by Alex Day

An exciting commission, held at St Peter Hungate, features a sound installation responding to the history of the church and what these spaces mean in our secular times.

St. Peter Hungate, like many churches in Norwich, no longer conducts services. It is occupied by Hungate Medieval Art, who exhibit stain glass windows and icons, to a more secular public. It’s both a religious site and a heritage site. Throughout this year, a project called Heriligion has commissioned five artists to reflect on the history of this space.

From 19th July to the 25th August, Mira Calix presented ’Sihlabelela’, a sound installation. 12 tape machines (Sony cassette-corder TCM –939), suspended on plinths, play discordant, low quality sound – a collage of echoes. The recorded voices sing ‘we sing together’, over and over, like a ghostly choir. The tapes evoke the crowds that once sang here.

Calix has reimagined the congregation. To create the sound, she conducted a group of volunteers who sang two phrases which varied in volume and timbre. These phrases were permutational; meaning each element occurs once and in a jumbled order. On top of this, more volunteers were sent off with a tape recorder to record a space of their choosing. And, an open call collected 30 additional recorded voices, sent via social media. Throughout the exhibition, these recordings, layers of voices and space, assembled into a thick fog of sound. Calix calls this an ‘expanded harmonics’.

Calix is Suffolk-based and impressively accomplished. Last year, she created a sound installation to commemorate the end of the First World War at The Tower of London. Her work has been commissioned by the Barbican and the National Portrait Gallery. She is a long-term affiliate of Warp Records. Nunu, performed in 2014, involved her electronically manipulating live insect noises alongside the London Sinfonietta.

’Sihlabelela’ probes how far this technology can contribute to community (when often it is lambasted for isolating the individual).

Calix was inspired to use tape players after reading an article, written in 1965 for the Eastern Daily Press. It heralds the advent of recorded tape technology to Hungate. This installation is well-researched, focused on community and daring in its medium; the humble tape player. ’Sihlabelela’ probes how far this technology can contribute to community (when often it is lambasted for isolating the individual).

Ultimately, this installation (a ghostly choir of recorded voices singing ‘together’) is more robotic than human. It lacks the humanity, the bravado of traditional church music. And for all the open calls, the composition does not vary much; a few choice voices drown a potentially rich sound palette. But this is a congregation for our digital age – a community facilitated by open calls on social media, communing through tape.

Helpfully, these sounds are enriched by the adjacent 15th century pews, carved with poppy heads and muzzled bears. Visitors are squeezed between modern history and medieval history, both vying for our attention. Churches, like Hungate, are historically musical spaces. For 2000 years, congregations have pelted out songs of praise over the bellowing low notes of the pipe organ. They are cavernous and echoing: a booming sound board to the choir. The stained glass, towering above, adds a touch of profundity.

But this is a congregation for our digital age – a community facilitated by open calls on social media, communing through tape.

Of course, most of us don’t experience church music. Only 12% of Britain’s population identify as belonging to the Church of England. Norwich has 31 medieval churches; yet, (according to the 2011 Census of England and Wales), it has the highest proportion of respondents reporting “no religion”. Our times are more secular than spiritual. As congregations fizzle out, churches have to open their doors (and imagination) to alternative medicine.

When it comes to reimagining churches, Norwich is not lacking ideas. St James Pockthorpe, built 500 years ago, is now a puppet theatre. St Etheldreda houses artists’ studios, St Margaret’s is a gallery and St Gregory’s is stuffed with antiques for sale. This Summer, Norwich Cathedral put a helter-skelter behind the pews to lure in foot traffic.

Churches remain an integral part of Norwich; and fruitful places to perform music. ‘Sihlabelela’ attracts visitors and uses sound to restore community, with little more than a tape player. In Norwich, challenging and experimental sounds should continue to have a platform in these spaces. Installations like this reveal their histories and question their purpose in our virtual times.

Featured image source: Mira Calix

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