By Charlotte Cripps
Rock stars such as David Byrne, Roots Manuva and Elizabeth Fraser have created new tracks inspired by the galleries of the V&A. They tell Charlotte Cripps how the music came to them.
In the entrance hall of the Victoria and Albert Museum, I pick up a set of headphones, a bespoke MP3 player and a map to follow a trail of sounds through the galleries. Over the next few months, Britain's foremost institution of art and design will become a temple to new music. For the first time, rock stars, normally used for decorative purposes at private views, have created sounds inspired by a museum's treasures.
First, I go into the magnificent Raphael gallery. Gazing upward at the Raphael cartoons (housed at the V&A since 1845) - full-scale colour designs of the tapestries for the Sistine Chapel commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515 - I hear the ethereal sound and bewitching melodies of Elizabeth Fraser, the former lead singer of the Eighties dream-pop band The Cocteau Twins. Her track, "Expectant Mood", is a two minutes and 42 seconds audio response to the Raphael gallery. The music is triggered by an infra-red light as I enter the cathedral-like space.
Why "Expectant Mood"? "Because it is such a state of openness," she says. "I needed to be open to allow whatever was meant to come through me happen. It is easy to close down and become rigid. To remain open, I had to clear the tension from my body and my throat. But it does carry itself along," she says of her vocals that have always been largely unintelligible, but deeply beautiful. You may ask yourself: why Elizabeth Fraser all of a sudden? Shhh... began life with a simple brief: to invite 10 very different fine artists and musicians to record a sound piece in response to a space in the V&A. It offered a wide range of possibilities: to reflect the context of the objects in a gallery, to focus on the architectural and acoustic qualities of different spaces or to question the "personal" nature of headphones.
"We also wanted to open the visitors' eyes to the museum's collections and spaces in a new way," explains Lauren Parker, the curator of contemporary programmes at the V&A, who is pointing at Raphael's The Healing of the Lame Man while "The voice of god" - as Elizabeth Fraser was once described - fills the space with her soaring vocals.
Fraser is very shy. She did not do many interviews even before she quit the band in 1998. Since then she has collaborated with Massive Attack, and sung "Isengard Unleashed" for the soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. But, having just finished a painting course, she tells me this new project for the V&A has come at the right time. "This project for the V&A has really changed me. It was a chance for me to do something on my own, rather than a collaboration. Often the other projects I do are started off for me by other people and are half finished - like my new solo album."
The curators were very keen Fraser took the space. In most cases they invited the musicians and fine artists to pick their own spaces. "It was hard to take the room home with me," recalls Fraser who, at the time, was trying to capture the atmosphere of the room and the acoustics of the space before recording her piece in Bristol, in the basement of her house. "It is so much more than just the paintings, you see. I went back a handful of times and tried to sit still in the room." She adds: "It took a long time for the song to develop."
Next stop on the sound trail is the china gallery. Here, in stark contrast, is the artist Jeremy Deller's audio piece, Celia's Tour . He grabbed a friend's six-year-old child, Cecilia, let her loose in her favourite room in the museum, and recorded her rushing from object to object, reading labels. "She is breathless because she is so excited,' says Deller. He is better known for Acid Brass (1997) - a music project that consists of a 120-piece brass band who play acid house music.
I then take a surreal journey into the sculpture galleries. These contain the most comprehensive collection of English post-medieval sculpture in existence, with outstanding examples of marble portrait busts, terracotta models for monuments, and free-standing statues. I walk aimlessly among the disembodied heads and dead stares that inspired Faultline, aka David Kosten, whose dark electronica and heart-stirring melodies are now playing in my headphones. Faultline are best known for their albums Closer, Colder and Your Love Means Everything, which featured collaborations with The Flaming Lips, Chris Martin from Coldplay and Michael Stipe from REM. "I wandered all the way around the sculpture gallery to create music that suited the gazes of the statues and busts," David Kosten tells me.
With this atmospheric three-part electronica soundtrack, it feels like a stroll through an ancestral home, and puts statues in a whole new context. I feel like I am in a remake of the film Picnic at Hanging Rock, but instead of being compelled to go up a mountain, I am being drawn to portrait sculptures from Britain in the 18th century and statues. There are even garden sculptures made of lead and alabaster effigies. They come alive.
"The music that I made, with its occasional warped female voices," says Kosten, "was not deliberate. It just fell from the sky. I stood here and closed my eyes and the music came to me like magic. I had considered another space for a while - the ironwork gallery, but, in the end, I would have fought a battle to death to stop another musician or artist from stealing this space."
"The piece is meant to be mind altering," adds Jonny Dawe, a curator of the show. His other job is providing live soundtracks for Miu Miu during Milan fashion week. He does this with his partner, Nick Powell, and together they form Oskar, an electro acoustic duo. They have a commissioned artwork in gallery 62, the start of the trail, which is simultaneously broadcast in the room and in the headphones.
Moving on to a walkway, I hear the sound of mobile phones. David Byrne, the former art-school punk from Talking Heads, has done four pieces in odd places around the V&A, such as "I Will Not Pick Up The Phone" heard along the cast court ramp for 0.55 seconds (repeated play) - mobile phones ringing - footsteps in the ramps - until we walk into the V&A unisex toilets (still in use throughout the exhibition).
It is very disconcerting standing in this beautiful old toilet, with those lovely old tiles, part of the old refreshment area, listening to David Byrne's soundtrack of flushing toilets and dripping taps, and wondering if the sound is real or not? "There is a little bit of a trompe l'oeil involved in my pieces - I do hope that someone hearing a mobile phone ring on the recording will turn to see if someone is answering it, or someone hearing a toilet flush might believe that a person is about to emerge from a nearby stall," says Byrne about his toiletscape that we are all standing around listening to.
"I hope the effect will be a strange incongruity between the interior private world of a headphone wearer and the sounds one expects to hear around one. It's the dislocation that always happens with people like myself who are often listening to their own music in public spaces - we're in our own world and a public world at the same time," he says.
In the café foyer where the Persian-born DJ, producer and composer Leila, has created "The Wondering" - soulful electronica. Leila has released two albums - Like Weather and Courtesy of Choice - and collaborates with Björk. Her piece of music, basically a low buzz of conversation to a background melody, is a fair if unenlivening reflection of the museum goers, whom I can now see eating and drinking through the glass windows of the café. Her next piece - "The Maker" on the Exhibition Road entrance landing is beautiful as we look up at the staircase and domed high ceiling with a view towards the Renaissance Galleries.
The Shhh trail (where you are led by digital signage to the next space) takes an hour and a half. Into the Norfolk House Music Room with its gold encrusted walls and silk emerald green curtains and candelabra - to hear Roots Manuva's "You Rang Me Lord" - a dub hip hop track. The ceiling panels are decorated with trophies representing the Arts, and the ancient god of music. When the house was opened in 1756, its interiors instantly became famous for their swanky Rococo decoration. And Roots, one of the most influential voices in the UK hip hop scene, blends a heartfelt lyricism with the reggae sounds of the sound system culture. It is a strange environment to be listening to the lyrics - "Some of us are slobs ...the young wait for inheritance cheques." Why did you choose the space? "The space chose me!" says Roots, who was inspired by the architecture and the mood of the room. What do you want the visitor to experience when listening to your piece? "To be haunted."