City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.



As part of the recent Biennale of Sydney, I took in the Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller installation at Pier 2/3, Walsh Bay. The festival programme describes the work thus:

“Since the 1990s, the experimental art of Canadians Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller has been a fascinating exploration of how sound affects and shapes our experience. World-premiering at the 2008 Biennale is their largest installation to date, The Murder of Crows – an astounding 100-speaker artwork that envelops the viewer/listener in the experience of the sculptural and physical qualities of sound. The large and cavernous space of Pier 2/3 is filled with speakers mounted on stands, chairs and walls, creating a minimalist ‘flock’. The installation is structured like a play or film, but with images created only by voice, music and sound effects. Inspired by Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters – from the series of etchings called ‘Caprichos’ (c. 1799), which was a denunciation of the evils of society in Spain in his day – the artists have placed a lone megaphone horn on a table in the middle of the space. Out of this horn comes Cardiff’s voice reciting dreams and thoughts as if, like Goya’s sleeper, she is absorbed in her own nightmares. Using multiple soundscapes, as well as compositions by Freida Abtan, Tilman Ritter and Titus Maderlechner, the artists create a ‘sound play’ that physically envelops the listener in a moving field of sound and music. Morphing in a dreamlike way from war marches to lullabies, the piece is a requiem to today’s battered world.” [Biennale of Sydney]

That’s about right, and immersing oneself in a 100 speaker installation is of course an affecting experience. Indeed, I’d seen/heard Cardiff/Bures Miller’s prototype for this work, Forty Part Motet, on a bleak Sheffield day a few years earlier, an extraordinary 40-speaker recreation of Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium (1573), with once voice tracked to each speaker. It’s as if you’re a ghost, able to move around a full choir as you please, pausing to listen to one voice, or a group of voices, without the ‘singers’ noticing. (Someone captured a fragment of it here, and there’s more information about it here.)




A few years later, as I through around the forest of speakers placed around Pier 2/3 at Walsh Bay, winter sunlight bursting through the high windows and the gentle creak of the old pier introducing itself to the mix, under duress to the harbour’s currents, I can’t help but conclude that Cardiff and Bures Miller – in this mode at least – are a bit 'one-note', which is somewhat ironic given the polyphonic spree that their works increasingly revolve around. It's the same principle as 40 Part Motet, yet with 60 extra speakers. Having said that, it’s still a beguiling trick. Technically adept, often sublime, but I'm not sure how deeply it affects, ultimately. I think perhaps Tallis’s Spem in Alium is also a far superior piece of music, although The Murder of Crows has far more variation.



(Another Cardiff/Bures Miller piece is the The Muriel Lake Incident, seen at Tate Modern years ago, which has a lightness of touch absent in Forty part Motet and Murder of Crows. It's almost penny arcade, but no worse for that.)

The videos below are partly the result of the usual games of ‘exhibition pacman’ with the Biennale’s staff, after I'd noticed a small poster declaring an unnecessary (I thought) ban on the use of cameras. So the first of these videos is taken with the camera behind my back, in my clasped hands, as if I were going for a stroll along a promenade. Hence it looks as it does. You can hear the choral component fading as I move towards the speakers denoting the piano. The other is a little smoother, featuring a segment in which the sound of the ocean dissolves into a woman's voice recounting a dream. The woman's voice is apparently located within the megaphone horn mentioned above. The music varies considerably over the 30-minute duration, so don’t take these elements as representatives of the entire piece. And obviously, any sound recording would struggle to convey the sculptural quality of the sound, distributed as it is, never mind reproduce the fidelity – and certainly not my digital camera.

I did enjoy the work, though wasn’t as moved by it as I was by Forty Part Motet. In fact I was most taken with Pier 2/3 itself, which is a simply wonderful space. One of the 4 salvaged piers that comprise Walsh Bay, right by the Sydney Harbour Bridge, it’s a place with stories to tell for sure, despite its cavernous interior being left unadorned, detritus simply shoved to one side. It has its own distinctive music nonetheless.





Pier 2/3 also contained a reconstruction of Luigo Russolo’s noise-makers, Intonarumori (1914), and a quite beautiful untitled painting by Doreen Reid Nakamarra.








6 responses to “Journal: The Murder of Crows, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Biennale of Sydney 2008”

  1. Avatar

    I think I said I’d give Cardiff and Bures-Miller at least a 10-year pass to do whatever they like after I first heard 40-Part Motet; it’s interesting to find them doing another similarly constructed piece.
    FWIW, this is at least Cardiff/Miller’s third “one note.” Cardiff first got international recognition for her hypnotic audio walking tours, where her voice guided you through museums and other spaces in real time. Since it required loaning out Discmans and later video cameras, it didn’t scale very well.
    Next, came some kind of unsuccessfully stagey, prop-filled theatrical environments, also with sound and video. Their Canadian pavilion at Venice in 2000 was shaped like an extremely foreshortened moviehouse, but the best thing I remember about it, frankly, was the air conditioning.
    Then came the Motet, and all was new again.


  2. jgrzinich Avatar

    interesting work. do you have a higher quality sound recording? the vimeo sound is quite poor and probably doesn’t represent the effect in the space very well. A nice binaural recording would be great, sans video.


  3. Dan Hill Avatar

    Sorry, it was only from my digital camera – hence low sound and vision quality. It wouldn’t have been appropriate to take a ‘proper’ recording anyway, of course. This is a ‘sketch’ of the show, as part of a review, rather than anything more detailed.


  4. jgrzinich Avatar

    ah a sketch… I thought it looked a bit improvised with the speakers set up on chairs (but why not, it looks nice). It would of course be good to hear the real thing but I won’t be down under any time soon (pass it on to my Aussie friends though).


  5. karl Avatar

    there’s a Video at about Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller – The Murder of Crows Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin


  6. John Zayne Avatar
    John Zayne

    I’ve experienced The Murder of Crows at the Alberta Art Gallery in Edmonton and it was amazing. I think explanations of the piece are inadequate to be honest. You must experience it firsthand!


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