Work of the Week: Susan Philipsz’s ‘Muffled Drums’


The Turner Prize-winning sound-artist brings the beating heart of an Edgar Allan Poe nightmare into your own home

When Susan Philipsz walked into Hamilton Mansion, an eighteenth-century Federal-style property set within Philadelphia’s historic Woodlands Cemetery, she immediately thought of the American gothic master Edgar Allan Poe. ‘His fascination with domestic space – inaccessible spaces under the floorboards, behind the wall, up inside the fireplace – really caught my imagination,’ she recounts. In particular, Philipsz was drawn to Poe’s 1843 short story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, in which an increasingly paranoid (and murderous) narrator hears a creeping sound pulsing up from beneath the floorboards. He believes it to be his victim’s still-beating heart.

Taking a reference in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’s epigraph to beating hearts resonating in the manner of a muffled funeral drum, the artist’s site-specific commission The Unquiet Grave (2020) developed the metaphor as a series of sound recordings hidden below the floorboards and ventilation shafts of the mansion, placing the audience within the unsteady mind of Poe’s narrator.

Much of Philipsz’s work returns to this idea of sound becoming a time capsule, capable of triggering hidden memories and long-forgotten feelings. In Lowlands (2010), the artist sang several versions of a Scottish ballad, dating back to the sixteenth century, and installed the recordings beneath a series of bridges by Glasgow’s Clyde River – the songs told the tale of a drowned sailor who returns one final time to say farewell to his lover. That same year, for SURROUND ME, Philipsz took-over six sites across the City of London, playing recordings of her singing sixteenth- and seventeenth-century compositions inspired by the sounds of the city: the polyphonic cries of street traders, for example, which made their way into the music of composers such as John Dowland and Thomas Ravenscroft.

With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the April installation of The Unquiet Grave at Hamilton Mansion was suspended, but the artist has now released a ‘digital, DIY edition’ of the piece reimagined for an audience in lockdown, titled Muffled Drums (2020): 4 audio recordings that we are instructed to position around our homes. (You can stream them here through the Philadelphia Contemporary website.)

I spent most of one afternoon playing these recordings (three percussion tracks and one vocal track on which the artist sings from the ballad The Unquiet Grave (Child 78), which was collected by the American scholar Francis James Child during the nineteenth century) from various family members’ mobile phones – propped up inside bowls, vases and pots, transforming them into impromptu resonating chambers. There’s a poignancy amid the eerie, teeming quiet of lockdown, to these sounds of lament breaking through the fabric of everyday life. In Muffled Drums, not only is sound a carrier of history, memory and imagination, but rather, something that might outlive us all.

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