Franz Schreker (1878–1934), the Austrian composer, conductor, professor and director of the Musikhochschule in Berlin, was a major cultural figure in the pre-Nazi era. Principally known for his operas, he had a flourishing career until he was condemned by the Nazis. (His father was Jew- ish.) For decades after his death, Schreker’s once renowned works languished; only during the past few years have they received resurgent attention. This is the background for Scottish artist (and 2010 Turner Prize winner) Susan Philipsz’s spare and engrossing exhibition, which combined two sound installations, a photographic diptych using images she took years ago on a train journeying between Glasgow and Dundee, and a video of the number 7 subway trains on elevated tracks in Queens, shot through a window in P.S. 1, where she was resident in 2001. Travel, dislocation and long- ing flowed together in the complex interplay among these various works.
Schreker’s 1910 opera Der ferne Klang (The Distant Sound) concerns a composer who forsakes his one true love to go in search of an elusive “distant sound” that he hears but can’t place. Only much later, with death approaching, does he realize that this sound has always been present and close in the exquisite hum of the world. For her 2012 sound installation The Distant Sound, Philipsz isolated snippets of the opera’s score and transcribed them for strings, horns and vibraphone, which musicians played in a recording studio.
Issuing from 16 different-sized loudspeakers irregularly installed on opposite walls, the music was arranged so that single notes played from single speakers. Philipsz recorded 24 such notes as individual tracks, which she then mixed in eight channels.
In Philipsz’s abstracted, truncated, slowed-down and pulled-apart version, Schreker’s opera (sans singers, words and narrative) becomes pure sound, at once enthralling and mournful, enchanting and somber. You hear each instrument, yet for most of the duration of the piece (a loop of around 12 minutes) each speaker is silent. These separate, in some ways lonely, tones arise and subside in a rhythm of absence and presence. Every now and then, at Bonakdar, you heard the rush and clamor of an approaching train, the rumble and whoosh of its departure; that was from Philipsz’s video in the back room. Also included in the sound installation are intermittent announcements made in Berlin train stations, and they are both evocative and jarring, suggesting the daily flux of people, but more ominously the activities involving German trains not long after Schreker died.
Ambient sound was important for Schreker; Der ferne Klang includes passages that resemble train whistles and birdcalls. Philipsz treats noises in the gallery as an integral part of her work: the front door closing, murmured conver- sations and footfalls on the stairs. Her installation invites rapt concentration while inspiring awareness of background activity. As did Schreker, Philipsz reaches out to the world. For her dual-channel sound installation The Distant Sound IV (Birdcall), two small speakers attached to the gallery’s facade piped notes from the opera mimicking birdcalls out toward the city.
Philipsz’s Separated Strings (2012), two color photographs of telephone or electric cables seen in transit, provided a visual counterpoint to the sound installations. These “separated strings,” which look vulnerable against a tumultuous, cloudy sky, seem to correspond to the isolated string notes that you hear. In her video Bird by Bird (2001), the quiet of a subway stop is rhythmically shattered by then-red number 7 trains screeching in, then rumbling away. (The work’s title refers to the old “Redbird” subway cars.) Arrivals and departures, quest and loss, vitality and fragility, all cohered in this poignantly resonant exhibition.
Photo: Susan Philipsz: Separated Strings, 2012, C-print face mounted on Plexi- glas, diptych, each 59 by 88 1⁄2 inches; at Tanya Bonakdar.