By Daven Wu
Sep 8, 2021
THE INHALED BREATH BETWEEN the sung notes of a choir, the remembered noises of a childhood, and a clowder of cats playing Schoenberg’s op. 11 Drei Klavierstücke are played out to great effect in the latest blockbuster show in the Lion City. Running until January 2, 2022, at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore, Orchestral Manoeuvres: See Sound. Feel Sound. Be Sound. is a mesmerizing exploration of sound by more than 30 artists, composers and musicians through a series of installations, musical pieces and sculptures scattered through the museum’s high-ceilinged rooms.
Given the theme of the show, you’d expect each exhibit to be isolated into its own sound-proofed room. Instead, the deep bass notes of Hannah Perry’s Rage Fluids, 2021 – a hypnotic installation of golden curving sheets that visibly vibrate to a guttural hum – merge almost seamlessly into the scratchy static next door of German conceptual artist Timm Ulrichs’ Radio, 1977/2021, an old transistor radio encased within a concrete box.
In another room, Janet Cardiff’s 2001 work, The Forty Part Motet is a revelation in which 40 audio speakers – each representing and playing the recorded voice and singing of a member of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir during a performance of Thomas Tallis’ 16th-century In no other is my hope – encase the listener in a literal surround-sound experience of soaring notes.
“Our ears don’t blink,” explains the museum curator, Adrian George. “We’re subjected to constant audio stimulus, so it wouldn’t have been realistic to isolate the exhibits. That’s why we’ve placed them in open rooms, so that the exhibits bleed sound, but without being cacophonous.”
In the midst of this auditory Babel, there are unexpected pockets of quiet, introspective moments in which sound is experienced on a different level. In the video, Dancing in Peckham, 1994, the artist Gillian Wearing dances in a busy shopping center to music only she can hear, to depict what George describes as the gap between a public and private experience of music. It’s the silent disco made profound.
And in another moving piece, the Deaf artist Christine Sun Kim visualizes sound as a staccato series of handwritten f’s – the musical notation for fortissimo, or loud – to illustrate abstract concepts in The Sound of Obsessing, 2017, and The Sound of Gravity Doing its Thing, 2017.
And just when you think you’ve seen – and heard – it all, you come to the last piece, Cory Arcangel’s Drei Klavierstücke op. 11, 2009, in which the American post-conceptual artist stitches together a series of YouTube videos of cats walking across pianos into a note-perfect rendition of the avant garde composer Arnold Schoenberg’s 1909 opus.
For this writer, at least, the experience of watching random cats play a musical masterpiece turns out to be the most unexpected and joyous moment of an already remarkable exhibition.
Orchestral Manoeuvres: See Sound. Feel Sound. Be Sound. is at the ArtScience Museum Singapore, through January 2, 2022; marinabaysands.com/museum/exhibitions/orchestral-manoeuvres.html