Theatrical Sound: Q+A with Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller


In the vast, dark Park Avenue Armory drill hall, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have arranged 98 speakers, each with its own soundtrack, for The Murder of Crows. Cardiff’s voice recounts her dreams from an old-fashioned speaker horn, which rests on a table in the center of the room. As the sound varies in source and echoes, it takes on a strange physicality.

A.i.A. spoke with the British Columbia- and Berlin-based artists by telephone last week.

PAUL DAVID YOUNG Could you tell me about your relationship to theater, because there’s definitely a theatrical element to your work, in its use of space and sound, the relationship of the spectator to the work and the direct references to theater?  I’m thinking of Playhouse [1997], in which spectators put on a headset and sat in a miniaturized theater.

GEORGE BURES MILLER In a way I felt The Murder of Crows [2008] was moving away from the theatrical. It is theatrical, but we’d just done a few pieces that were even more theatrical, say, The Killing Machine [1997] or Opera for a Small Room [2005]. We used computerized lighting to move as the sound moved around the space among different speakers. With Playhouse we were thinking of a more simplified piece.

JANET CARDIFF We just finished a video walk in Kassel [Forest (for a thousand years), for dOCUMENTA (13)].  You’re watching a variety of actions happen in different places as you move through the forest, listening to the sounds.

MILLER We’re frustrated with theater. In theater, there’s always a line between you and the stage.  We’re trying to immerse the audience in some way. With sound, when the viewers close their eyes, they can be in a different world than they can be in the theater.

YOUNG The Murder of Crows seems to take a different relationship to the audience than the audio walks, for example, which are more directed, in terms of how they speak to the audience member or spectator, kind of controlling or directing the choices that are made.

CARDIFF Yes, and I think it takes a different relationship than, say, that of The Forty Part Motet [2001], which is a piece in a similar vein—hearing the individual singers from 40 speakers. The audience is not necessarily directed to sit down, but the whole concept is that when they move around it’s a different piece of music for everyone. With this piece we were more interested in the sound moving around the audience. They stay mainly in the sweet spot, we call it, and then we have the sound moving from one end of the space to the other.

YOUNG I found it disturbing that there were chairs in the environment, because my instinct was to walk around.

MILLER If we’re asking the audience to stay for 30 minutes in the same spot, we’re not against providing some comfort for them.

CARDIFF Back to your question about theater, I saw The Murder of Crows as a bit of a set. Years ago we saw a piece in Berlin, a reworking of [Samuel Beckett’s play] Krapp’s Last Tape, and many of our pieces reference that work, where there is a single performer on stage recalling something.  For me it’s a piece where the audience can sit there, and there’s a symphony around them. In theater, the symphony is in the pit, whereas with this one the symphony is around them, so it definitely does reference traditional theatrical setups. Like Opera for a Small Room.

MILLER Which is very theatrically based. It’s a set basically in the middle of the gallery space, a room filled with records and record players, and you hear a voice coming out of a megaphone and the lights move and the sounds move among speakers placed around the space.

YOUNG I had seen a similar piece, Kathmandu Dreams [2007], at a group show at Luhring Augustine, where there were telephones. When you picked up the telephone, you heard Janet’s voice describing a dream.

CARDIFF You’re right. They came from the same place. Those dreams that we used for the telephones were recorded in Kathmandu at the same time we recorded the other dreams. We didn’t realize we were going to use the dreams for The Murder of The Crows till later, but they come from that period.

MILLER She was recording her dreams at night, so those dreams from the piece are actually recorded at the bedside, so it gives it that feeling of

CARDIFF Somnambulism.

MILLER So if there’s a sleepwalking tone to her voice, it’s because she basically is sleeping.

YOUNG That is what I inferred; otherwise, you’re a great actress. [Laughs.]

CARDIFF [Laughs.] No, I’m not a great actress.

YOUNG In taking up that practice, were you deliberately referring to Freudian theory? Freud counseled his patients to write down their dreams immediately upon waking so as to have their freshest impressions.

CARDIFF Well, with the telephone series we were definitely referencing Freud because the telephones were from that era.

We were researching dreams and of course that Goya image [The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters] came up. But nothing is very direct. Although the horn on the table in the middle of the installation of Murder is a direct reference to the etching: we see him lying on the table and all the crazy monsters are behind him and you can’t wake him up.

YOUNG In the brochure for The Murder of Crows at the Park Avenue Armory it says, “The piece is a requiem to a world of positivity and utopia that—although heralded at the end of the cold war after 1989—seems to have disappeared in our time of pathological ‘war on terror’ and ‘ethnocidal’ violence that mark the darker side of globalization.”

MILLER We were making this piece in the dark days of the Iraq War. It was the most depressing time.

CARDIFF We started the piece in 2006.

MILLER Or earlier than that. We just respond to what’s going on in the world, so it has a dark tone to it. When we were making it we were thinking of it as a reaction to that time. I have said it was a requiem for the previous age. After 9/11 everything changed so radically in a way, and maybe it really didn’t, but it did in the mind or in the media.

CARDIFF When we started the piece we were getting the Herald Tribune pretty regularly, and there were always these horrific articles about what was going on, and for the international version, more than the domestic version, there’d be more from the Iraqi side. One of the articles that was particularly inspiring was about a father who had come back to find his house had been blown up and his three daughters had been killed, and one of their arms was just hanging from the chandelier. The idea that there are people stuck in a situation and they can’t change it. An ordinary person has their family killed and has no ability to do anything about it. They’re powerless. So it’s a lot about the Goya series, and I think we were in a situation in Kathmandu where I was having nightmares and the feelings of helplessness of being in the dream.

MILLER The piece never directly . . . you couldn’t tie it to anything. It moves subconsciously like a dream in a way, and that’s what we wanted the piece to have.

CARDIFF One viewer talked about the horn as a reference to 1984, the George Orwell novel. I actually reread that novel when we were producing the piece, and I kept saying that what Orwell is describing is just like the media now. Who is the U.S. at war with now? Which power are we at war with now? It’s very 1984.

YOUNG The other thing that I noticed about this piece, and it reminded me of The Forty Part Motet, is the prevalence of music.

CARDIFF We were reading books about the emotional impact of music, how music connects to you on a subconscious level. One of the problems we set ourselves is this idea of how you can move people without visuals. So we collaborated with a composer in Berlin, and we also used a composition by a Montreal composer, Freida Abtan, for an electronic section. And then we worked with the composer Tilman Ritter for the operatic section. We gave him the words for the libretto and a lot of suggestions.

MILLER He’s a film composer so he’s used to working collaboratively.

CARDIFF We always wanted to do a big guitar sequence, so we invited a lot of guitarists to our studio out west and we started working like that. Mainly, in the way the Motet separates the singers, we wanted to take apart an orchestra and take apart different instruments and have them move through the space but also just have some of them located in different parts of the space. So that’s why we also use the Russian choir coming in. Of course it also has its subtext too. [Laughs.]

YOUNG Do you consider yourself a writer?

CARDIFF No. [Laughs.] That’s a short answer isn’t it?

YOUNG There is a lot of text in your pieces.

CARDIFF I think at one point I was interested in writing a novel. About 15 years ago, I started but realized that I’m not a very good writer at all. The types of writers that I admire, I could never be. But I think the form we end up working in requires some writing. It’s a kind of three-dimensional writing, triggering people’s ideas and memories rather than creating full scenes, and we’re able to complement the writing with sound effects, and in the case of the video walks with visuals.

MILLER In The Murder of Crows we set out with no vocal narrative and then—we’d been building all these seeds with the music and sound effects—and we felt that we weren’t getting enough from all that. We needed to add something else.

CARDIFF Some structure.

MILLER To give people a more coherent image in their minds. And we’d recorded the dreams and these dreams we chose fit very nicely with the music and sound effects that we’d already been working on. They gave it this kind of structure and filled it in. It’s interesting because the Kassel piece, Forest (for a thousand years), has no vocal narrative.

CARDIFF But it also has the beautiful forest to sit in so it has the visuals. So it could be a film basically. There’s a bomb sequence, and we even have a monster scene in it. Usually we like to have a funny part, but I’d say Murder isn’t so comical.