Susan Philipsz deals with the spatial properties of sound and the relationships between sound and architecture. Interested in the emotive and psychological properties of song and how they can alter individual consciousness, the artist utilizes public address systems in various spaces to interject through the ambient noises of the everyday. Philipsz’s unselfconscious melodies trigger awareness in the listener, temporarily altering their perception of them-selves in a particular place and time. Exploring the line between private memories and the communal experience of song, Philipsz’s works evoke both nostalgia and a sense of dislocation. She employs her disembodied voice in unconventional settings, ultimately intensifying the listeners’ sense of self and connecting them to their environment.
During her ArtPace residency, Philipsz has produced a number of projects, including a solar-powered sound system and a live performance at the Quarry Market in San Antonio. Intended for an audience of passers by, her sound interventions touch on themes of longing, escape, and sympathy. For Public Address the artist selects popular melancholic songs that might be sung while alone, like Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry and Radiohead’s Airbag—making unsuspecting shoppers feel as if they are overhearing something private or personal. In the gallery space, the artist’s live a cappella performance is played back.
For Sunset Song, Philipsz has recorded herself performing Banks of the Ohio, an American folk song about a murder. As with many songs, its haunting lyrics have evolved over time. Philipsz sings two versions—one from the female perspective and the other from the male point of view—which sound from separate horn speakers in the style of a call and response duet. The speakers are fitted with large solar panels that gather energy to power the recording and control its volume. The oversized devices, sited on ArtPace’s roof terrace, have a commanding sculptural presence, and their sounds extend well beyond the building to the streets below. As the volume is guided by the intensity of the sun, Philipsz’s song ricochets off neighboring buildings during the afternoon peak and gradually fades away at sunset. Her title refers to a composition describing a lifestyle that has since passed away. Philipsz reiterates this theme of loss not only through the song’s melancholic lyrics, but also through the actual passage of time.
In Guadalupe, a piece developed at San Antonio’s Greyhound Bus Station, Philipsz draws attention to the sound and feel of a downtown bus station. By combining recorded ambient sounds with bits of melody from a lone country singer/harmonica player, as well as a boarding call for a kind of mythical place, Philipsz recreates the familiar and nostalgic atmospheric sounds of a timeless urban locale.