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Ghost sounds: Philadelphia, Paris, Fremantle...

Jonathan Marshall


Janet Cardiff, George Bures Miller; Juan Cristobal Cerrillo, Pandemonium Janet Cardiff, George Bures Miller; Juan Cristobal Cerrillo, Pandemonium
photo Sean Kelly
Twentieth century composition has increasingly raised questions to do with the sounds of things and objects themselves. What is the sound of a space, of a wall, of a paving stone, or a gleaming piece of industrial metal? What is the sound of their history, their identity, and what echoes are left when such things disappear? As I travelled between Philadelphia, Paris and Fremantle, these issues followed me, inviting my ears into spaces between objects and sounds.

Prison, Philadelphia

In Philadelphia, I visited the Eastern State Penitentiary whose influential 1820s design of buildings radiating from a central watchtower ensured each prisoner could be constantly observed. This crumbling structure has however since become a veritable Dadaist art installation with dejected cells irregularly filled with aggressive weeds and wooden desks covered in a layered patina of millions of tiny fragments of paint and dust. The effect is of an otherworldly sense of age, beauty and melancholy, all the more unsettling because this aestheticised experience occurs within a space of former incarceration.

Amongst the new artworks nestled within the Penitentiary is Pandemonium by Janet Cardiff and Georges Burres Miller. Cardiff’s 2001 transposition of individual recorded voices from a choral work into a circle of speakers—40 Part Motet—featured in the 2004 Melbourne International Arts Festival. In Pandemonium she collaborated with Miller to create a fabulous, comic yet complex work in which mechanisms located in cells off a long, dusty corridor struck metal bed-frames, prison bars, hollowed out desks and other relics. Near my vantage point, for example, a lazy clunk emerged, its tardy reply scattered further down the hall. Then another came from behind, gradually producing a leisurely, disordered clanging flitting about the cells. Density arose, then a regular beat, before chaos took over. Sounds became localised yet lost in the space as thunks leapt rapidly about. This smirking invocation of a prison riot was endlessly appealing from different positions as I hastened from cell to cell to catch the tempo, or strolled, assaulted and ignored by mechanical actors, sometimes proximate, sometimes distant. IRCAM, Paris

This sense of the ghost in the machine was also evoked in a Juan Cristobal Cerrillo work from the concert I attended at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, Paris. IRCAM was established by Pierre Boulez, partly in opposition to Pierre Henry’s Groupe de Recherches Musicales. Following Boulez’s principles, IRCAM is devoted to compositional research centred upon the live performance of traditional instruments (piano, saxophone, orchestra, etc) in harmonic combination or dissonance with electronic forms (digital, laptop, electroacoustics). Within an impressive program of international students (including Australian Christopher Tonkin), Cerrillo’s piece was unique for the absence of a performer.

Cerrillo placed 4 spotlit drums onstage and another 3 among the audience. Each had a modified speaker cone beneath it, which, when triggered, turned the drums into both resonating boxes for a glitchie, sine-wave soundscape, as well as striking the drums themselves. Bass drums allowed for particularly deep, resonating effects. The mixed frequencies of the clink and clank of the instruments’ vibrating metal frames and screws provided a more present sense of haunting than Cardiff and Miller. Rather than evoking and reinterpreting the sounds of times and places past, Cerrillo’s piece was overtly and self-consciously self-activating, reminding audiences that digital and recording technologies not only document the work of humans, but also replace and liberate objects and sounds from the traces of human agency.

Fremantle Prison

While Cerrillo, Cardiff and Miller staged installations in which objects were actors, I found upon my return to Western Australia that the Nova Ensemble was attempting to play the Fremantle Prison itself. This penitentiary was recently decommissioned, and unlike Philadelphia, ghosts seemed very present here. The performance moved through 2 galleries of cells and into the kitchens. Nova’s semi-improvised score included overt historic references, such as the opening flute passage evoking the Irish origins of those incarcerated in this former colonial institution, as well as a performer locked in a cell describing the rituals he endured within. The show was most effective however when the 3 performers ceased using the setting as an evocative echo chamber for their mix of romantic, modernist and jazzy percussion, cello and saxophone and instead transformed the prison itself into an instrument. The materials included the historically resonant clicking of keys in the locks above us, accompanied by languid footsteps on a metal grill, which suggested (without actually reproducing) the sound of a jailer’s rounds. More dissociated sonic materials included the cacophonous emptying of cutlery into the kitchen’s steel sinks and a section performed in a row of massive water boilers. The striking of tuned wooden bowls floating inside these provided a moment of reverie within the harsh surrounds. The interest of the piece overall lay in its status as neither simply a narrative of prison life, nor, however, as a work entirely separate from the affects and sounds of this past. It was rather something in between, an historically resonant performance in which the acoustic ghosts and forms nevertheless were able to exert their own imperious force.

Fremantle streets

Also in Fremantle, curator/artist Perdita Phillips invited listeners to stroll the streets while listening to specially commissioned scores on a Walkman. Although sometimes I felt like a performing dog as I struggled to follow artists’ road directions, the exhibition offered an impressive mix of WA and international contributors. Dissonant field recordings were the most common format. Viv Corringham recorded her own stroll through an analogous route in London and, after I got lost, I felt as if I was chasing a ghost. Would she be around the next corner? Would I come back into synchronisation with her pathway if I reached Market Street before she told me to turn off again? Lawrence English’s piece was my favourite though, one of several ‘free walks’ in which each listener was invited to choose their own trail. English tells his audience to compare the score emanating from the headphones with the sound coming from the streets. Introducing Fremantle’s history of white exploration, he then presents electronic cricket squeals rising into a wonderful choral spaciousness with a background bed of sound over which proximate materials like a blowfly or hiss ebb and flow. This structure explicitly opens the listening space to material from beyond the headphones, ironically producing a relaxing peacefulness under the Fremantle bustle. Other standout works included Walter van Rijn’s acoustically gorgeous montage of European radio broadcasts and other materials. Early on, Rijn invited me to find a window and peer into the space behind it, implying that the subsequent score represented the accumulated sonic history of the urban dwellings I moved amongst. Fine though such works were, I remain unconvinced by headphone presentation, preferring to take them off and hear the things around me play themselves, in all their new, shiny, metallic spininess; urban mobility, rumbling historicism and flaking, aesthetic materialisation.


Pandemonium, Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, May 2005-present, Janet Cardiff, George Bures Miller; Juan Cristobal Cerrillo, ...the stillness and the turbulent sprays..., Cursus 1 + 2, Oct 13-14, IRCAM, Paris; Nova Ensemble, Ultrasound, David Pye, Lee Buddle, Mel Robinson; Fremantle Prison, Nov 27; Strange Strolls, curator, Perdita Phillips, Moore Building Contemporary Art Gallery, Fremantle, Western Australia, Nov 18-Dec 18, 2005

RealTime issue #71 Feb-March 2006 pg. 13

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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