“Since the 1990s, the experimental art of Canadians Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller has been a fascinating exploration of how sound affects and shapes our experience. World-premiering at the 2008 Biennale is their largest installation to date, The Murder of Crows – an astounding 100-speaker artwork that envelops the viewer/listener in the experience of the sculptural and physical qualities of sound. The large and cavernous space of Pier 2/3 is filled with speakers mounted on stands, chairs and walls, creating a minimalist ‘flock’. The installation is structured like a play or film, but with images created only by voice, music and sound effects. Inspired by Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters – from the series of etchings called ‘Caprichos’ (c. 1799), which was a denunciation of the evils of society in Spain in his day – the artists have placed a lone megaphone horn on a table in the middle of the space. Out of this horn comes Cardiff’s voice reciting dreams and thoughts as if, like Goya’s sleeper, she is absorbed in her own nightmares. Using multiple soundscapes, as well as compositions by Freida Abtan, Tilman Ritter and Titus Maderlechner, the artists create a ‘sound play’ that physically envelops the listener in a moving field of sound and music. Morphing in a dreamlike way from war marches to lullabies, the piece is a requiem to today’s battered world.” [Biennale of Sydney]
That’s about right, and immersing oneself in a 100 speaker installation is of course an affecting experience. Indeed, I’d seen/heard Cardiff/Bures Miller’s prototype for this work, Forty Part Motet, on a bleak Sheffield day a few years earlier, an extraordinary 40-speaker recreation of Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium (1573), with once voice tracked to each speaker. It’s as if you’re a ghost, able to move around a full choir as you please, pausing to listen to one voice, or a group of voices, without the ‘singers’ noticing. (Someone captured a fragment of it here, and there’s more information about it here.)
A few years later, as I through around the forest of speakers placed around Pier 2/3 at Walsh Bay, winter sunlight bursting through the high windows and the gentle creak of the old pier introducing itself to the mix, under duress to the harbour’s currents, I can’t help but conclude that Cardiff and Bures Miller - in this mode at least - are a bit 'one-note', which is somewhat ironic given the polyphonic spree that their works increasingly revolve around. It's the same principle as 40 Part Motet, yet with 60 extra speakers. Having said that, it’s still a beguiling trick. Technically adept, often sublime, but I'm not sure how deeply it affects, ultimately. I think perhaps Tallis’s Spem in Alium is also a far superior piece of music, although The Murder of Crows has far more variation.
(Another Cardiff/Bures Miller piece is the The Muriel Lake Incident, seen at Tate Modern years ago, which has a lightness of touch absent in Forty part Motet and Murder of Crows. It's almost penny arcade, but no worse for that.)
The videos below are partly the result of the usual games of ‘exhibition pacman’ with the Biennale’s staff, after I'd noticed a small poster declaring an unnecessary (I thought) ban on the use of cameras. So the first of these videos is taken with the camera behind my back, in my clasped hands, as if I were going for a stroll along a promenade. Hence it looks as it does. You can hear the choral component fading as I move towards the speakers denoting the piano. The other is a little smoother, featuring a segment in which the sound of the ocean dissolves into a woman's voice recounting a dream. The woman's voice is apparently located within the megaphone horn mentioned above. The music varies considerably over the 30-minute duration, so don’t take these elements as representatives of the entire piece. And obviously, any sound recording would struggle to convey the sculptural quality of the sound, distributed as it is, never mind reproduce the fidelity - and certainly not my digital camera.
I did enjoy the work, though wasn’t as moved by it as I was by Forty Part Motet. In fact I was most taken with Pier 2/3 itself, which is a simply wonderful space. One of the 4 salvaged piers that comprise Walsh Bay, right by the Sydney Harbour Bridge, it’s a place with stories to tell for sure, despite its cavernous interior being left unadorned, detritus simply shoved to one side. It has its own distinctive music nonetheless.
Pier 2/3 also contained a reconstruction of Luigo Russolo’s noise-makers, Intonarumori (1914), and a quite beautiful untitled painting by Doreen Reid Nakamarra.