By Ulrich Loock, Porto, 2003 – 2004

Ten years ago I travelled to Northumberland in north-east England, for the performance of a piece by Bethan Huws. I had never been there before, nor have I been there since. I don’t remember the journey. It was a bright day, but without the shadows cast under a cloudless sky. I arrived in the small town a few hours before the set time. There were few high buildings, as is to be expected in a place near the sea. Without stopping in town, I set off on foot and soon came to a rural area. It was the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen. I followed a path between low, close-set hills, which were nevertheless high enough to limit the view into the distance. I crossed a stream; everything was covered with grass, the colour of which I could no longer name. I seem to remember thinking that what I was looking at was the epitome of a meadow. In the green pastures sheep with light-coloured, almost white fleece were grazing, and there were solitary, quite tall deciduous trees. I don’t know whether I actually saw a dark grey castle there, or if it was somewhere else, maybe even in a picture. It wasn’t all that far away, but still too far to go and take a closer look at it.

For a long time I thought the piece was called Singing to the Sea [1]. In a catalogue containing Bethan’s descriptions of her works from the period 1987–1991 there is a concept entitled Sea Piece. Now I know that the performance is entitled The Bistritsa Babi: A Work for the North Sea, but the film – which I have only seen on video – is called Singing for the Sea. It could be that everything I remember and thought about – and I certainly haven’t thought about this piece very often – is shaped by a title that never existed. “Singing to the Sea” like “Ode to the Night”: towards this thing that isn’t a thing but merely bears the name of a thing, with no way of knowing or even expecting that the singing is registered in the place it is aimed at. This is slightly different to the dedication ‘for’ with its implication of an economy of exchange.

Strangely enough, I cannot remember the singing at all; I cannot recall having heard any of it. I didn’t go down to the beach but instead remained sitting up above in the place where the overgrown land ends before dropping more than ten metres to the level of the sea. The sand was a dense, yellowish colour and rather coarse-grained. I didn’t want to go down to the elderly women on the beach; I didn’t want to see them at close range: that would have seemed brazen. I hadn’t expected the place for which Bethan had searched for so long to be so unimpressive. The bay formed a wide arc; in the distance there may have been some simple beach reinforcements or buildings with no recognizable purpose. The sea was almost motionless, shimmering and grey like fresh lead. “The sea lay there like lead” sounds like a sentence one has read somewhere before, but that is what it was like. As if at reduced speed, the long, small waves spilled onto the beach. I know the sound exactly.

The women, with their stout figures – ‘stocky’ is not a good word to describe women but is good in that it makes one think of plants - in colourful, heavy clothes, the traditional costume of their home country, were moving neither slowly nor quickly, gathering together then drawing apart again, wearing shoes on their feet on the beach. One could look everywhere, see everything. The women had come from far away, from the centre of Europe, yet they belonged where I saw them. They set a kind of weight, a movement. It was not necessary to watch them: their presence was such that one could have turned one’s back on them; it wouldn’t have changed anything, just as nothing changes about the sea if someone who lives nearby doesn’t go to see it for days. I do not recall having heard the singing, but I am sure that with their singing the women turned the sea into something familiar. The sound of their singing carries a long way, enveloping everything within its reach; it is transported all around like a wind blowing in every direction. It has no borders, yet there is a place where it can no longer be heard. The women are singing the sea.

It is an extraordinary, almost incomprehensible quality of Bethan’s works from this period that they give one the feeling of having arrived in a place where one can stay. Somewhere to stay ... staying there ... being there ... being. In the presence of these women with their colourful clothes, with the perfect, inexplicable certainty of their measured movements and voices, one could be by the sea, one could have stayed longer, one could leave and one could also return.

It is not clear what actually constitutes the piece by Bethan Huws, whether it is the Bistritsa Babi’s singing at a particular place and time ten years ago, or the film, or both. The film is certainly not the reproduction of the performance, even though it could not have been made without the performance. Bethan describes the film as having been made “in relation to” the performance. When I watched it just now, on videotape in my apartment in Porto (from where I can glimpse the sea between some buildings), I heard the singing for the first time. It is hypnotic: with its polyphonic, high-pitched voices and drawn-out, repetitive sounds, it seems to me to contain almost no words – more like chanting than singing. It goes on and on until it is finally faded out to bring the film to an end after twelve minutes. The image of the group of women fills most of the screen, blocking our view of the sea even in the part where the singers themselves face the sea.

The film never shows what Bethan described in the above-mentioned concept: “If you could imagine something formless, vast and uncontrollable, you would think of the sea.” This is no Caspar David Friedrich. Watching the film made me think. It brought to mind the Sirens of ancient myth who used the irresistible lure of their wonderfully sweet songs to send seafarers to their doom. This made me wonder where the figure of Odysseus then is, who by using a cunning trick managed to listen to the Sirens and nevertheless escaped to return home. Suddenly I realised it was me, sitting in front of the TV in my apartment, or, so I imagine, the viewer in the cinema.

In Dialectic of the Enlightenment Horkheimer and Adorno address the price Odysseus has to pay: renunciation. He must suppress his own desire to experience absolute joy with the Sirens, and force his companions, whose ears he has plugged with wax, to work for him. We in front of the television set or cinema screen enjoy the comfortable situation of being able to enjoy the singing without danger, but without the slightest possibility, even on pain of death, of going to the place where the voices ring out from the women’s real bodies. Horkheimer and Adorno also ask what actually happened to the Sirens after Odysseus cheated them out of the sacrifice of his self, to which they were entitled according to mythological law: whether they were destined to have the same fate as the Sphinx. The answer would be that they had to give their name to the mechanical appliances which let out a deafening howl to summon people to work or warn of an attack by enemy aeroplanes, and had to renounce their singing to the dispositives of technical reproduction and the instant availability of cultural products. The renunciation has become systematic, yet the memory of the journey to Northumberland still leaves a feeling of longing.

This essay is taken from the publication Singing to the Sea available from Cornerhouse.

[1] Sea Piece was a first description mentioned in Bethan Huws: Works 1987–1991, catalogue Kunsthalle Bern / ICA London, 1991. The leaflet for the Artangel project announced it as The Bistritsa Babi / Bethan Huws – A Work for the North Sea, while in Antwerp the title Bistritsa Babi, Concert for the Sea, was used for the event itself and Singing for the Sea for the film stills that were reproduced. From the beginning, Bethan Huws referred to the project as Singing to the Sea, a title that now is only used to refer to the book, and the film as Singing for the Sea.