SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig. You’re welcome!
BONUS POST: Directly following Merje’s introduction to her music mapping project, SO! has also published is her analysis of the observational research she conducted during the first 55 days of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, drawing from the collection of videographic material from online sources she embedded on this public interactive map. To go directly to that post, click here.
As an Estonian national, I have a regional interest in the relationship between music and cultural identity in Eastern Europe. Popular music has been foundational in building and sustaining Estonian national identity, through the Song Festival tradition which started in 1869, and the Singing Revolution at the end of the 1980s. In the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine, there are similarities in how music has facilitated resistance to an oppressive regime or invasion.
While other cultural forms can articulate and show off shared values, only music can offer the immediate experience of collective identity (Frith 2007, 264). Looking into the sensitive representation of music in conflict, therefore, is about exercising hapticity with the precarity and suffering in the videos, and ultimately a work of not only academic, but affective labour.
The map format helps visualise the video evidence as it continues to appear in different parts of Ukraine. For accurate analysis, understanding the context, region, and the phase of war in which a musical event originates, is vital. In different parts of the country on the same date, one city can embody a collective feeling of resistance, while the other grief. The map is useful in analysing regional differences in the types of songs performed, and in ‘placing’ the international cases of solidarity. I decided to map the solidarity mixes that directly engage with the musical footage from Ukraine, and to exclude the high number of global fundraising concerts. All map entries depict in some way the role of music in Ukrainian resistance.
The map function is made redundant in posts where the location should not be disclosed for safety reasons, such as this video of soldier Yuriy Gorodetsky performing ‘How Can’t I Love You, My Kyiv’ in a military camp. Additionally, I decided not to embed posts that could inform the Russian military of civilian and humanitarian targets, for example a video from Lviv showing the Philharmonic concert space being used for humanitarian storage.
The focus has been on mapping songs and music, rather than the wider soundscape of war, although sounds such as air raid sirens do appear in some videos. The map includes sections on recorded music, such as this wartime ska track by Mandry, field recordings, and ways in which music has been used in online warfare. Most map entries fall under the civilian resistance category, exploring the following questions:
- What kind of music appears in this resistance? In terms of genre, is it folk, rock, hip hop, or national patriotic song? Is it Ukrainian or ‘Western’? How do the different examples embody national feeling and safeguarding of a culture?
- What is the power of these musical moments, for the artists, for Ukrainians, and for the world? What can music achieve in a conflict environment, and how does it evoke moments of solidarity?
- How does the music reflect the different phases and emotions of the war, from mobilisation, resistance, support, contemplation, to grief?
Similar research questions have been posed by Arve Hansen et al. in A War of Songs (2019) about the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests, in which music carried much of the revolutionary feeling. Adriana Helbig wrote about the Orange Revolution of 2004-05 in Hip Hop Ukraine: Music, Race, and African Migration when the Internet played a huge role in circulating political messages through music, especially as Ukraine’s media was controlled by president Yanukovich (2014). Maria Sonevytsky’s Wild Music (2019) looks at both revolutions and the vernacular Ukrainian discourses of ‘wildness’ as they manifested in popular music during this politically volatile decade.
When looking at Ukraine, we are studying a repeatedly colonised region, where, as part of the former Russian Empire, serfdom was abolished in 1861. Ethnographic research and promotion of a national culture in the decades that followed led to a brief window of independence for Ukraine in 1917, only to be occupied and incorporated into the Soviet Union as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in the same year. Unlike Poland and the Baltic states, Ukraine was not independent between the two world wars, which adds depth to Soviet propaganda that permeated the region throughout the 20th century – important context to consider when analysing its struggle for autonomy.
Drawing from Parkes, the relationships of domination and subordination are particularly marked and articulated through music in colonised groups (Parkes 1994). Often, Ukraine is portrayed as a country of two opposing regions: the pro-European West and the pro-Russian East. While there have been two sides opposed to each other since the 2014 Crimean occupation, the linguistic, ethnic, historical and religious divisions in Ukraine cannot neatly fit into this East-West dichotomy. In addition to complicated ethnic boundaries that define and maintain the region’s cultural identities, Ukraine is dealing with a post-colonial struggle to protect its independence from imperialist Russia.
The ‘places’ constructed through Ukrainian music embody these complex issues, notions of difference and social boundaries – the very reason why music is socially meaningful: it provides means by which people recognise identities, places and the boundaries which separate them (Stokes 1994). In a war situation, beyond political and social alliances, we are also looking at music as survival (Stokes 2020).
Merje Laiapea is a curator, artistic programmer and writer working across sound, music and film. She is completing her Master’s in Global Creative and Cultural Industries in the Music Department at SOAS, University of London. Within the broad realm of music and cultural identity, her research interests include the expressive power of the sound-image relationship, forms of frequency, and multimodal approaches to research itself. She assists with event production and community engagement at SOAS Concert Series and works as Submissions Advisor for the 2022 Film Africa festival. Merje also broadcasts the occasional radio show and DJ mix. To find out more about Merje’s motivation behind the project, click here to read an interview by the University of London.
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SO! Amplifies: Wu Tsang’s Anthem (2021)—Freddie Cruz Nowell
SO! Amplifies: Cities and Memory–Stuart Fowkes
SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig. You’re welcome! We are excited that today’s post on Wu Tsang’s Anthem, currently on view at the Guggenheim through September 6, 2021, is written by Freddie Cruz Nowell, co-author of the exhibition texts! He is related to the curator of the exhibition and cares deeply about the collaborative, creative endeavors of Wu Tsang & Moved by the Motion.
The artist and filmmaker Wu Tsang (b. 1982) creates atmospheric performances, video installations, and films that envelop audiences into spaces where narratives become sensually ambiguous, collective experiences. Tsang’s new site-specific installation, Anthem (2021), was conceived in collaboration with the singer, composer, and transgender activist Beverly Glenn-Copeland (b. 1944, Philadelphia) and harnesses the Guggenheim Museum’s cathedral-like acoustics to construct what the artist calls a “sonic sculptural space.”
Occupying the entire rotunda, Anthem revolves around an immense, eighty-four-foot curtain sculpture that flows down from the building’s glass oculus. Projected onto this luminous textile is a “film-portrait” Tsang created of Glenn-Copeland improvising and singing passages of his music, including a cappella descants and his rendition of the spiritual “Deep River.” Filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic, near Glenn-Copeland’s home in rural Nova Scotia, this non-linear video alternates between scenes of the musician performing with various instruments and stunning landscape shots of the eastern seaboard sky.
Harnessing the generous sound-reflecting quality of the Guggenheim’s concrete walls, Anthem weaves Glenn-Copeland’s voice and body percussion into a larger tapestry of other voices and sounds placed along the museum’s circular ramp, building a soundscape that wraps around the space. When I asked the exhibition’s curator X Zhu-Nowell about the striking ethereal, translucent quality of the curtain sculpture, X remarked,
It was a collaboration with the textile company Kvadrat. Wu visited their showroom a few times to select textile from thousands of the samples. This particular textile called power is semi translucent (created almost a hologram feeling), but still able to capture the light from the projectors very well. Wu once said that ‘when there is a curtain in the space, it turns the space into a stage.’ Curtain is very important to Wu’s practice.
The installation’s dimmed light ambiance also veils the fourteen speakers that Tsang positioned along this darkened path, each of which plays a uniquely composed track that accompanies Glenn-Copeland’s music.
Working in collaboration with musician Kelsey Lu and the DJ, producer, and composer duo of Asma Maroof and Daniel Pineda, Tsang conceived this arrangement of sounds as a series of improvisatory responses inspired by the call of Glenn-Copeland’s voice. The musical responses created by this diverse group of musicians include ethereal string tremolos, dreamy whisper sequences, and impromptu drum patterns, among other ambient sounds that help cultivate an alluring and reverberant listening environment.
Harnessing the generous sound-reflecting quality of the Guggenheim’s concrete walls, Anthem weaves Glenn-Copeland’s voice and body percussion into a larger tapestry of other voices and sounds placed along the museum’s circular ramp, building a soundscape that wraps around the space. X Zhu-Nowell described the process for the exhibit’s speaker placement:
We had a few mock-up to test the speaker placement. The two loudspeakers are placed on the rotunda floor because it’s unique capacity to fill the entire rotunda. The 12 additional Bose speakers were placed throughout ramp 3 – 6. We evenly distributed them, 3 speakers for each ramp. Ultimately, the goal is to work with the unique acoustics of the building, and working with the decay, allowing the time and space for the sound to bound on the concrete walls. The piece is 18 mins long, and in a continuous loop. It was not designed to cultivate a single prime viewing location. Instead, the piece was built to be experienced as one move through the space, and 18 mins is around the pace of one walk from the bottom of the rotunda floor to the top of ramp 6.
Visitors are encouraged to traverse upward from the bottom of the museum to the top of the building, and vice versa, and explore how Anthem ascends and descends along the spiral path.
The title of this exhibition, Anthem, draws from lesser-known histories of the word meaning antiphon, a style of call-and-response singing associated with music as a spiritual practice. Unlike a conventional anthem, which amplifies the power of a song through loudness and uniform sound, this installation enhances the call of Glenn-Copeland’s voice by combining it with ambiguous vocal timbres, changing tints of ambient sound, and other heterogeneous sonic and visual textures. Within this lush yet complicated auditory environment, Tsang’s Anthem also cultivates moments of quiet, rest, and reflection, reimagining the rotunda as a compassionate atmosphere for collective listening and looking.
In addition to the immersive video installation on view in the rotunda, this exhibition also includes a touching companion film, titled “∞,” which visitors can access behind a luxe pleated curtain that divides the first floor side gallery from the main space. This video is a short interview that Tsang shot during the filming of Anthem of Glenn-Copeland and his partner, Elizabeth Glenn-Copeland, a theater artist, storyteller, and arts educator.
This dialogue captures autobiographical aspects of the couple’s intertwined creative process and artistic development, reflecting on myriad meanings of love in relation to their lives and work. Within the context of the oppressive and exploitive conditions of transgender “visibility” in contemporary culture, Tsang’s seemingly conventional yet uncommon record of this elderly and interracial couple exists in tension with the normative frame of transgender representation. It also extends the conversation within Tsang’s artistic practice around the centrality of collaboration, specifically long-term and intimate collaboration.
Since 2016, Tsang has frequently worked with a “roving band” of interdisciplinary artists called Moved by the Motion, cofounded with the artist Tosh Basco. Core members of this revolving cast include Maroof, Pineda, the dancer Josh Johnson, the cellist Patrick Belaga, and the poet and scholar Fred Moten. Anthem exemplifies how she uses collaboration as an aesthetic strategy for undoing conventional modes of authorship and to make space for marginalized narratives. For Tsang, “making art is an excuse to collaborate.”
On View at the Guggenheim, New York City, July 23-September 6, 2021
Featured Image: Still of banner/ installation View of Wu Tsang’s Anthem (2021) at the Guggenheim, courtesy of curator X Zhu-Nowell
Frederick Cruz Nowell is a Ph.D. Candidate in Musicology at Cornell University. He is a scholar with a specialty in historical avant-gardes, and cross-disciplinary research into the history of music theory, contemporary art, and popular music. His dissertation research (Supervisor, Prof. Andrew Hicks) lies at the occult intersection of artistic experimentalism, Euro-American counterculture, and the history of music theory in the early twentieth century. It traces how speculative music-theoretical concepts (i.e., cosmic harmony, biological rhythms, color-harmony, and ontologies of sympathetic vibration) fused into the practices of European avant-garde artists via fashionable occult religious movements (i.e., Theosophy and Anthroposophy) and various cults of health and beauty (i.e., harmonic gymnastics, Eurythmics, free body culture (Freikörperkultur)). Intimately intertwined with one another, these social developments were integral to the larger infrastructure of the unwieldy “back to nature” Lebensreform (the reform of life) movement, which laid the foundations for progressive counterculture in the twentieth century.
Before pursuing graduate studies in musicology, Frederick was a University Fellow at Northwestern University in the Department of Art, Theory, & Practice, where he received an MFA. He also holds a BFA from SAIC (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Since 2018, he has co-curated exhibitions with X Zhu-Nowell under the moniker Passing Fancy.
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