by P.A. Skantze
7 December 2010


The opening song situates our ears by motion; I suspect it could even be scientifically proven that we ‘hear’ better when we listen as we look at moving water. An external manifestation of travelling sound. Added to this, an imaginative corollary of the plaintive notes made by a soprano. Years of fable and myth make us wonder if she is singing from the bottom of the river. Fictionally speaking it’s crowded down there: all those longhaired women, spurned lovers, mermaids, sirens and Rhinemaidens. The arch of the bottom of the bridge continues this concrete image of sound in motion as it follows the arch up and over. I deliberately ignore the ‘where’ of speakers. Sound work frees the vision so I look up and off into space and see a hospital marked with clear, old-fashioned font on its river facing side. Did she jump from those windows I wonder?


As I follow the Surround Me map on the cold, grey London day, I remember Bruce R. Smith narrating with delight how he began The Acoustic World of Early Modern England because he read somewhere that all the sounds in the world never actually disperse but remain drifting at the top of the world. He tells this tale on CBC radio in a work called Hark which animates, as Susan Philipsz seeks to do in this walk, the aural texture of Elizabethan London.


I follow the map but I find things by ear arriving at the Tower and Saint Olave hearing the round in the little square. Rounds seem to beg for human bodies, a disembodied round seems doubly disembodied because there is that tradition of singers looking to other singers, other groups to confirm they have begun and will finish in the right place. Some people are caught by the noise. Others like the young woman under the London Bridge pass the space of singing without turning their heads since the earphones in their ears block the installation, the intervention of made and installed sound.


A strange mix meets me in Change Alley: men erecting a scaffold, loud, clanging, the whirr of some kind of machinery. But I had heard a wisp of sound as I walked toward the space. Now I have stopped, sitting waiting in the interval. While I am sitting, the two men speak in a thick accent. London? I am a foreigner and so have no subtlety with British accents. The sound begins. In this space the work does its most subtle and acute shifting of the participant because we are called from the end of the alley to the middle, from the middle to the other end by sound -- high womens’ voices again. What would a rough and accented oyster caller have sounded like? If Shakespearean plays are a gauge for the time, she would have made much of the many associations that come with the humble bivalve and our way of eating it. What would it sound like; an aural tipping a wink? I feel the loss of the sound as the final voice fades from the speaker.


P. A. Skantze, Reader in Performance Practices in the Drama, Theatre and Performance at Roehampton University, directs, writes for and teaches theatre and performance in London and in Italy.