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A Song From Under the Floorboards - Susan Philipsz – Muffled Drums

Philadelphia Contemporary

Everything was falling apart by the time I settled down to listen to Muffled Drums, Susan Philipsz’ new four-part digital sound installation, available to stream on the Philadelphia Contemporary website. No, not the big wide world outside that’s fallen prey to the mass destructive powers of the Covid-19 pandemic and the enforced global lockdown that followed. Nor the pains of confinement that go hand in disposable plastic glove with the enforced isolation that goes with it.

I’m talking about the actual everyday material wear and tear of domestic fixtures and fittings that were starting to take the strain from me being indoors too much. Where normally we’d have time apart as I took advantage of having the freedom of the city, now, other than my state-sanctioned daily constitutional, the furniture and I are pretty much cooped up 24/7, and we’re all feeling the strain.

It was the wind that did it, the weekend just past when it swooped in from the west or wherever to make its mark. I could hear it through the walls when I was in bed, whistling and rattling through the kitchen window, whooshing in a draft as it went. Eventually, something in the lock gave way, and the window flung itself open enough so the breeze rushed in before I slammed it shut once more. It happened again. The lock didn’t catch. And again, so I slammed it harder, pressed on the double glazing, but it clicked open again. I put a great big tin pot in front of it, hoping its weight might block it, but the wind forced its way through again, so the window ended up knocking the pan into the sink with a crash.

It was maddening, thinking I’d got it slammed tight, only for it to click open again and bash against the taps as the wind howled in. I tried keeping the kitchen door shut, but you could hear it creaking as the hinges stretched and strained. The wooden door frame tugged for dear life in the opposite direction, its own glass panes shaking with the effort. As the window was forced open, so too was the door, which flung its way out of its frame and into the living room. No longer in control of gravity, it eventually swung lose as its top hinge gave way, bending limply out of shape as it dislodged itself from the door.

With a window gaping and a door hanging, just to add insult to injury, the wooden tray I eat my dinner off fell apart in an elaborate unfolding that left it in two matching pieces of what now resembled a slot-together Ikea kit. This threatened to collapse into my lap each time I used it, taking the scalding contents of my plate with it as it smashed onto the floor. What a mess. In every dream home a heartache and all that, but the poltergeists must be bored stiff.

These things are sent to try us, alas, mercifully in light of day. As its title suggests, however, Muffled Drums casts up the spirit of things that go bump in the night. Or maybe I just think that because I originally misread it as Muffled Dreams.

Philipsz’s original commission was set to be a site-specific piece occupying the nooks and crannies of Hamilton Mansion, the 16-room manor built in the 18th century by William Hamilton, the grandson of Scottish émigré lawyer, Andrew Hamilton. The house sits in the grounds of The Woodlands, the 54-acre West Philly estate that is part pleasure garden, part cemetery.

Christening her proposed new creation The Unquiet Grave, after the 15th century ballad collected by American folklorist Francis James Child, Philipsz took her cue as well from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Tell-Tale Heart. Written and published in 1843, while Poe was resident in Philadelphia. Poe’s first-person yarn is penned in the voice of a murderer, who disposes of their victim’s cut-up body under the floorboards. The killer is subsequently driven to distraction by the noises they believe to be the still pounding heart of their victim, sealing their own fate as they confess all.

The reference in the title to Child’s found song adds another layer, telling its own story of a man mourning the death of his true love, who berates him for allowing his sorrow to keep her spirit from peaceful rest. He begs her for a final kiss, only to be told that it would kill him. He persists, willing to join her in death, but she tells him that if they were both dead, that their hearts would decay, and that he should make the most of life while he has it.

Given that lockdown has prevented any physical engagement with art on display beyond our collective front door, this is sound advice. With Philipsz prevented from haunting the four walls of Hamilton Mansion with The Unquiet Grave in the flesh, the project was brought back to life as Muffled Drums. This interactive installation allows the listener to create their own haunted house experience in the comfort of their own front room, bedroom and kitchen, broken locks notwithstanding.

Muffled Drums is made up of three separate drum-based recordings of Philipsz tapping out a simple but foreboding thump-thump heartbeat pattern on different types of percussion instrument. These are indicated by the white-on-black line drawings on the installation’s suitably gothic-looking webpage.

A fourth recording finds Philipsz singing The Unquiet Grave a cappella. Participants are invited to play each channel separately or together as they see fit from different devices spread out from room to room. To add to the mood, Philipsz recommends incorporating pots, pans, vases and what in a musical context would be called found instruments, adding reverberations and other domestic clatter into the mix.

One might think here of the accusatory maxim brought into play by song-writer Jesse Stone on his opus, Shake, Rattle and Roll, which was originally recorded by Big Joe Turner in 1954, but made more famous by Bill Haley & His Comets the same year. The song’s decree in what reads as a domestic argument to ‘Get out from that kitchen and rattle those pots and pans’ could easily be a pre-cursor to the fatal events in The Unquiet Grave and The Tell-Tale Heart.

More playfully, the wordless choreography of Morecambe and Wise’s iconic 1976 breakfast sketch, as toasters pop and eggs are whipped to the bump and grind of David Rose’s 1950s instrumental, The Stripper, suggests another set of everyday routines between long-term co-dependents who sometimes drive each other mad.

Composer Matthew Herbert’s 1998 album, Around the House, mixed dance beats with sounds generated by kitchen utensils. He followed this in 2001 with Bodily Functions, which featured sounds made from human hair, skin and internal organs. Then there are the pots and pans that under lockdown accompany the sub Steve Reichian Thursday night mass applause for key workers that acts as catharsis for those taking part as much as a show of solidarity with those it’s intended to honour. 

Muffled Drums is more primal in construction than any of that. The potentially infinite series of remixes that are in the listener’s hands as much as ears make for an often-eerie experience. Just eight minutes of one of the drum recordings by itself – patiently, insistently, steadily relentless – is enough to keep you awake at night. Add another from your laptop on the other side of the room, and then another playing on your iPhone from inside a pan in your kitchen, and its suggested portents of doom are even more affecting.

The drumbeats niggle at you from all sides, dropping in and out on the off-beats if you time it right. As the beats double and treble up, they seem to be sounding the clarion call of a little army of restless spirits battering away at the walls they’re bricked up in. Or perhaps it comes from the foundations they’ve been buried in before having an entire house built on top of them.

Try listening to it on headphones. With the light off. Then add Philipsz’s voice singing The Unquiet Grave as those spirits are tunnelling away. Overlay it with the same voice emanating from the ether, so it creates a round, with each line overlapping the other before one by one falling silent. By the end, only a solitary voice resonates darkly around the creaking, wind-whistling room. And then, stillness, if not total silence.

Philipsz has been making spectral aural interventions for more than two decades now, ever since the Glasgow-born artist’s recordings of herself singing songs by Nirvana, the Velvet Underground and others in Filter (1998) seeped into bus-stops and supermarkets.

Philipsz’ use of outdoor environments saw her 2010 Glasgow International Festival of Visual commission, Lowlands, feature recordings of three different versions of 16th century Scottish lament, Lowlands. The song tells the story of a drowned woman who returns as a ghost to mourn the fact that she will never be with her lover again.

The three versions of Lowlands played beneath a trio of bridges on the River Clyde in Glasgow, and subsequently won Philipsz the Turner Prize. Since then, Philipsz’ voice – untutored, melancholy and full of fragile grace – has carried through indoor and outdoor spaces across the globe.

The Tell-Tale Heart has been adapted for stage, screen and radio numerous times. Former Velvet Underground vocalist Lou Reed, a Poe aficionado, went as far as recording his own take on The Tell-Tale Heart on his 2003 homage to Poe, The Raven. On stage, Edinburgh-born playwright Anthony Neilson took advantage of the story’s pronoun-free narrator to update it in an all-female version for the National Theatre of Great Britain in 2018.

The Unquiet Grave has similarly been heard in many forms. This has seen the song astral travel its way through arrangements by Ralph Vaughan Williams, to covers by Joan Baez, Barbara Dickson and Kate Rusby. There have been several goth takes on the song, while Kris Drever applied his own composition to it on Scots neo-folk trio Lau’s 2007 album, Lightweights and Gentlemen.

Muffled Drums is not an adaptation of either Poe’s story or Child’s found ballad. In its primal, potentially multi-tracked call and response, Philipsz’s installation is the stuff of Happenings and kinetic sculptures triggered into life by invisible trip switches. Together and apart, the four pieces creates the essence and atmosphere of an indoor environment even as they beckon from beyond the grave.

In the current climate, the everyday rhythms of life – cooking, cleaning, working, playing – are chores and routines that have metamorphosed into something else. Things to make and do are stretched to breaking point by the claustrophobic intensity of the absorbed monotony of life under lockdown. And yes, the devil will make work for idle hands. 

Despite this, Poe’s story itself conjures up a full Sensurround experience. Sound, especially, is everywhere in its few ornate pages, dripped into being by the furious scratchings of its author’s quill. As the un-named narrator outlines his deeds, ‘Above all was the sense of hearing acute’ he writes. Later, he talks of how ‘The nesting of a drum stimulates a soldier into courage,’ and of ‘a sound as a watch makes when enveloped with cotton.’

This is the language of a million sound-effects slammed into carefully timed being by hunched-up Foley artists or, more likely these days, by digitally enhanced sound designers. Both are as experimentally inclined as the latter-day noise artists with their contact microphones.

These in turn resemble the sonic playpen manipulated by the electronic composer brought to life by John Hurt in Jerzy Skolimowsky’s 1978 big-screen adaptation of Robert Graves’ short story, The Shout. In Graves’ work, a man seemingly empowered with the forces of indigenous aboriginal shamanism claims to be able to produce a shout so powerful it can kill.

Similarly, the blacked-out box of tricks used so effectively in stage productions of The Woman in Black is the same as those used in any American horror story set in isolated mansions surrounded by graveyards and invariably inspired by Poe.

It was the late Martin Hannett, who talked of creating an invisible room with sound. It was around 1980, and the maverick sonic sculptor and producer of Joy Division let loose his pearls of wisdom while indulging his TV presenter record label boss Tony Wilson, who was interviewing Hannett as he worked in the studio for an idiot’s guide style light feature for teatime TV. As Hannett mapped out his room at the mixing desk based on the sounds he could hear in his head, the drum sounds remained at its centre.

Hannett was in part echoing another producer, Phil Spector, and his idea of a wall of sound.
Where Hannett created space, Spector threw everything including several kitchen sinks into works that became epic enough to make the heart pound. Both men were regarded as crazed geniuses, whose madness occasionally threatened to take them over the edge.

One of the best things about Muffled Drums is that, in Philipsz’s imaginary room, you can rearrange the furniture to your heart’s desire, DIY in every sense.

My kitchen window’s fixed now. It no longer rattles at night, and the wind can’t whistle in. The door is still hanging. It’s not considered an essential repair under lockdown, but there’s a stillness to it anyway. The pots and pans have been put away as well. A place for everything, and everything in its place. And in Muffled Drums, the song from under the floorboards goes on, heart beating up love till the last.

Susan Philipsz: Muffled Drums, Philadelphia Contemporary.

The Drouth, May 2020



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