The Sculpture of Song

By Iwona Blazwick, Spring 2003

On an overcast but still day in July 1993, a group of travellers who had journeyed from across Europe to reach a remote spot on the British coast of the North Sea disembarked from their cars and coaches. They made their way along a narrow sandy ridge hugging the curve of the Northumberland coastline. Below the ridge lay a wide stretch of sandy beach. And on the beach stood a small group of women looking out to the horizon.

There were eight in the group, some middle-aged, others quite elderly - all identically dressed in the festive traditional costume of some faraway rural culture. Each had a long white scarf tied around her hair and a flower tucked behind the ear. Beneath a heavily brocaded black dress and jerkin, each wore a scarlet-and-white-patterned blouse edged with lace; under their skirts hung the delicate frill of a petticoat. Stout black woollen stockings were embroidered with delicate pastels, and on their feet the women wore flat leather sandals.

They were not just looking towards the sea but singing to it, in complex, dissonant harmonies. The song they sang, foreign to most of the spectators, was therefore abstract, yet strangely moving. The sheer visceral power of their voices, seeming to emanate not from the throat but from the solar plexus, generated a presence as physically and psychically overwhelming as the wide horizon before them. Working within the parameters of only a few notes, each voice released a sound of a chromatic nuance so subtle as to break down aural zones between minor and major keys. Notes were held or repeated to create harmonies that either paralleled or interconnected with one another; each singular voice created what was almost an architectural structure.

As they sang, they moved slowly, linking arms by holding on to each other's ornate gold belts. Their collective movement was rhythmical yet restrained, their feet softly stamping from one side to the other as if to echo the movement of the vast body of water to which they sang. In its implicitly endless structure, the fluid yet circular phrases of their song similarly paralleled the continuum of the sea, the deep geological time of the tides, a time outside history.

At once 'formless' and highly structured, their song continued to evolve and mutate while their slow dance drew them into lines or circles, parting and coming together again. Their performance lasted some twenty minutes, after which time each woman walked off along the beach and out of sight.

The singers are all grandmothers from the mountain town of Bistritsa in Bulgaria. They call themselves The Bistritsa Babi, or grandmothers. Their song forms part of a tradition of folk singing passed down from mother to daughter since the Middle Ages. The lyrics are drawn from everyday events and ancient rural rituals. They are part of a musical tradition that stands - as does Bulgaria itself - between East and West. The women's choral chants evoke the unisons of plainsong and the almost calligraphic call of the Islamic muezzin.

Working with curator James Lingwood, co-director of the London-based arts organisation Artangel, Bethan Huws had located the group on a research trip to Sofia. Having met and indeed lived with them briefly, she invited them to perform 'a song for the North Sea'. The work transposed a group of performers who are representatives of a cultural phenomenon, from a landlocked, mountainous area in central Europe to the edge of an island at the edge of the European continent. Huws' geographical and cultural displacement of the singers to this liminal space, the border between land and water, Europe and the world, had affinities with the music itself. The prismatic tonalities of the Bistritsa Babi's song map out liminalities - between major and minor keys; between eastern and western musical traditions; between the continuities of ritual and inheritance and the presentness of their performance; between ancient music and contemporary art. Their song was an echo or reverberation of the very environment in which they performed.

The experience of this work was nuanced by all the instantaneous sensation of phenomena - the coolness of the sea breeze; the unaccustomed softness/inertia of standing on sand; the awareness of others, silent yet in proximity; the sound of human voices rhythmically underscored by the rushing to and fro of water. This phenomenal experience of the work was later transformed into a more purely optical, image-based one.

For the work did not finish with the departure of the Babi, as the skies cleared and the crowd of onlookers moved away. A further displacement was made through the mediation of a camera, indeed an entire film crew, co-commissioned by Artangel and Antwerp '93. On taking a normal situation and retranslating it into overlapping and multiple readings of conditions past and present was the title of an exhibition which was staged at Antwerp’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MUHKA) in the autumn of 1993. Inspired by a quote from American artist Gordon Matta Clark, the title of the show also provided the starting point for a series of commissions created specially for the city. Designated European Capital of Culture, Antwerp, lying at the mouth of an estuary on the other side of the North Sea, became a second site for the work.

Huws stripped the performance of all its phenomenological traits, firstly by transposing it onto celluloid and secondly by projecting it into a white cube.

Huws' conception of the work as a live performance was that it should be part of ‘a normal situation’, witnessed only by the casual passer-by walking her dog. Yet word of mouth about the event drew hundreds of people. The film showed the Babi without an audience. Despite being a projection within the remove of the gallery, it served to 'naturalise' this cultural action. The absence of an audience removed any sense of theatre or spectacle. Screened repeatedly throughout the day, the film gave the image of the singers calling out to the sea a ‘natural’, timeless quality, as if they were akin to wildlife. At the same time, the rectangular frame of the screened image projected onto a wall reiterated the conventions of painting.

Huws deliberately selected a pretty anonymous stretch of coastline, in no way a landmark. There are few traces of habitation, yet the beach and the horizon lack the potent combination of scale and emptiness that combine to deliver the sublimity of a Caspar David Friedrich. Neither does its quiet shore transform into the turbulent drama of a Turneresque rough sea. Yet, shot through a lens and projected on a wall, it firmly occupies the genre of the seascape. And within this art-historical context, the singing women become protagonists of some ancient myth.

Inescapably bound up with this entrancing image is the sound of the women's voices. Perhaps music is the most transcendent of art forms, reaching towards and beyond cognition to trigger sensations of joy or pain, exhilaration, desolation or just a sense of being alive. The abstraction of music from symbolism, narrative or emotion reached its modern climax with the 'minimalism' of composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Prefiguring minimalist music, the song of the Babi shares with other forms of traditional vernacular music – informally structured around the deep thrumming sound of bagpipes or rising from the percussive insistence of hand on drum – a quality which is in the same way neither strictly emotive nor cerebral.

The rhythm of traditional western music tends to a basic structure of three or four beats to the bar, such as the one-two-three, one-two-three of a waltz. The beat is described in terms of the frequency of a note in a bar and the length of the note itself; the longest notes are called minims, which are then divided to form crotchets, quavers and so on. So the waltz is described as being in 'three-four time' - that is, three crotchets to each bar. Musicologists have been fascinated by the complex asymmetric measures of Bulgarian singing, which typically falls into five-sixteen time or eleven-eight time. The relentlessly mathematical tick-tock of the metronome gives way to a tempo which is altogether more subtle and organic. It relates fundamentally to the body, to a primal and collective sense of phenomenal existence, as repetitive and rhythmic as breath itself. The effect of this music is to make the listener feel not only more grounded in the body but also detached, meditative, entranced, attaining a state of consciousness beyond language: to experience what the artist herself once described as the 'white noise' of thinking.

The Bulgarian grandmothers are cyphers. Music flows through them to connect the human voice with a single, immense presence. Through their song, Huws creates a subliminal link between the spectator and the sea. This vast and indifferent presence is transformed into a trope for the limitless, oceanic nature of the unconscious.

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