By Will Cantopher
Singing is a sculptural experience, says the Turner Prize nominee
A solo voice will ring out through London's empty streets this weekend, and every weekend until January, as part of an artwork occupying different spaces across the City.
It belongs to sound artist Susan Philipsz who is best known for her installations for which she records herself singing over public address systems.
The 44-year-old is one of four artists in the running for this year's Turner Prize.
She has now received her first commission in the capital - to make a song cycle for the City of London.
Surround Me sees her unadorned voice drift and echo across alleys and courtyards from speakers in
around the Bank of England and along the banks of the Thames.
Glasgow-born Ms Philipsz tends to adopt surprising spaces. In her previous work she has sung versions of Scottish laments under a Glasgow bridge and songs by Radiohead and Marianne Faithfull in a busy bus shelter.
This time around Elizabethan London is her inspiration in the cries of costermongers and traders and the canons and rounds of composers such as John Dowland and Thomas Ravenscroft.
Here she talks about her new soundscape, making installations with her voice and her inclusion in this year's Turner list.
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.
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.
Does it matter that it's not visual in the way so much art obviously tends 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 commissioning group 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 eerie 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'd 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 is said that the city 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 of 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?
One of the venues, Tokenhouse Yard, faces the Bank of England
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 the river into 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 Thames.
How would you describe the finished result?
As a series of interrelated sound works which bring you to very different types of locations 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, fluidity, circulation and immersion; the swelling tide and the ebb and flow of the river convey a sense of absence and loss in the contemporary City of London.
It's something we've lost now, particularly in these days 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 Elizabethan 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 too much attention to what the press say. I'm very happy to be on the shortlist, whether I win or not.
Surround Me opens on 9 October to 2 January 2011 in the City of London. Saturdays & Sundays only, 10am - 5pm. The winner of the Turner Prize 2010 will be announced on 6 December.