Susan Philipsz an her sound installations

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Andrew Travers

Susan Mary Philipsz OBE (born 1965) is a Scottish artist who won the 2010 Turner Prize.

Originally a sculptor, she is best known for her sound installations. She records herself singing a cappella versions of songs which are replayed over a public address system in the gallery or other installation. She currently lives and works in Berlin.

Philipsz predominantly creates sound installations using recordings of her own voice that are played in specific geographical sites to “heighten the visitor’s engagement with their surroundings while inspiring thoughtful introspection”. Although Philipsz sings many of her works, it is a key element of her work that she has an untrained, average voice. Philipsz cannot read or write sheet music. She said: “Everyone can identify with a human voice. I think hearing an unaccompanied voice, especially an untrained one, even if it’s singing a song you don’t know, can trigger some really powerful memories and associations. If I’d gone to music school and had proper training, I would not be doing what I do today.”

Her 1998 work “Filter”, consisting of versions of songs by Nirvana, Marianne Faithfull, Radiohead and The Velvet Underground, has been played at a bus station and at a Tesco supermarket.
Her 1999 work “The Internationale” consists of a solo a cappella version of the revolutionary song. She sings the Irish ballad “The Lass of Aughrim” in her 2000 work, The Dead.

In her 2003 work, “Sunset Song”, she sings the male and female parts of the 19th-century American folk ballad “Banks of the Ohio”, with the volume level changing according to light levels. She used a vibraphone for her 2009 piece, “You are not alone”, commissioned for the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford.
In 2010, she was commissioned by the Glasgow International Festival. Her piece, “Lowlands”, was three versions of what she called a 16th-century Scottish lament, “Lowlands Away”. It was played under three bridges over the River Clyde in Glasgow – George V Bridge, the Caledonian Railway Bridge, and Glasgow Bridge “Lowlands”, was subsequently exhibited at Tate Britain, winning her the 2010 Turner Prize.

Developed for documenta, Study for Strings (2012) riffs on an orchestral piece composed in 1943 at the Theresienstadt concentration camp for musicians there. For her recording, Philipsz redacted the parts for all the instruments except one cello and one viola, leaving plangent silences between those two players’ scattered notes.