Ahead of his lecture-performance at ArtReview's bar in London, a work which explores the folklore of the railway song through poetry, storytelling, ethnographic field recordings and music, we spoke to the London-based, North Carolina-born artist. Angell has previously presented his work at Camden Arts Centre, London; the Lofoten International Arts Festival; the Svolvær and Kinisi Festival, Santorini; noshowspace, London; Green Parrot, Barcelona; Duke University, North Carolina; Open School East, London; Arnolfini, Bristol and the Rietveld Academie, Amsterdam.
ArtReview: Your performance-lectures are characterised by you talking the audience through a series of field recordings, both musical and ritual. How would you describe yourself however, as an artist, a musicologist or an ethnographic researcher?
Noah Angell: As an artist, I try not to describe myself. Those other designations do hold to some extent – when I perform these works for audiences of anthropologists they appreciate the work as they see that I’m engaging with aspects of their practice which are fertile but peripheral to their research focus and so usually left untouched.
AR: How did this style of working or performance develop?
NA: From listening. I used to listen to records in the dark while I rested my eyes as I was taking breaks from video editing. Which is funny because these works operate almost as montage – my introduction colouring the reception of the first recording which then impacts our reading of the next, with determined dissonances and narratives that loop back around, and so on. When I began this work it was mostly readings of the recordings, now the recordings have become more rests, spaces to think things through, which is what songs often are.
AR: Does a single recording inspire the rest of your thematic performances? Where do you source the recordings from – a lot of record shopping? A lot of travelling?
NA: Yes, sometimes it begins from wanting others to hear a single recording as I hear it, from there a certain amount of scaffolding has to be put in place - a constellation of thoughts, acoustic spaces and historical events which shape our hearing. I source records in every conceivable way, that’s just the game – charity shops, record stores, travelling, online, private channels – I get emails from contacts who say 'I’ve met with the curator who recorded this document of the Surui [an indigenous people of Rondônia, Brazil], she’s made an oral agreement with the community that there will be no further pressings. I have the last sealed stock copies available for $100 a piece', that sort of thing.
AR: One might describe your works as being like a really good radio show performed live. What happens in the listening process when the audience is required to give their full attention to a recording (as opposed to doing the dishes while the radio is on)?
NA: One unanticipated outcome of these works is that they create a sort bubble of immersive listening. When it’s working I look out and everyone in the room looks asleep! It’s a bit like the cinema, where an intimacy comes from being in a deeply receptive mode, in the dark, with many others. This of course feeds back into the work as once I realised that people were in such a highly attenuated, sensitised state I lost interest in doing a sort of comparative analysis of related recordings and thought ‘Ok, they’re really listening…’ and started going into more subtle areas of thought.
AR: Other than your night at The ArtReview Bar, what else have you got coming up?
NA: Well, along with my friend Francis Gooding I’m currently working on an oral history of Ghost Stories of the British Museum (it's working title) collected primarily from current and former employees. This will be a book, but there will also be a gallery component which will premiere at Rib exhibition space in Rotterdam who are coproducing the project. We’ll begin exhibiting some of the incoming / in-progress material there towards the end of this year. Francis and I are also working on Lux Imperium, a film made from hundreds of home movies shot in the British colonies from the 1920s to the 1970s – as the empire was in a state of freefall. The film is as much to do with the historical period as it is to do with this early period of amateur film. There will be screenings of in-progress edits and unedited reels at the Film Africa festival, which focuses on archival material this year, and also at the Royal Asiatic Society here in London in November.
AR: And other performances?
NA: I am working on That Celestial Shore for CCA-Derry-Londonderry. This piece is being written specifically for an Irish audience and is about Irish musical forms as they are found in my home state of North Carolina. It is a gesture of returning these forms which will be immediately recognisable, but as mutations. Amidst the storytelling and historical detours I will try to explain how these mutations took place, for instance in North Carolina you have people who have been mountain dwellers for four centuries, who have never in their lives seen the sea, singing Irish songs of loss at sea. You have black folks playing reels on fiddles and banjos. One has to look at early colonial history, at the plantation economy and the intricacies of segregation to ascertain how these hybrids of Irish, Scottish, African and Native American songs came to be.
I am also helping to produce a record by Connie B. Steadman, of the Badgett Sisters – a trio of sisters from Yanceyville, North Carolina, who made the most beautiful acapella gospel harmony records in the African American vernacular tradition. I visited her just to thank her for her work on my last trip home [readers can find an Arabic-language account of that visit here] and she told me she’d like to do a record of harmony duets with recordings of her youngest son and her father, both of whom have passed on. It’s an unspeakably beautiful project and I’m honoured to be able to help facilitate it. Interview by Oliver Basciano