Sound-map for the Angel of the North (1995-1998)
I first met the sculptor Antony Gormley in 2007 in the spacious drawing studio of his magnificent studio complex in Kings Cross. I seem to remember our meeting was cut short by his having to rush off to an emergency dental appointment with toothache (at least I hope that’s what it was). Nonetheless, Antony was fascinated by the idea of his work being used to generate music and generously encouraged what were continuing to be, my faltering and mostly frustrated efforts. It took 2 years to travel from the first ideas to the finished piece. Initially I found the severity and concentration in the material execution of Antony’s work left me with no purchase with which to begin anything.
In this first, dentally compromised, meeting with Antony, I was fascinated to discover that, in common with the other artists I have worked with, he was acutely aware of what he felt to be the enormous affective power of music. This was reinforced during our second meeting at his groundbreaking 2007 Hayward Gallery show. Many of us will remember the extraordinary Blind Light installation: a 25 sq m cloud chamber into which the visitor could venture and ‘disappear’. In the chamber, the feeling of being in contemporary central London rapidly receded and viewers found themselves in what felt, psychologically and perceptually, like a completely limitless space where the only visual experience was whiteness, apart from a few of the most fleeting shadowy fragments of disembodied companions.
The drama of the Blind Light experience was irresistible and overwhelming. In discussion with Antony afterwards I was astonished to hear him confess that Blind Light was his ‘pathetic attempt to mimic the effect of music.’ Disarmingly modest this may have been, but the link to the effect and affect of music was fascinating and here was a concrete musical analogue: from the proposition in Antony’s sculpture of the body as a ‘lever on space’ to the idea of music as a field. However, this raised as many conundrums as it solved: it yielded only a rather nebulous idea with no concrete starting points with the obvious problem that music already is a field.
The first turning points came through two linked encounters. Firstly, I discovered that Antony was strongly affected by the writings of the great medieval thinker, St Augustine, in particular his reflections upon memory as recorded in book X, chapters VIII and XVI of the Confessions. Augustine’s miraculous words describing memory as “a spreading, limitless room within…” resonated at once with Antony’s preoccupation with the body as a field, and by extension, the pervasive effect of music. The second encounter took the form of media reports I heard by chance concerning public reaction to the installation of Antony’s work, Another Place, on Crosby Beach. Aside from controversy over the 100 cast iron figures looking out to sea somehow causing either offence or a safety hazard, I was astonished to hear ordinary people relating how they came to ‘be’ with the sculptures, as if they possessed strength to bring comfort and to withstand and hold the spectrum of human vulnerabilities brought to them. This was a pivotal moment.
I now had a formula I could exploit: real memories, in the form of text (which therefore suggested the use of a singer) dispersed over constellations of (abstract) structure derived directly from Antony’s sculpture. This would give a level of operation at the fore to mid-ground, but I also needed an overarching form. This came from 2 sources: one was a response to the structure of Augustine’s text in chapter VIII of the Confessions and the other came from Antony’s words to me regarding his most famous work, the Angel of the North. As it happened, both corresponded to a process of augmentation: Antony described the Angel in terms of his expansion series of work (you can see the radial ribs on the sculpture concentrate at the centre and increasingly disperse towards the wing-tips). Augustine’s text dealing with memory, by and large, begins with descriptions of local senses and expands outwards through to reflections upon the vastness of what the mind can comprehend - in stark contrast to its apparently diminutive physical dimensions. The next tasks were to assemble the various ingredients and, over time, learn the ‘language’ of what I had in front of me.
After literally months of searching, I found memory fragments in the form of texts which I then I broke down into an order that I hoped roughly fitted with the trajectory of expansion described above. I decided to begin by using fragments of sensory recollections of taste, colour, smell, weather etc. Next, in what could be described as being in ascending order of increasing physical distance from the mind, I chose a subject that described consciousness engaging with the human world: a world of others and of conflict. I decided upon a recent event within the European continent: the Srebrenica massacre which occurred during the 1995 Bosnian war and the words of a father calling for his missing son and those of his mother subsequently at his unmarked grave. The use of the text was made possible by the kind permission and invaluable advice of one of the UK’s le
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