Lundahl & Seitl, The Memory of W. T. Stead, 2013. Performance view, Steinway Hall, London.


Swedish duo Lundahl & Seitl’s most recent installation, The Memory of W. T. Stead, in a collaboration with experimental pianist Cassie Yukawa, places the visitor inside the structure of classical music by enhancing the experience of listening through the amplification or nullification of tactile and visual senses. Produced by NOMAD and co-commissioned by NOMAD and the Montblanc Cultural Foundation with support by Steinway & Sons and Arts Council England, The Memory of W. T. Stead will run at Steinway Hall in London from March 27 to April 6, 2013.

FOR ABOUT A YEAR AFTER GIVING BIRTH to our daughter, we both couldn’t escape an image that appeared on our retinas, an image that looked not like a void but rather a passage. When we would focus visually on that passage, it was clear to us that it was sealed; time was flowing in two different directions and it felt as if those forces were conducting us. We were empty vessels where things could just pass through.

Born in 1875, John William Dunne, an aircraft engineer, had similarly strange visions as well. But these more resembled premonitions by way of precognitive dreams. He once dreamt about a catastrophe in Haiti in the beginning of the 1900s where thousands of people were going to die. He didn’t think much of it until he happened across that news a few days later. Upon realizing this, he started having more dreams. What could they mean? After investigating them in parapsychological experiments, he discovered the concept of serialism—that many different time periods could exist simultaneously, every person having his or her own time within them as they walk through space.

After the Steinway & Sons showroom in London closes at night, we’ve been granted use of the space for our latest work, The Memory of W. T. Stead. In this site-specific piece, people are invited into the dimly lit building where they are first greeted by a man who has worked there for over thirty years. He ushers seven visitors at a time to a silent room that is filled with pianos. It is also filled with portraits of past employees and pianists—a room of memory, as it were. As the visitors sit on piano stools for some time, someone comes in and gives them headphones. After putting them on, the visitor hears a minimalistic sound, fragments of a Bach Fugue in A Minor and Ligeti’s Pour Irina, which are played by pianist Cassie Yukawa as if on the ghostly, surrounding pianos. While listening to these three-dimensional recordings, the visitors wear whiteout goggles, which blind them.

Déjà vu is a concept readily present within the fugue in its repetitions, reversals, and spirals. The title of our piece comes from the true story of William Thomas Stead, a journalist who predicted his own death at the turn of the twentieth century. He once wrote about himself drowning, a fate he would later experience on the Titanic. Accounts by several of the survivors described him as just sitting there, quietly reading a book as the ship sank. In Pour Irina, there’s a sense of expansion that refers to time, whether in the future or remembered from the past, at one point collapsing like a euphoric drowning of the present moment. The music doesn’t have an end either; it just continues further away from the listener, like a life slipping away.

Fully blinded, the visitor in the piano room then hears a voice that says, “If you stretch out your hand, you will feel my hand.” The voice acts a narrator in a way, predicting what is going to happen. The listener won’t know whose hand it is they reach out to, but that’s not important. When you cannot see, absences are actually felt more strongly than the pressure of touch because you don’t know where its source went. This creates the sense of a three-dimensional presence around the body, activating the spine as if someone were standing behind you.

The disembodied hand also acts as the embodiment of the voice in front of the visitor. It expresses space and time as it physically and phonetically guides the visitor through different rooms, be they real or in the mind, making them crouch or contort through the halls and doorways of the sound’s architecture. The music and voice, in a sense, together create a more accurate room of memory by forcing the visitor to recall the a priori acoustics of childhood or a walk alone in the forest.

When you gaze at a sunset, it is perceived like a postcard. The earth doesn’t turn; east and west do not rise and descend. The experience of looking at art has also fallen into this quick and selective treatment, pushing it away and flattening it while passively standing in front of it. When you use peripheral vision—and peripheral senses—it is as if the world comes forward to wash over and change you psychologically. When we started working together as an artist duo, we just merged with the other. We saw this passage but never thought about it relating to birth. Perhaps it was a vibration of another sense, or an echoing throughout the body.

— As told to Frank Expósito