Dits Sweelinck’s mortal part; to comfort us left behind; / The mortal wood the maet by Godt in eternal life; / There he stretches, more than here our hearing encompasses, / A godly reverberation in all English ears.” This is the text that Joost van den Vondel wrote when Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck died in 1621. What does such an ‘angel ear’ look like, and more importantly what does it hear? We always assume that angels only hear and perform sweet and thin songs, but is it also pure and has something human about it?
These are questions that automatically arise when you walk into the Oude Kerk – the place where Sweelinck was an organist almost all his life and still watches from a memorial stone – to hear and see the sound art of the Scottish artist Susan Philipsz. Mainly heard: singing is heard from large greenish plastic ‘organ pipes’, with the appearance of grain silos. Sometimes there is silence, then one voice is heard, if you take some distance, the songs from the silos come together. You can hear that she is not a professional singer, the individual voices sound a bit uncertain, together they form an almost ‘angel-like’ whole.
Susan Philipsz, The Fall Photo Gert Jan van Rooij
Philipsz created the work in honor of the 400th anniversary of the death of one of the Netherlands’ greatest composers – although his name is heard more often than his music is heard – and called her work The Fall. The tones of his song ‘Mein junges Leben hat ein End’ can be heard from the plastic pipes, originally an organ work that he based on a folk melody. In Amsterdam that had just become Protestant, Sweelinck sometimes had to come up with less religious works.
Philipsz still gives the work a religious interpretation. This is partly due to the ethereal reverberation of the Oude Kerk, but also the link you make with the ‘angel transmitter‘ by Moniek Toebosch. With the car as a new religion where people could be themselves and hide, Toebosch made the sound artwork De Engelenzender in 1994, which could be heard along the dike that connects Lelystad with Enkhuizen. On 98.0 FM you could only hear angels singing there (and again since 2019, via an app). Philipsz, who, like Toebosch, does the vocals himself, gives you an almost religious experience: you look into the large tubes, looking for the source (of the sound) without finding it. The closer you are, the less angelic the voice – religion in 2021 perhaps.
Also read: Four centuries dead, and yet Sweelinck, the greatest composer of the Netherlands, will survive us too
In the Collage Room of the Oude Kerk, another sound artwork by Philipsz, Broken Ensemble, presents a mixture of heavy breath and steam sounds, while you can still hear the angels singing softly in the background. These less harmonious sounds come from three actual organ pipes, arranged in such a way that no pure harmony can ever come out of them. The organ pipes are in each other’s way, trying to drown out each other instead of harmonizing. It seems to be a metaphor for what happened to the Oude Kerk in Sweelinck’s time, when the organ was in danger of being removed. The organ pipes are literally out of balance and confused, and stripped of their original mission.
Philipsz’ The Fall and Broken Ensemble are the imagination and sound interpretation of the belief in the Fall. Sweelinck managed to avoid this at the time with secular music. What remains now are the three clashing organ pipes that emit sounds of despair, while Sweelinck accepts this tribute of human angels singing from his memorial stone.
Susan Philipsz: The Fall and Broken Ensemble can be seen until 27/3 in the Old Church, Amsterdam.
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