View of Surround Me: A Song Cycle for the City of London, 2010. Left: Change Alley. Right: London Bridge. Photo: Rebecca Garland.


Susan Philipsz is a Scottish sound-installation artist. She is the winner of the 2010 Turner Prize, and the first artist to win the award with an aural work. Her multisite sound installation Surround Me: A Song Cycle for the City of London, commissioned by Artangel, will play throughout the city of London until January 2.

SOUND, ESPECIALLY AN UNACCOMPANIED VOICE, has its own associations and can really act as a trigger for memory. In my installations, I am looking in to how sound can define the architecture and how you can experience the space in a new way. When you are listening to music you can be transported to another place. I think that when there are also these ambient sounds in the space, you're half-grounded in the work and half-grounded in the present. At these moments, your senses become heightened and you become more aware of the place your in. I believe people have these reactions in response to my work almost simultaneously.

When I first went to London with a view to finding a site for my Artangel commission, I was struck by how incredibly quiet the Financial District is at the weekends. I then discovered that the Financial District is actually where the old walled city of London was, and that the Bank of England and the Royal Exchange were at the epicenter of the early modern city. The Royal Exchange was there but all the real trading took place in the coffeehouses of Change Alley. I was interested in that history and through my research I discovered that in the sixteenth and seventeenth century the voice was a really strong feature of early modern London. Before the sound of machinery and traffic, it was all about the sound of the voice in the streets. At that time, the street traders learned how to utilize the acoustics of the streets because their voice had to carry over the other voices. When you read about it, you realize it could be cacophonous at times so they developed a technique where they could almost call in harmony with one another to be heard. They each would have their own particular cry and it sounded quite musical.

I started looking at these rounds and madrigals and learned that the street traders's yells really inspired writers and composers at the time. For example, Shakespeare often mentions these cries and a lot of the composers, like Thomas Ravencroft, were also inspired by the street traders. Ravencroft was my favorite composer because he used the real cries of the street traders rather than the idealized ones.

That was one of the inspirations for Surround Me. I was also enchanted by the idea of a song cycle because when you think of the old city of London, it was a walled city, so this idea of a cycle came in a circular motif. It is a project that spans six sites in the streets of London and I’ve arranged the works in a broad circle around the Royal Exchange so it takes you from Milk Street to Moorfields Highwalk right down to London Bridge and the Thames. This idea of the flow of water, which the river so powerfully represents, became an element in all the sound works; the themes of fluidity, circulation, and immersion are all reflected in the lyrics and sites, the flow of tears, drowning in sorrow. It's a series of interrelated sound installations in the financial district, designed to make you experience the architecture in a completely different way.


Susan Philipsz, Surround Me, 2010.

— As told to John Arthur Peetz