Adrian George on Orchestral Manoeuvres: See Sound. Feel Sound. Be SoundByKristine Tan
Adrian George, Director of Exhibitions, ArtScience Museum
Mel Brimfield, 4′ 33″ (Prepared Pianola for Roger Bannister), 2012, sound installation. Courtesy of the artist. © Crown copyright UK Government Art Collection
The exhibition had so much range. From objects/sculptures that produce sound including Zul Mahmod’s knack for creating intricate sound constructions out of banal, utilitarian materials, to the very relatable 'dunia tak akan mendengar, Part three of ‘the world won’t listen’' by Phil Collins featuring young Indonesian fans of the Smiths doing karaoke of their songs. What were the considerations made when selecting the works for the exhibition?
I wanted to include as many sound-artworks as possible. A huge challenge in a gallery like ours that has high, curving ceilings that bounce sound around and allow it to spill between the rooms. I had to accept there would be some sound-bleed and come up with a way of trying to manage it so that it didn’t become a cacophony. Artworks were selected that had specific durations, or volumes, or sections of their soundtracks that were more subdued, and then I tried to ensure that each had its moment in the spotlight, so to speak, as well as quiet moments too. For example, Chen Zhen’s work is on all the time, but it produces ambient sound. Zul Mahmod’s work is much more percussive and as a result it really rings out. However, Zul was very open to my idea of ‘orchestrating’ the space and was willing and able to adjust the programming so that his pieces have moments of silence too. I have to say that all the artists fully understood the challenge of presenting so many sound works in the museum context – it has been fantastic to work with them all.
Phil’s work, on display in Orchestral Manoeuvres, was filmed in Indonesia. One of a series of three films, it is such a wonderful expression of the joy of singing, or performing, regardless of vocal ability. It’s a reminder that music can transcend cultures and borders and it was a great opportunity to include a link back to our region.
All the works in Orchestral Manoeuvres add important elements, but really Janet’s piece is at the heart of it. There are so many layers of meaning and interpretation in The Forty Part Motet – without it in the exhibition, I think I would have struggled to manifest the base concept for the show.
Janet Cardiff, The Forty Part Motet (A reworking of Spem in Alium, by Thomas Tallis 1556), 2001. Collection of Pamela and Richard Kramlich. Installation view. Musée d'Art Contemporain, Montreal 2002.
Janet Cardiff’s 'The Forty Part Motet' worked perfectly for our times. It was wonderful to experience a recreation of something that would be impossible to experience right now in real life in post-pandemic Singapore. Is this something you thought about when presenting the work?
Janet’s piece was created with the visitor or listener in mind. Janet considers the music to be sculptural in and of itself. It’s a very physical, visceral experience.
Choral music of this period is rarely performed in the round. Usually, the audience is being sung to, or ‘at’ – they are face to face with the choir as it were. In The Forty Part Motet, the singers of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir are all around you. You can move around and listen to each voice in turn if you wish. The voices come together to create a work of sublime beauty – none of the voices could achieve this alone. It’s a perfect example of what we, as human beings, can achieve if we work together and support one another.
When I started discussions with the artist, Tate and the Kramlich Collection to borrow this work, no one had heard of Covid-19. It was almost a year later that the pandemic hit us in Singapore. So, the idea of some sort of restriction on singing hadn’t even crossed my mind! However, it became incredibly meaningful as the year passed and the impact of the pandemic became so evident. People have come to realise how important choral singing is to them, some visitors have been moved to tears in this gallery.
Christine Sun Kim, The Sound of Obsessing, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and WHITE SPACE, BEIJING.
As you said before, I think the exhibition was also about the absence of sound (of course the iconic '4’33', by John Cage had to be included). I found Christine Sun Kim’s charcoal drawings very moving. Born deaf, she developed her own visual language to express something she could not hear – 'The Sound of Inactivity', 'The Sound of Obsessing', 'The Sound of Gravity Doing its Thing, The Sound of Frequencies Attempting to be Heavy and The Sound of Passing Time'. I think there is something very interesting about that, our capacity as humans to try to understand what we may not directly experience. I’d be interested to know if there were any visitors to the exhibition who could not hear. Could you tell us more about the inclusion of works without sound?
Christine’s artworks express so much more than the sounds she cannot hear. They express sounds that no one can hear, other than in the poetic sense. In this respect her work is similar to the works of Yoko Ono in the show, whose instruction pieces are really scores for communicating ideas of sound or music-making. These drawn, or written, visual ‘sounds’ are silent in themselves, but are made real in our imagination. The notion that most of us can remember music, and replay it in our heads, is an idea that is made manifest in Gillian Wearing’s work Dancing in Peckham.
Gillian Wearing, Dancing in Peckham, 1994, production still. Courtesy of the artist and © Crown Copyright UK Government Art Collection.
In answer to your question about visitors who are not able to hear… we have a guided tour of Orchestral Manoeuvres that is tailored to people who are either deaf or hearing impaired – facilitated by one of our team members who is fluent in sign language. With our recent stricter operating restrictions in place in Singapore that tour is on hold at the moment, but we can’t wait to resume it as soon as we can!
And then there is muted sound… conceptually, Samson Young’s video work 'Muted Situation #5, Muted Chorus' was a highlight for me in which the Hong Kong Voices Choir performed a choral piece by Bach without projecting the musical notes. It was so bodily and I had the impression that they were whispering clandestine messages. Is there anything more you could share about this artist's practice?
Samson is a classically trained musician, having studied Music, Philosophy and Gender Studies in Australia. He also has a Doctorate in Music Composition from Princeton, USA. His practice is deeply intellectual, technically accomplished and at the same time incredibly poignant and meaningful. His work engages with ideas of conflict, identity, migration, and cultural politics. Muted Situation #5, Muted Chorus presents a choir that has been asked to ‘sing’ but to mute the sung words – focusing instead on the articulation of the muted words and the breaths. The result is, for me, intense and quite unnerving. Each singer in the choir is deeply focused, concentrating hard, as what they have been asked to do is very different from how they would normally perform. However, the idea that someone, or a group of people, has been muted is a strong political statement on control, censorship and freedom of speech.
Samson Young, Muted Situation #5 Muted Chorus, 2016, production still. Instruction score, single channel video with sound, 9 min 7 sec. Performed by Hong Kong Voices. Image courtesy of the artist and Edouard Mali
I enjoyed the first gallery, 'Resonance', the most. We both first encountered Hannah Perry’s 'Rage Fluids' in London back in 2019 but I think it worked exceptionally well in a larger gallery, the trembling reflections of the copper auto-body-wrap sheathed sound sculpture spread out onto the floor. So simple and yet so sensorial, where you could both see and hear the drone of a car engine. Perry pulled from her personal experience of car culture from growing up in working class north London which makes the experience of the work even more layered. This was well-paired with Carsten Nicolai’s 'milch (series of 10)' – I am a huge fan of his electronic music – mesmerising patterns created by experiments of different sound frequencies in milk. Could you tell us more about the pairing of these works?
When I encountered Hannah’s work in London, it had an immediate impact – in terms of its sound, its aesthetic, its movement, and to some extent, the fact that the sounds the work produces can be ‘felt’ in the space. The deep bass tones affect our bodies as much as they affect the surface of the sculpture. There is also the science behind the work which really articulates the phenomenon of resonance. It was an obvious addition to the exhibition.
Carsten is known for his large-scale, technically demanding sound-based installations but I wanted to show a different side of his practice that is nonetheless very much linked to sound. Both his milch series and Hannah’s work are manifestations of the resonance effect, so speak to the same theme.
Hannah Perry, Rage Fluids, 2021, sound installation. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Kandlhofer
I thought another clever curatorial decision was presenting Ashley Zelinskie’s 'Cube with the Sound of its Own Printing' (2014/2021), Robert Morris’ 'Box with the Sound of Its Own Making' (1961) and Timm Ulrichs’ 'Radio' (1977/2021) together. Three cubic sound sculptures of which their titles are quite self explanatory. Could you tell us about the relationship between them?
Thanks for noticing that! The Morris Box was always in the plan. It had been part of my early research for the show and is a sculptural object that was created to contain and release sound – literally the sound of its own making. I was searching online for details of the Morris’ work and I happened to come across Ashley’s homage to Morris – a 3D printed version. A very different sound from the original and over 50 years apart in its making. I thought it would be great to hear and see them in the same space.
Further research led to Timm Ulrichs’ Radio. When it was made in the 70s, the radio contained in the concrete box would have been picking up analogue broadcasts. Now, with most broadcasts being digital, the radio picks up just static. In addition to their sound elements, it was the diachronic nature of these works that suddenly fascinated me, and how the sounds we hear around us now have changed over time. This became a sub-text running through the exhibition and links back to Russolo – who created the Intonoramuri as a means of recreating the new sounds that came into being during his lifetime – the sounds of the new, urban and industrialised world of the early 20th century.
Ashley Zelinskie, Cube with the Sound of its own Printing, 2014/2021, 3D printed wood with sound device. Courtesy of the artist.
I found the ancient notation manuscripts from the Schøyen Collection fascinating but would have liked to know more. It included the first musical score ever written. Is there anything from your research that could shed light on how the first music was created?
All that we know about music from ancient times has been uncovered through archeological digs. We’ve included an image of the oldest known written score, which is in the form of a clay tablet with cuneiform script. The cuneiform score only gives partial instructions for performing music. It references a diatonic scale and that the music was set in harmonic thirds. We don’t know much more about it than that.
I’ve always seen Western musical notation as a sort of secret code. You can be taught how to decode it and then play the music hidden inside it. However, there are many other types of music notation, pre-dating Western notation, that are much more intuitive. The ubiquity of Western music notation is a form of cultural imperialism, and I wanted to find a way of noting this without labouring the point.
In closing, could you perhaps share some of your thoughts on collecting sound works? Have you ever bought a sound work or are there any artists you have your eye on?
I was involved in the partial acquisition of Janet’s work for Tate and I’ve acquired sound works for, and on behalf of, the UK Government Art Collection – although as two world renowned national collections they have very different remits from buying sound-artwork for your home or a private collection.
Sound works come in all sorts of different forms, so the issues to consider will be entirely based on the nature of the work. For example, is the work purely sound? If so, then there isn’t an art-object to deal with per se, but you will still have to consider the equipment needed to play-back the work. Is that part of the purchase or can you use any system (amplifiers, speakers etc.)? Can you convert the sound file to another format if the original format becomes redundant in the future? There are many practical issues to consider in addition to whether a collector likes the work.
Thank you Adrian, it was lovely to hear from you.
The exhibition continues until 2 Jan 2022 at the ArtScience Museum, Marina Bay Sands, Singapore.
Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.