focal. For instance, in Surround Me (2010) you brought the sounds of Elizabethan London back into the London financial district around the Royal Exchange. What interests you in the re-evocation of these moments? Do you think that songs and sounds carry a unique ability, perhaps a historical memory, to re-evoke the past in the present?
SP: The thing that struck me most during my research for my Artangel project in London was the eerie quiet that descends on the streets of the financial district at the weekend. For most of the time this area is so full of bustle and traffic and the sounds of contemporary life. During the week there is a working population of 350,000 but that empties out to just 5,000 residents as all the traders exit the city to the surrounding boroughs at the weekend. I was also struck that the boundary of today’s City of London is in fact the boundary of the early modern city in the Elizabethan era. That brought me back to think about the origins of the early modern city and the importance of the voice in that era. You would think that without the traffic and machine noise the city would have been a quieter place but it was a cacophony of sounds, calls and cries all competing with each other. In the early modern city, the voice had a much stronger role as an acoustic marker of civic space, the traders knew how to project their voices and the narrow streets helped to channel that sound. The acoustics of London’s streets made the voice much more audible over longer distances. To be heard over one another a natural order and harmony evolved in the cries of the street traders and that was quite musical. What I did in my work was immerse myself in this era and reintroduce the voice, my own voice, into the contemporary city at the weekends. There was a layering of the past in the present. It was a mixture of experiencing the city at the weekend and becoming aware of its history and the culture of the voice at a moment when that human presence is absent.
It’s often said that we’re quite unhistorical in our awareness of the past. Would you agree with that? Why was reclaiming that history in the work important to you?
SP: I think it would be hard to not think about the history of London when you enter the City of London. Everywhere you turn there’s a building or street with an incredible story attached to it. There is so much history it’s really pretty amazing. It’s like walking through an architectural treasure trove. Everything from the old city wall, medieval churches, post-war brutalism and corporate glass and steel; they’re all there sitting cheek by jowl. The street names also point to the history Change Alley, Cheapside and Poultry, all refer to the trading that went on and I had thought Bank was a reference to the Bank of England but I found out it was actually to do with the river bank, which is from an even earlier time. So the Elizabethan city is still very much present. What I wanted to do was to reintroduce that voice through all these ages of architecture. Walking from one site to the next gave you the chance to experience all these different histories in the present and that gave the work more layers of meaning.
A related idea that informed one of your earlier works, You Are Not Alone (2009), is Guglielmo Marconi’s suggestion that sounds never fade into pure silence, but continue to echo across the universe. Do you think that pure silence can exist for us? What role, if any, does it play in your work?
SP: I was hugely inspired by Marconi’s suggestion that sound never fades away completely; that all the sounds are still out there reverberating as waves around the universe. An idea like that can connect the most intimate conversation with vast scale of the universe. The title You Are Not Alone comes from the idea of these people sitting alone in their rooms, scanning the short wave frequency dial on their radio and picking up a signal that has travelled from afar. The white noise is a reminder of all the sounds that ever were becoming one. Marconi used to believe that with radio we would be able to tune into all of these sounds and that you could listen to things that were said years ago. I don’t believe there is anything like pure silence in the world we live in but I use silence or let’s say gaps and intervals a lot in my work. I record the gaps and pauses between lyrics or between notes and experiencing those silences becomes part of the work. It creates a space for the listener. There is also the near silence as you are waiting in anticipation. Or just after the work finishes there is an empty space, a silence, where your senses are heightened before your consciousness is filled again with the everyday.
Song and music is often used to defy silence, be it in the face of a terrifying stillness or against political censorship and oppression. One work I found particularly moving was the installation of Pledge (2002) in the exhibition We Shall Be All (2011) in Chicago, which was sung by the Haymarket martyr A. R. Parsons in his cell shortly before his political execution. Do you see silence as something to be countered and challenged, and is this part of what you take works like Pledge to be doing?
SP: The title We Shall Be All comes from the American version of The Internationale and the work takes the history of labour movements in Chicago as its inspiration. The protests for an eight-hour working day led to the Haymarket affair of May 1886 where eventually eight innocent men were arrested and four including A.R. Parsons were executed. I was inspired by a witness account of A.R. Parsons singing Annie Laurie in his prison cell in the early morning before he was executed. It describes the song breaking the silence before dawn with prisoners and guards all listening together as his voice echoed down the corridor. I found that account incredibly moving and a part of We Shall Be All is my rendition of Annie Laurie recorded on black 35mm film stock projected in the space.
The story of A.R. Parsons is a powerful one of an individual refusing to be silenced. Political themes of silencing, such as those connected to WW2, have also cropped up in several of your works. Do you see the use of sound, and perhaps the retrieval of certain memories or histories, to have an important political dimension?
SP: Yes I do. For example I became fascinated by the émigré’s, that generation of writers, artists and composers who fled Europe before WW2 to make new homes for themselves in America. I was particularly drawn to the Austrian composer Hanns Eisler, not only did Eisler have to flee Germany in the 30’s, but after settling in Los Angeles he was persecuted by the FBI for his socialist ideas and eventually deported from the US in 1947. Eisler’s trial was an international event that caused outrage among many composers and musicians. He was one of the first artists working in Hollywood to be dragged up in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and persecuted for politics. Eisler collaborated with everybody and he was an amazing character, he was a socialist in the true sense of the word. He was a prodigy of Arnold Schoenberg, he worked with Bertolt Brecht, Theodor Adorno and Charlie Chaplin. In the late 40’s Chaplin realised Eisler was in trouble with the FBI and commissioned him to write a score for his silent film The Circus (1928). But the composition was interrupted by the deportation proceedings and only six movements were written for six scenes and the score was never incorporated into the film. In a way those empty parts of the sound track are still very compelling to me; redactions that speaks so much about censorship and silencing. I made Part File Score for the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin with all this in mind. That project isolated musical parts of the composition and I also included a series of screen prints that overprinted some of the declassified FBI files on top of the original manuscript sheet music. In these prints you can feel the relentless pressure from the FBI and their attempts to frame Eisler as a communist in order to discredit him.
I returned to Hanns Eisler again for my work Night & Fog (2016). In 1955 Alain Resnais asked Eisler if he would write the sound track for his documentary about the concentration camps, Night & Fog. The title is taken from the Nacht und Nebel decree, an early form of political rendition. The vanishing of political activists without trace was developed so that the families would not know their fate. The term for those who vanished was ‘vernebelt’ or transformed into mist. In response to that vanishing I made this series of photographs where I've captured my breath on glass. This image suggests human presence and its absence. It’s a very intimate act, someone was there moments before and it’s left an imprint on the glass, and moments later it’s gone. So there’s something quite fleet and spectral about these prints that I think encapsulates a lot of the themes of the exhibition absence, loss but at the same brings those ideas back to the individual.
We often cannot express what we feel think and say in the private sphere within the public one. However, your work seems to question that separation by situating songs charged with private meaning and association within public spaces. Do you think we need to re-evaluate that separation? Is art uniquely capable of giving voice to the private within the public?
SP: I think that's true. Singing is so personal and not everyone feels comfortable hearing songs sung unaccompanied about escapism and longing in such a public space. It’s a bit like eavesdropping on something very private that suddenly becomes very public. I still believe in the idea of public space as a space to gather, whether that is a museum or an open space in the city. When I work in public space in the city people gather to experience my work and for a few moments people are listening and having their own personal associations while they are watching other people listening and having their own personal associations. For that moment I hope there can be a connection between strangers. What someone called ‘silent conspiracies’ of understanding, people recognising each other without talking. These groups form by chance, they join together for a few minutes and then go their separate ways.
The articulation of death, loss and mourning seem particularly relevant at this point: even when these are experienced collectively we take them to be things we have to come to terms with on our own. As you’ve explored these themes extensively, what is the importance for you of making these audible?
SP: I like to make these themes perceptible without addressing them directly. I use silence in my work to evoke absence and to make you aware of loss without articulating it directly. For example, for dOCUMENTA 13 at Kassel Hauptbahnhof I developed a work titled Study for Strings. The original piece of music was written by the Czech composer Pavel Haas in Theresienstadt in 1943. The composition was performed in the Nazi propaganda film Theresienstadt and Haas is seen in the audience watching the performance. Shortly after shooting the film, both Haas and the other orchestra members were sent to Auschwitz where they were murdered. Although the scores for the composition were lost in the camp, the conductor and survivor Karl Ančerl managed to find and reassemble the missing parts after the war. I took the piece of music written for a full 24 string orchestra but only recorded the viola and cello parts. By recording only these instrumental parts, there are these awkward gaps and abrupt silences where the other instruments should be. In this way I tried to create a space where you begin to perceive absence and connect it to death and loss.
Your last work at Tate Britain, War Damaged Musical Instruments (2015-6), was commissioned for the centenary of the First World War. In the piece you can hear a fractured rendition of The Last Post played through instruments damaged in conflict, undermining all sense of harmony and making visceral the damage of warfare. What interested you in creating that work and why did you want to have the piece performed in this fragmented way through these instruments?
SP: Over the past few years I have developed an ongoing archive of recordings of war damaged musical instruments from collections in museums in Britain and Germany. The stories associated with each of the instruments are varied and multi layered, ranging from that of the 14-year old drummer boy at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 to the clearing of the Alte Münz bunker at the end of the Second World War. Some instruments, like the Balaclava Bugle, have detailed histories while others, shot through with bullets, are damaged with no account of how or when the damage occurred. I have focused on the brass and woodwind family, as these instruments need the human breath to produce the sound and subsequently all the recordings have a strong human presence. When I started making the recordings I was just trying to see what sound the instruments were still capable of producing. But then as the recordings developed I began to realise that I needed to give the recordings more structure and definition. I decided to limit myself to the notes that are used to make up the melody of The Last Post, the same notes are in the American Taps and there is a German tune that uses the same notes as well. Then I arranged these tones so that different ones are picked out by different instruments and these instruments are arranged in a way that there is a call and response across the space. The tones are evident and at some point the melody is there too, but the sound is fractured and broken. An English instrument from the Battle of Waterloo will call out across the space and be joined by a German instrument from the WWI. The space of the Duveen Galleries was large enough to experience each sound individually but if you were standing in the right spot you could experience the sounds together. The material I had gathered was recorded at different times and in different places, so the recordings were already fragmented. What I tried to do at Tate Britain was to present all these fragmented parts so they come together in places and fall away again into individual notes.
Remembrance, commemoration and mourning are all ethically charged tasks. Part of what it is striking in War Damaged Musical Instruments is the complete absence of beauty, unity and optimism. How can we remember those who have suffered in an ethically responsible way?
SP: What I found helpful in this project is that there are so many instruments from so many conflicts over so many years that there is no sense of consensus. Some of the instruments are civilian instruments and some are military, some are British some are German. There is no single event or conflict that the work tries to commemorate. If anything it makes visible the fragility of the human breath and human life in the face of these events. I think what makes this work is the real human presence you can hear in the recordings. You can hear the breath of the player as it escapes from the damaged instrument. That is a very specific part of the recordings but it is also a metaphor for life and that gives the work its universality. All the recordings have a strong human presence and by foregrounding that aspect of the work you can address those larger themes of mortality and loss.
Susan Philipsz is currently working on forthcoming exhibitions for Hannover Kunstverein (Germany), Bonniers Konsthal (Stockholm), SF MOMA and the Scottish National Galleries in Edinburgh.