Christian Marclay’s New Project Makes Music Out of London’s Noise

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Christian Marclay 2018, photo by Dan Burn-Forti_hi
Christian Marclay, 2018Photography by Dan Burn-Forti, courtesy of Somerset House Studios

Taking the helm of Assembly at Somerset House Studios, Christian Marclay tasked musical artists with creating new work that incorporates the sounds heard by the people and traffic crossing Waterloo Bridge

Can a building be a musical instrument? Artist Christian Marclay is examining this idea in a three-day programme of musical performances he has curated at Somerset House Studios titled Assembly. The project is the completion of Marclay’s residency at the London institution and highlights his ever-inventive approach to sound, experience and the meaning of art.

Music has always been central to Marclay’s work. At one point the artist and composer was best known for his performance works, which incorporated everything from turntables and old gramophones to dragging guitars through deserts. The Swiss artist’s experimental take on cut-and-paste techniques and conceptual approach to sound have slipped into his other artworks: take his Body Mix (1991–92) collages, made from assembling an eclectic mix of 12-inch record covers to form new characters; or Shuffle, a deck of cards printed with Marclay’s photographs of musical notes (on crockery, in tattoos, on T-shirts) he’s encountered in everyday life. Even his film works, such as the infamous 24-hour piece The Clock, which was screened at Tate Modern earlier this year, is brimming with an awareness of sound and rhythm.

For an artist known for his love of noise, this new project is a fresh start. “I’m interested these days in very quiet, acoustic music,” Marclay admits. “We’re living in a time where no one’s experienced such traumatic bass, and it’s killing everybody’s ears. And nobody seems to care.” Inspired by the “specificity of this space” at Somerset House Studios, Marclay turned the streets outside the newly refurbished Neoclassical Lancaster Rooms into the focus of Assembly: instead of trying to mask the sound outside, he made that the work itself. “I wanted the musicians that I invited to be able to use the external sounds as raw material,” he explains. “We collaborated with this group called Call & Response who are moving into Somerset House Studios, and they designed specific sound systems and surround sounds. We tried to figure out how they can mike the sound outside and bring it in.”

The Lancaster Rooms, where the performances will take place, look out over the Thames and Waterloo Bridge – and the neverending stream of pedestrians, bicycles, and buses that come with the territory. As vehicles travel past, the sound they make has been engineered to also move across speakers in the rooms – like London itself has been amplified and made into art. The musicians that Marclay invited to take part in the project all cross the line between art and music. Lawrence Lek, whose work is currently on show in the Jefferson Hack-curated exhibition Transformer: A Rebirth of Wonder at 180 The Strand, is collaborating with Seth Scott and Robin Simpson to recreate the sound of Extinction Rebellion, the environmental protest group that staged a notable demonstration and closed down Waterloo Bridge earlier this year. Additionally, Beatrice Dillon is making music alongside live visuals from Venice Biennale Silver Lion winner Haroon Mirza. Across the three nights, which each include two performances of 40 minutes, there will be new compositions, visual artworks, electronic and analogue instruments, and many live elements.

“It’s very much about the site, about this unusual historical space and a junction of the river,” Marclay enthuses. “It will be dark. The audience is facing the windows. Wherever you are, you see the activity. You’ll quickly understand that what you’re hearing originated from the street – I want the show to be the street. For me, this is the spectacle. The city is a musical environment, it’s super rich and strange. If you think of the city as this giant instrument, then it becomes interesting.” Walking down the street may never be the same again.

Assembly: Christian Marclay runs from November 8 – 10, 2019 at Somerset House Studios, London.