A dark and gothic experience. A hint of the avant-garde, reflected in the arrangement of the speakers: some suspended from the ceiling 30 feet above, others raised from the floor by black steel rods, forming an alcove with chairs placed within – the listening section. Yet the mere words, “alcove” and “30 feet tall” are not sufficient to describe what you will find at the doorstep of the Park Avenue Armory. Intrigue? Novelty? Yes, and yes. The likelihood of an utterly unique experience – particularly for those new to sound installations – that justifies the admissions fee and makes the commute worthwhile? Yes, almost certainly.
Here is the space itself: spectacular in size and eerily vacuum-like in character; dimly lit; sepia-toned. People converged in a single, well-lit spot in the seemingly infinite space, amidst chairs and speakers; all facing a table, upon which lies a disembodied phonograph horn. Here is the sound: a nightmarish mix of world music and sound effects familiar from movies, brought together by the narration of a female voice, as she speaks about her frightful dreams. It is up to you to decide the context of her disclosure – are we eavesdropping in on a psychotherapy session, or do we represent her living diary? Fans of the macabre, the strange, and the avant-garde – rejoice. This is for you.
The nightmares of Janet span exactly 30 minutes, and range across several genres of movies and literature. If you close your eyes, as many in the audience do, you can watch the scenes as she describes them, and watch the quick switches between worlds. As her story shifts and the music moves with her, the visual world inside your head is shattered and another forms, anew. It is an exploration of the power of storytelling; it is a movie without images. And yet when your eyes open, you have the option of dealing with the curious visual elements as well (the arrangement of the speakers is by no means an accident!). What does it mean for them to be scattered about, and hanging from the ceiling? What is the significance of giving audience members the option of roaming, away from the group and away from the light? How is the listening experience from the fringes of the space representative of Janet’s own, which is recounted simultaneously in the very same moment at the exhibit as you ponder this question? And how can you perform other similar, small experiments with the conceptual boundaries of what Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller express, with the symbolic yet physically present tools that they offer? Viewers are indeed free to walk around all throughout, and you may sit in the main listening section, or alone, on the floor. But a prerequisite for making the most of the experience is remembering that, like all sound installations, this is a piece that fully utilizes all of its elements, and there is very little mixing of sound within the scope of individual speakers. Instead, the artists assign a unique sound to each, and rely on the room’s acoustics and the viewers’ mobility to create the intended soundscape.
“The Murder of Crows” claims to be just a sound installation, but it is much more than just a soundtrack playing. It is really an exploration of sound and setting. After all, it is a work that travels the world with ease, molding to its surroundings: the viewer who sees it played at the Armory will no doubt have much to compare with the viewer who saw it played in a German subway station. The presence or absence of light, the changeable size of the playing hall and the artistic placement of the speakers (scattered and dangled to resemble the murder, or flock, of crows from the title) – all contribute to the uniqueness of the experience, and all are subject to variability, as the exhibit travels. Each viewing location explores a different dynamic in the relationship between the content and the setting – but there are no straight answers. This one, big question is left up to the viewers to answer: What statements do “The Murder of Crows” make about the relationship between sound and surroundings, in art?