An interview with Susan Philipsz

by Will Cantopher

Reproduced courtesy of BBC London.

What led you to using the human voice in your artworks?

I studied Fine art, specialized in sculpture at Art College and it was then that I began to think of singing as a sculptural experience- what happens when you project your voice out into space and what happens simultaneously in your inner body space. The physicality of singing led me to think about sound as a sculptural form, which seemed like a very natural progression. It was when I went on to do an MA in Fine Art that I really began to work with sound and to make installations with my voice. I also became very interested in the emotive and psychological effects of song and how it could act as a trigger for memory. The idea of projecting sound and more particularly projecting a disembodied voice into a space can give it an uncanny ethereal presence. I think it’s interesting to think about absence as a sculptural form.

Does it matter that it's not visual in the way so much art tends obviously to be?

I work with sound but that sound is always installed in a particular context and that context with its architecture, lighting and ambient noises forms the entire experience of the artwork. It is a visual, aural and emotive landscape.

Surround Me is your first London commission. What came into your mind to start with?

I wanted to make a work with Artangel that was specifically for London. When I came over initially to look for locations I was struck by the silence in the financial district at the weekends. There are over 350,000 people who work there during the week but at the weekends the city becomes an empty and silent place. I thought it would be interesting for others to experience this eery silence which led me to think about the idea of a song cycle that would lead people through the city. Each of the works animates its surrounding architecture with sound so the audience can experience the city in a new way.

You've sung pop and folk before yet you went back to the 16th and 17th centuries for your research...

I went back to the 16th and 17th centuries because I decided my project would be concentrated in the City of London and during my research I became aware of the increased role the voice had in the early modern city. In the 16th and 17th centuries before the sounds of traffic and machinery became the background noise of the city the human voice was very present. It was said that it could be particularly cocophonous around the Royal Exchange, where traders and stock brokers would gather. In fact the voice was so prevalent that it is said the citys traders would modulate their cries to harmonise and remain distinctive from one another as they called out across the city streets. This created a polyphonic layered vocal which inspired the likes Shakespeare and composers such as Thomas Ravenscroft to set the cries to music and arrange them in rounds and canons. I especially like the Ravenscroft compositions as you can tell he’s used real cries and not idealised ones.

Did some of your London locations choose themselves in effect?

I decided to arrange the song cycle in a broad circle around the Royal Exchange at Bank. I thought I could approximate the boundary of the old city of London and this brought me from Moorgate to London Bridge. I came to realise how important London Bridge was to the early modern city and I was very happy to include it as a location. It helped me to bring in the river to the project and the flow of water, which the river so powerfully evokes, is reflected in almost all the sound works. I also came to realise that the centre point of my project Bank is not named after the financial institutions but after the bank of the river.

How would you describe the finished result?

I’d describe it as a series of inter-related sound works, which bring you to very different types of locations throughout the City of London where each work relates specifically to each of the chosen sites. Surround Me embraces the vocal traditions of the city of London connecting themes of love and loss, fluidity, circulation and emersion; the flood of tears, the swelling tide and the ebb and flow of the river to convey a poignant sense of absence and loss in the contemporary City of London.

Are you lamenting something we've lost, particularly now in these day of strikes, cut backs and City bonuses?

I think that could certainly be said for The Silver Swan at Tokenhouse Yard. The song emanates from a single horn speaker directed towards the Bank of England on Lothbury. The song was written at the end of the reign of Elizabeth I and at the time it could be interpreted as referring to the end of the Elizabethian musical tradition. Now it could be interpreted more generally as the end of an era in the contemporary city.

You've also been nominated for this year's Turner Prize. Congratulations. What's it like to be on the list?

Really fantastic. I haven’t exhibited so much in the UK, even though I’m from here. It’s great to be in such a prestigious exhibition where so many people will experience my work.

One newspaper is already tipping you as a good early bet...

I’m trying not to pay to much attention to what the press say. I’m very happy to be on the shortlist, whether I win or not.