Everyday life is punctuated by song. There’s the nonsense you sing to keep the baby entertained on the changing mat, the earworm you hum while washing up, the current favourite that you blast out in a traffic jam, and the inaudible mumbling emanating from a stranger’s headphones. Then there are the songs we sing communally at religious ceremonies, royal events and with arms round each other at the end of parties. Without realising it, we are constantly digesting and regurgitating narratives, recalling history and finding our place in the world through words set to a melody.
What Let the Song Hold Us wants to know is, what happens to us if the song is loosened from its usual confines – if its conventions are altered or the lyrics question identity instead of reaffirming it? Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind are two of the artists trying to find out, fusing Palestinian and European music practices to create an Arabic-language opera. Elsewhere, Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic create a narrative of both fact and fiction, while Rae-Yen Song’s choral echoes move from understanding into feeling.
For most of the works in this group exhibition, a transcript is published online. This is important because it’s unusual – beyond subtitles – for the words of artists’ films to be made so readily available. “Transcript” could really be replaced by “song sheet”, because just as it is the words that imbue a song with its meaning, so the text in these pieces stand as the central motif. It is vital that we absorb the words, so much so we can go back – even after we can no longer see the artwork – and re-read them.
Sansour and Lind’s three-channel video As if No Misfortune Had Occurred in the Night follows Palestinian soprano Nour Darwish as she roams a crumbling temple. The dramatic cinematography is arresting, but it is the content of the song that elevates the piece. “Each tragedy shared with those still unborn / My blood delivering the words / I forbid myself to speak,” sings Darwish, playing the role of a Palestinian mother who has lost her daughter. The reference to “blood” emphasises the close bond between parent and child and also the way in which trauma passes from one generation to another.
Aretha Franklin’s version of Bridge Over Troubled Water plays over Zinzi Minott’s exploration of the Windrush Generation in Merseyside. Suddenly the vocals stop, replaced by an upbeat track that accompanies people dancing in a modern-day kitchen. Like the disjointed music, the visuals are glitchy, creating a patchwork of experiences and influences, reflecting the alteration of a cultural identity when it is displaced and marginalised. Footage of joyous dancing is offset by discussion around the uncertain future of a Caribbean community centre and violently rushing water, creating a work that celebrates both the endurance and precariousness of a group of people.
“It’s true that the remit of memory is theoretically infinite,” says Tessa Norton in her installation, Dark Circles. “But in practice, its capacity is limited to just three generations. The fourth generation back might as well be the fortieth.” Like Minott, Norton uses song – or spoken word – to search for an identity that has been affected by the British empire. Exploring the ambiguity of Anglo-Indian heritage, Norton sets her immersive piece in the limbo of a traditional railway waiting room. Sitting on a bench beneath flickering lights, we watch three female performers crackling in black and white as Norton speaks to us of our inability to fully understand the nature of time and space, and our place within it. “The nature of who we are and where we fit in is only as solid as a beam of light,” she points out.
Norton’s conversational tone is soothing, but the content is probing, highlighting the discomfort generated by oppression over generations. “Sometimes you just need to know when to be quiet. Do you know what I mean?” she asks at the end, which really could apply to any of the works in Let the Song Hold Us. The show asks us to put aside for a moment all those songs we carry inside us – all the ideas we have about our identity and history – to consider someone else’s experience. Even Ebun Sodipo’s Following the Gourd, an interactive website rather than a stereotypical “song”, offers the Black trans community the opportunity to dictate their own stories through a collection of sound snippets and collages from pop culture. When it does get noisy again, and I start to listen to music on the train home, the songs from Let the Song Hold Us stay with me, adding a new dimension to my previously mindless consumption, questioning the narratives I am absorbing and the world I’m approving.