Monday, October 04, 2010

Lowlands: music at the Turner Prize

The Turner Prize 2010 exhibition is now open at Tate Britain, with at least three of the four short-listed artists having strong musical connections.

Painter Dexter Dalwood was once the bassist in first wave Bristol punk band The Cortinas. I have a copy of their 1977 single Fascist Dictator/Television Families which I will have to get out if he wins.

The Otolith Group is a partnership between Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun. The latter is well known for his music writing, notably the seminal afro-futurist thoughtist classic, More Brilliant than the Sun. The former sings on some of their film soundtracks.

I don't know whether Angela de la Cruz has a secret past as a member of an anarcho-punk band or zine editor, so can't comment on any musical connections with her work.

But the final room in the exhibition is a musical work by Susan Philipsz. She was shortlisted on the basis of her piece Lowlands which involved recordings of her singing a Scottish folk song being played under three bridges across the River Clyde in Glasgow. Transposing this into the much smaller scale of a single room in a gallery is quite a challenge, but actually adds something to it.

As with many old folk songs, there are several versions of Lowland's Away in circulation. Philipsz has recorded three different versions of the song which play simultaneously from a triangle of speakers in the gallery. The effect is slightly disorienting as the three voices are singing in chorus but not always the same lyrics. Presumably in the original piece it was not possible to hear the three voices together in the same way, or to mix between them by shifting your attention or location in relation to the speakers.

The acoustics of the gallery are of course different from outdoors with the sound waves from the three speakers creating a sonic space that does feel almost tangible, as when for instance a long sustained note carves the air.

It's undeniably lovely, but I guess there will be the predictable 'is it art?' response. It is true that in some ways it is not so different from the unaccompanied warblings of an accomplished folk singer - her style is similar to the recording of the song by Anne Briggs. But there is no doubt that she has created a specific experience quite distinct from what is commonly heard and felt in a folk club or a concert setting.

The song itself is a mournful lament for a lost lover, drowned and returned as a ghost. When I am in the Tate galleries I often think of its own ghosts, of the prisoners who suffered there when the Millbank Penitentiary stood on the site and the patients in the hospital next door replaced by the later Tate extension. Hearing this song there put me in mind of an inmate in exile from the Scotland of lowlands, highlands and islands, wistfully singing to themselves in their cell 'My love is drowned in the misty lowlands...'

Here's another three versions of the song, you could even create your own version of the Turner piece by playing them all at the same time!:

Anne Briggs:

Kate McGarrigle and Rufus Wainwright:

The Corries:

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