Last year I wrote a response to Open Music Archive’s dual exhibitions at Salford Museum & Art Gallery and Castlefield Gallery, Manchester. I entered a version of it into a writing competition…but didn’t get anywhere with that, so have decided to post it here.
A SIDE: Salford Museum and Art Gallery
A woman and a man in a recording studio, wearing headphones and singing into stand-mounted microphones. They repeat a vocal phrase – “to be with you” – several times (as if on ‘loop’) before the sound transitions to a double-bass- bassline, casually plucked by an older gentleman. These performers are a few of the characters who populate ‘Everything I Have Is Yours’ (2019); a thirty-minute long moving image installation produced by artists Eileen Simpson and Ben White who collaborate as ‘Open Music Archive.’ Sixteen older musicians heeded the artists’ request to collaborate with them to compose and record a new piece of music, constructed from excerpts of pop records originally recorded between 1952 and 1962. The performers – dubbed ’the original teenagers’ – had their teen years during this decade, the first decade of the UK singles chart.
On screen today, far removed from their youth, some performers look like seasoned session-musicians whilst others (more tentative or eager) recall a teenaged attitude; as if their young-selves found themselves here, unexpectedly aged, uncertain of where the intervening years went. Performers play and sing individually, or in small groups, while the camera tracks a constant, anti-clockwise pan. This movement – revealing new musicians on each apparent rotation – mirrors footage of vinyl and shellac records, visually intercut with studio shots, and evokes a rueful sense of time’s relentless passage.
The film’s soundtrack has all the pull and fizz of pop music but is an extended deconstruction of pop’s component parts. An individual instrument (the double base or a plangent saxophone) is heard sometimes in isolation, like a single ‘track’ from a multi-track recording, before the composition builds. In other instances short, repetitive motifs evoke electronic music or provide ‘hooks’ that don’t develop as expected. Intercut close-ups of spinning records are stop-start. Repetitive. A visual analogue to the conglomerate sound; mimicking musical phrases performed ‘live’ in studio or accompanying extracts played direct from vinyl. The vinyl sound quality is recognisable; muffled and analogue – seemingly played from far away. ‘Everything I have is Yours’ is based upon content produced in an era before sampling or multi- track recording but its construction implies the mutations popular music has undergone since the inauguration of the charts.
The work’s power comes from its emotional resonance. It prompts reflection on time, technology and the enduring personal and cultural significance of music. But beyond such ruminations lies another crucial aspect of this artwork; pointedly foregrounded by text on ‘paused’ record labels reading: “copyright control” or “the rights of man.” As the name ‘Open Music Archive’ hints, Simpson and White have a conceptual and ethical interest in challenging (or creatively circumventing) copyright. The date 1962 – delimiting the artwork’s source material – is significant as a date when copyright rules were tightened. As the exhibition guide explains, there are two sets of U.K. copyright: composition copyright (granted to authors) lasts until 70 years after their death; copyright for recordings (made after 1962) lasts for 70 years from recording date. In choosing pre ’62 records the artists only need navigate the former. They do this by sampling or re-performing only extracts: notes, short phrases or breaths. Enough to convey the tone of the source whilst respecting creative copyright of still- living composers.
Rather than considering music as something to be individually owned, Open Music Archive’s work advances music as a collective resource. ‘Everything I Have Is Yours’ creates one example situation where music has brought people together in a vibrant, productive way. Contributors reclaim sounds that were part of the mental-landscapes of their youth; music that is arguably theirs as much as any authors – for it is the listener who puts music to use. Now we (as listeners or viewers in the gallery) get to join in the fun. A work about copyright could be dry and legalistic, causing an audience to switch off. This decidedly isn’t. The project educates about copyright, and invites consideration of its ethics whilst concurrently enacting the enjoyment that music-sharing can bring.
B SIDE: Castlefield Gallery
Alongside the newly commissioned ‘Everything I have is Yours’ – at Salford Museum and Art Gallery – Castlefield Gallery, nearby, held a sister exhibition of Open Music Archive’s earlier works. This shorter-run show provided an opportunity to gain a broader understanding of the artists’ approach.
Most overt in its challenge to copyright, ‘PLAYHEAD: A Parallel Anthology’ (2010- ongoing) was presented in a listening area where visitors could hear versions of tracks from the six-album compilation ‘Anthology of American Folk Music,’ compiled by Harry Smith in the early 1950s. The collection – which contributed to a mid- century folk revival – made diverse music, that had originally been issued from 1927- 32, available to a wide audience. Concurrently, however, it ‘fixed’ and copyrighted single versions of tracks previously shared and performed in multiple versions. Simpson and White’s parallel anthology reinvigorates the multiplicity. Tracks appear in the order of Smith’s collection but in alternative, uncopyrighted versions. An accompanying booklet indicates each track’s status, with blue typography for existing alternative versions and orange for remixes made for this project. Tracks still copyright-restricted are struck-through with black. At Castlefield Gallery the installation was slick, with graphic elements from the printed track-listing continuing in a colourful vinyl wall design. But it was the exhibition’s most didactic work, perhaps functioning better in its online version (see www.openmusicarchive.org/playhead) where content need not compete with other, more concise pieces.
‘Auditory Learning’ (2016) prefigures ‘Everything I Have Is Yours’ in form and method. Shown as a single-screen installation, it similarly depicts invited participants in a recording set-up, interspersed with shots of vinyl. Again it enacts a contemporary re-use of copyrighted material. This time, however, participants actually are teenagers and – rather than collaborating with them directly to write new music – Simpson and White asked contributors to vocalise freely, subsequently matching their experimental articulations to excerpts from 1962 records. Cautious “ahhs” and bravado-laden “huhs” meld with the archive sound. Dissonance resolves into harmony (and back again) evoking the tension between possibility and self-doubt involved in teenage-hood. The recording took place in an anechoic chamber – a room that absorbs all echoes. The novelty and unfamiliarity of this registers on contributors’ faces. Voice is both a metaphor for and an enabler of agency and the work communicates a sense of young people finding theirs. By combining individual, provisional utterances into a co-voiced work, it proposes power in numbers; the whole being more than the sum of its parts.
Further reiterating the power of collective voice were ‘ATL 2067’ (2013/2019) and ‘The Brilliant and the Dark’ (2010). For the former (made in Atlanta U.S.A.) the artists worked with local hip-hop producers to reuse and reimagine extracts of still- copyrighted 1920s folk and blues music; producing records to be played at a public open-mic event. The resulting film depicts open-mic participants freestyling about their imagined future city; optimistic conjectures of a cooperative future echoing the sharing ethos associated with both folk and hip-hop.
Where ‘ATL 2067’ is presented as a minimally-edited observational documentary, ‘The Brilliant and The Dark’ (commissioned by London’s Women’s Library) adopts the tightly choreographed format of a pop video. Women dressed in striking red robes – with head-pieces that recall Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ or Louise Bourgeois’s ‘Femme Maison’ paintings – lip-sync to an absurdly catchy, choral pop piece. The composition, created with a 22-strong women’s choir ‘Gaggle,’ reprises a cantata originally performed by 1000 women in 1969 at the Royal Albert Hall. The original depicted the lives of women through the ages. The remake is a lament and a call to arms with vocals alternating between swooping, long-line harmonies (“we weep, for the dead” ) and snappy appeals (“fight, fight, fight”). The women here comply with the contemporary norms of pop- performance: they mime but with attitude. Popular culture is, at once, liberating and constraining. The music’s circular structure suggests that progress – towards equal rights – is recursive, not linear.
These projects demonstrate the artists’ adaptability in working with different communities and contexts. Their overarching concern with collaboration and co- authorship manifests differently in each. One final work – ‘Struggle in Jerash’ (2009) – stands apart because it does not take music, or copyright, as its instigator. It is a re-presentation of a 1957 Jordanian feature film, here narrated by contemporary Jordanian artists, curators, filmmakers and critics; invited to interpret the action. It does, then, share an intent to revitalise archive material. The film (purportedly Jordan’s first) was considered ‘lost’ until, following a 2008 residency in Amman, the artists gained access to the last VHS copy and re-circulated it in its current form. The soundtrack conversations can be compelling: discussion of changing norms of dress or behaviour, for example, raises broader questions about politics, religion and national identity. But it is a slow and meandering piece which struggles to hold attention.
Open Music Archive’s works that take on musical formats (whether pop video or experimental opus) have ‘oomph.’ They entertain and thus invite the viewer in. ‘Struggle in Jerash’ is a harder sell, but its inclusion has purpose. It intimates that the bigger project is not about music as such, or perhaps even about copyright per-se. Taken together these are works about agency and ownership. They posit the importance – and implement the act – of speaking-back to dominant cultural forms. The artists set up structures that allow multiple voices to speak (or sing). Their works are, in the first instance, mostly collaborations. They involve participants working together to create something new. We (gallery-goers or subsequent viewers) can’t access this experience directly; we observe its outputs and portrayal. In the couple of instances where resultant pieces fail to entirely hit the mark, this is less an issue of conception and more a failure of translation. For the main part, Open Music Archive – and collaborators – succeed in transforming complex, process-based projects into succinct, evocative gallery-based artworks.
‘Everything I Have Is Yours’ was shown at Salford Museum and Art Gallery from 4 July-3 November, 2019. Eileen Simpson and Ben White: Open Music Archive was at Castlefield Gallery, Manchester from 14 June-18 August, 2019.