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The sound of war: Susan Philipsz’ Broken Ensemble at Eastside Projects

1 October 2014

Six loudspeakers are suspended from the gallery ceiling. One remains silent, but five sound a loud musical note at varying intervals. Each speaker corresponds to a different brass instrument, and the sounds produced are discordant and tentative, as if played by someone still learning. Gradually single notes build into a sequence of sound that shapes the gallery space.

Susan Philipsz’ exhibition for Eastside Projects in Birmingham continues her research into the capacity for sound to reimagine historical narratives. The musical instruments in her ensemble have all been damaged by war, a fact which charges the exhibition with a sense of sadness and loss. It hardly needs to be said that conflict is a charged theme this year. The First World War Centenary has been the focus of many recent museum exhibitions, but the trumpets, bass ophicleide, bugle and horn selected by Philipsz were used in earlier conflicts, in Germany during the second half of the 19th century.

Photograph by Stuart Whipps

The instruments now reside in the collections of German museums, and all have significant histories. Two trumpets belonged to a cavalry regiment connected to Archduke Franz Ferdinand; the bugle has an obvious bullet hole. Some were used to call soldiers to retreat or to advance in battle: these specific directional signals are echoed in the way Philipsz’s speakers produce focused lines of sound in the exhibition space. In time, the sixth speaker will also contribute to the score, adding the notes of the bugle that signalled the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War to the broken musical ensemble.

Instead of presenting the instruments themselves in vitrines, which would render them functionless, Philipsz presents the sounds independently of the objects, and crucially, without the musicians. Who were these soldiers, what happened to them and why did they stop playing? That the instruments are heard here for the first time in over 100 years is a haunting thought, as if the individual sounds evoke the spirits of countless souls lost. The fact that this show is in Birmingham, once the centre of the UK’s gun manufacturing industry, resonates too.

This is not a sentimental tribute to the fallen. Philipsz has produced a shifting and troubling soundscape that speaks about memory and loss. With notes as fragile yet powerful as the elderly broken instruments themselves, this is a highly affective and deeply touching work.

‘Broken Ensemble: War Damaged Musical Instruments (brass section)’ is at Eastside Projects, Birmingham, until 6 December.