LOWLANDS  by Susan Philipsz.

Susan Philips sound installation lowlands was inspired by Lindbergh canal in Berlin where Rosa Luxemburg was murdered and thrown in the canal in 1919. Susan saw pictures of her body once recovered   covered in weeds and silt. Though grotesque she then had the idea of rebirth and how the water had reclaimed her after she was murdered.

This led her to think of a character in Finnegan’s wake by James Joyce called Anna Livia Plurabelle Anna Livia meaning river goddess and Plurabelle meaning all the rivers in this chapter he weaves all the rivers of the world into a text written phonetically to sound like a flowing river and at the end of the book she morphs into a river and goes to the sea to be reborn.

Is a haunting melodic recording of her voice singing folk song Lowlands away this 16th century  lament is about a fisherman who is drowned at sea who returns to tell his lover of his death. It is sung over public address systems. She recorded three versions of Lowlands Away and performed beneath three bridges over the River Clyde in Glasgow it has been playing in an empty room at Tate Britain. The empty gallery space was equipped with three speakers each playing a different cappella recording of Philipsz lowlands. Sombre and haunting the work resonated around the empty space creating an eerie calm.  This pivotal point for sound art, which often involves electronically produced noises, but as this examples it can also comprise popular song.

The recording has a somewhat calm, sombre mood yet calming effect. The noise of the traffic and the river waves add to this effect. The acoustical qualities underneath these bridges add to the mood of the piece. One under a railway bridge where at one point we can here the train passing by with the melodic sound of the waves of the river Clyde and the birds in the distance. The noises of the wind and the cars speeding by building up momentum then passing by again. The mood of the piece is altered for the better with the additions of the natural Glasgow sounds that we here daily yet forget to appreciate within the hustle and bustle of city life.

She chooses a slow tempo for the piece well as it is a lover returning to his loved one to tell her of his demise it would hardly suit to be a high tempo song.  her voice singing a capella almost monotone recorded three times and played at slightly different points under three bridges builds up to a layering effect almost ghost like harmonising with the traffic, the waves of the river and the seagulls in the background. Now and again the train passes by or the cars passing by builds up a sound that comes to a climax then returns again to her voice simple clean echoing under the bridges.

Philipsz uses a public address system to play her voice this adds to the echo of the song it has almost a tin like quality to it. Her voice reverbs around and has a haunting sound that matches the acoustics underneath the bridges one bridge being stone and the others being metal. The refractions of the sound differing slightly to get a different feel to this song mixed with the noises of everyday city life truly make the difference to the effect of the lonely piece.

She sings three different versions of this song with different verses yet the chorus remains the same so when you listen to the recording you hear slightly different songs yet the same song adding to the general ambiguity of the word. Still remaining the chorus lowlands away tying in the three versions of the song. This looping over again adds to the haunting qualities of the piece.

While this sound installation has a great atmosphere in the Tate gallery it definitely lacks the honest quality that the original piece has. The original piece had the tones of the city hustle and bustle in the background added to the loneliness of the piece. Contrasting busy modern life   with Susan’s haunting a cappella melody singing which could be from the 16th century itself.  Her voice singing sadly yet has a freeing quality to it like a ghost whose last wish is to bid farewell to their loved ones. Truly a song of death but also rebirth, reborn to a new life none of us know. This is a quandary with installations like that though the recording can hear the tones of Glasgow soundscapes with her voice over it you miss the atmosphere of the bridges of Glasgow who you can imagine have seen their fair share of activity through the years although I think the installations in the Tate loses some of the quality it does not lose its integrity.

I really appreciate this piece of sound art not just because I am  from Glasgow and have spent many days walking along the river Clyde wondering if the walls of the bridges could talk what wonderful and interesting tales they would tell not only of prosperity but of poverty and hard times. But the way in which Susan Philipsz arranged the address systems under these bridges to complement city life this being said city life also complements this beautifully haunting and sombre sound art. The two different kinds of sounds colliding to create a wonderful piece of sound art. This piece won the Turner prize in 2010 the first sound installation to win the turner prize.


I dreamed a dream the other night

Lowlands, lowlands away my John

I dreamed a dream the other night

Lowlands, my lowlands away

I dreamed I saw my own true love

He stood so still, he did not move

So dank his hair, so dim his eye

I knew he’d come to say goodbye

“I’m drowned in the lowland sea,” he said.

“Oh you and I will ne’er be wed.”

“I’ll never kiss you more,” he said

“Ne’er kiss you more, for I am dead.”

I will cut off my bonny hair

No other man will find me fair

I dreamed a dream the other night

I dreamed a dream the other night