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‘I’m interested in the architectural concerns of sound’

30 October 2017

Susan Philipsz is well known for her experiments with sound and architecture. As her new work, A Single Voice, goes on show at BALTIC, the artist talks to Imelda Barnard about dismantling an opera about space, and the power of the human voice

What’s the premise of your new work, A Single Voice, which is on show at BALTIC in Gateshead?

A Single Voice is based on the space opera Aniara by Karl-Birger Blomdahl, which tells the story of a failed spaceship’s mission to Mars and how the passengers are doomed to drift aimlessly in space. I was intrigued by the beginning of the opera, in which you hear a violin playing the Morse Code for ‘Aniara SOS Aniara’ in the tone of C. The initial idea was to isolate a single voice, the violin, and to dismantle the composition so the sound is fragmented. Filming it really shows the separation of tones. I’ve never worked on a film with such a great production, with a crew and producer, so that was exciting.

What does it look and sound like?

The film shows a violin player alone in a darkened space. The camera orbits her as she’s listening to the opera on headphones, waiting for the tone of C. Each time that tone appears on the score she plays it and waits in silence for the next tone. She eventually plays the whole opera in the tone of C. The other tones are recorded separately and each one has its own speaker that is placed throughout the space. This emphasises the themes of separation and loss at the heart of the work.

At BALTIC I will also present Ziggy Stardust (2001) in an adjoining space
that is almost completely darkened. Even though this space is relatively small, because it’s dark it appears infinite and the voice emerges from the darkness. In A Single Voice I work with a musician and a film crew but the title also refers to my own voice.

You studied sculpture and have described your works as ‘sound sculptures’. How might we think of your sound works as sculptural?

When I studied sculpture at art college I became interested in inner body space, what happens when you breathe and how you use your diaphragm to project sound. I always liked to sing, but I started thinking about the physicality of producing sound and how that sound then defines the space you’re in.

I thought about sound in sculptural ways from working with sculpture and installation when I was studying, and then gradually I started to incorporate that into my installations. I became interested in the architectural concerns of sound, and also the psychological effects – how it can trigger memory and how you react with it in a public space. These have always been concerns in the work from the start.

Photo: Franziska Sinn

Photo: Franziska Sinn

How is your work informed by the settings in which it is staged?

My work always starts with a place; the research comes after. While finding a location for Surround Me (2010), I was inspired by how eerie and quiet the City of London felt at the weekend, when everything was closed. It made me think about the history of the old walled city and the role of the voice in the early modern period. For my Documenta 13 project, Study for Strings (2012), I chose a train station in Kassel because it had a very particular atmosphere, and because I wanted to make a work that you experienced from a platform’s end, from the hills, from the train tracks themselves. I later discovered that the site had a shocking history – a place from which the Nazis deported Jews to Theresienstadt concentration camp. My research led me to Pavel Haas, who composed a score while he was imprisoned in the camp, and I dismantled his original composition. Similarly, my piece for the Historic Hall at the Hamburger Bahnhof in 2014 was led by the architecture and acoustics of the space – the site’s 12 steel archways led me to think about 12-tone composition. The architecture of the site and the structure of the composition came together very naturally.

Why are you so drawn to using the human voice in your work?

I’m interested in the voice. I think it’s a very powerful tool, everyone has one and can identify with it. When I use my own voice it’s clearly untrained and I sing unaccompanied; it’s naked. In Ziggy Stardust, I sing the whole Bowie album without musical instrumentation and it’s very intimate and exposing. The voice is capable of evoking memories, or triggering a specific time and place. Also, the disembodied voice has a spectral quality.

In more recent works, I’ve been working with the untrained voices of musicians, or with the sounds of broken instruments. In War Damaged Musical Instruments [shown at Tate Britain in 2015], I recorded 14 different instruments from different conflicts and played them through individual speakers. This gave a sense of the separation and displacement inherent in the physical making of the work.

Your works often feel intimate. Are you conscious of an audience, of public space?

I’m conscious of how people might happen unexpectedly upon the work. I love the idea of a collective audience, of a collective experience – I witnessed that with the work I made for Manifesta 3 in Ljubljana in 2000, when I recorded the old socialist anthem The Internationale and played it under a public walkway in the city centre. People would stop and listen and even sing along in different languages. It was very moving.

In an early work, Metropola, I sang pop songs over the tannoy in a Manchester Tesco Metro. I think a lot of people felt like they were eavesdropping on something private. The songs I chose were the kind that you would sing when you’re alone, and which deal with feelings of longing
and escape.

You were the first sound artist to win the Turner Prize in 2010. How do you think sound art is perceived today?

It’s funny, because before the Turner Prize I was never considered a sound artist. For me, it’s not so much about the medium but the idea – it doesn’t necessarily have to be sound, although that’s now what I’m known for.

Museums weren’t necessarily built to facilitate sound. Acoustically they can be very challenging. I think these are things that people – particularly architects – are having to think more about now. I would never make a work for a place that fights against the acoustics. That’s an important part of the work.

Installation view, Seven Tears (2016), Susan Philipsz, Kunstverein Hannover, 2016.

Installation view, Seven Tears (2016), Susan Philipsz, Kunstverein Hannover, 2016. Photo: Raimund Zakowski, Courtesy Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

You’re also part of a group exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. What works are you showing there?

It will be nice to be back in Scotland – I haven’t shown there since the Glasgow International Festival in 2010. Running through the entire show are themes of immersion and separation. Seven Tears consists of seven turntables playing seven different records simultaneously. It’s based on a composition called Lachrimae (or Seven Tears) which was written in 1604 by John Dowland. I’ve recorded each of the seven tones that make up the original tune separately. I’ve also made a series of Lachrimae paintings by soaking canvas in a salt solution, as well as a set of large black and white photographs depicting fragments of the radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi’s floating laboratory, the Elettra, which was built in Edinburgh. It’s one of the most visual exhibitions I’ve ever done.

‘Susan Philipsz: A Single Voice’ is at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, until 4 March 2018.

From the November 2017 issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here.