Sound artist gives voice to collection

Turner Prize winner ties ballad to PEM’s maritime works

Susan Philipsz has a sound installation in the East India Marine Hall at the Peabody Essex Museum. She uses her untrained voice to explore space. Susan Philipsz has a sound installation in the East India Marine Hall at the Peabody Essex Museum. She uses her untrained voice to explore space. (Walter Silver/Peabody Essex Museum)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / June 4, 2011

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SALEM — The Turner Prize, Great Britain’s award for the best contemporary British artist under 50, has in the past prompted some head scratching for bestowing its awards to artists who push the bounds of our common conception of what is art. Martin Creed won in 2001 for “Work No. 227: The lights going on and off,’’ which came to the Boston Center for the Arts in 2007. The title aptly describes the piece.

In December, Glasgow artist Susan Philipsz, who has an installation up now at the Peabody Essex Museum, was awarded the Turner Prize for singing. All right, not explicitly for singing — the competition is not “Britain’s Got Talent.’’ Philipsz is a sound artist who uses her own untrained voice to explore space. The Turner Prize show at Tate Britain featured an empty gallery with speakers piping Philipsz singing “Lowlands,’’ a sad old Scottish folk song. Visitors conditioned to look had to instead stand and listen. Like Creed’s piece, Philipsz’s gallery installations thrust her viewers into their own internal experience. And that, indeed, is one of art’s jobs.

In an interview Philipsz gave in 2008 for a show at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art, she described singing as “a sculptural experience. [There’s] your inner body space, and what happens when you project sound into a room.’’ Listening, too, awakens the spaces within the body — where do the tones resonate? What emotions do they touch off?

“Lowlands’’ was, in fact, originally a public art piece. The music murmured out from under three Glasgow bridges, as water lapped below and trains rattled above. Philipsz has also recently imbued London back alleys with haunting folk songs. Imagine coming across a mournful, disembodied woman’s voice singing out from under a bridge or in an alley. It would be like seeing a ghost.

At PEM, Philipsz is the focus of “FreePort [No. 003],’’ a program that invites contemporary artists to interact with the museum’s collection. She has set up shop in East India Marine Hall. This is no empty white cube gallery. East India Marine Hall sports a neoclassical design with long, arching windows at one end. It houses some of the museum’s maritime history collection, including several hand-carved figureheads that once rode the prows of ships, portraits of 18th-century ship captains, and exotic artifacts they brought home from distant journeys.

For her installation, “If I with you would go,’’ Philipsz has placed eight speakers around the gallery. Each one features her singing a different version of the traditional ballad “The House Carpenter’s Wife (The Daemon Lover),’’ which tells the story of a carpenter’s wife bewitched by a sailor, who may be the ghost of her first love. Deserting her family, she runs off to sea with him, and they drown.

It’s a treat to wander the gallery as the music plays, and to project the story onto the works on view. The figurehead “Marie’’ circa 1870, which adorned the bow of the bark Marie, portrays a blond lass in a short-sleeved green frock with flowers in her hair — could she be the carpenter’s wife? And the miniature portrait of Captain Nehemiah Ingersoll Ingraham, dated around 1800 — perhaps he was her sailor lover. Perhaps even after she married the carpenter, she wore this miniature portrait in a locket under her dress. Ahh, romance!

The risk here, with such a florid tale and because music is a broad, brisk avenue to emotion, is that “If I with you would go’’ could add up to sentimental mush, as rigged to trigger tears as a daytime soap.

Philipsz avoids that with layering. She has recorded different lengths of the song. At the beginning, there’s a chorus of voices from all around the gallery, singing differing lyrics to the same melody. With so many voices singing, it’s impossible to follow one lyric; we only pick up snatches. The melody conveys the emotional tone without the weight of the narrative. One voice drops out at a time, until finally, just one sings the fateful end.

A forlorn instrumental of long, dolorous notes played on glass and violin follows. It’s more about harmony than melody, and the way certain combinations of notes evoke emotion. The effect doesn’t so much underline the sadness of the ballad as create space for the viewer to be with the whole of it: the song, the story, the portraits and ship models, the sun filtering through the windows. If the lyrics, layered and indecipherable as they are, help the story reside in the gallery, the instrumental clears the story out, and we’re left with the feeling of what has just occurred still humming through our bones.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at

FREEPORT [NO. 003]: Susan Philipsz: If I with you would go

At: Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem, through Nov. 6.