"Musical Mystery Tour" Rock
stars such as David Byrne, Roots Manuva and Elizabeth Fraser have
created new tracks inspired by the galleries of the V&A. They
tell Charlotte Cripps how the music came to them.
By Charlotte Cripps, The Independent, May 11, 2004
the entrance hall of the Victoria and Albert Museum, I pick up a
set of headphones, a bespoke MP3 player and a map to follow a trail
of sounds through the galleries. Over the next few months, Britain's
foremost institution of art and design will become a temple to new
music. For the first time, rock stars, normally used for decorative
purposes at private views, have created sounds inspired by a museum's
I go into the magnificent Raphael gallery. Gazing upward at the
Raphael cartoons (housed at the V&A since 1845) - full-scale
colour designs of the tapestries for the Sistine Chapel commissioned
by Pope Leo X in 1515 - I hear the ethereal sound and bewitching
melodies of Elizabeth Fraser, the former lead singer of the Eighties
dream-pop band The Cocteau Twins. Her track, "Expectant Mood",
is a two minutes and 42 seconds audio response to the Raphael gallery.
The music is triggered by an infra-red light as I enter the cathedral-like
Why "Expectant Mood"? "Because it is such a state of
openness," she says. "I needed to be open to allow whatever
was meant to come through me happen. It is easy to close down and
become rigid. To remain open, I had to clear the tension from my
body and my throat. But it does carry itself along," she says
of her vocals that have always been largely unintelligible, but
deeply beautiful. You may ask yourself: why Elizabeth Fraser all
of a sudden? Shhh... began life with a simple brief: to invite 10
very different fine artists and musicians to record a sound piece
in response to a space in the V&A. It offered a wide range of
possibilities: to reflect the context of the objects in a gallery,
to focus on the architectural and acoustic qualities of different
spaces or to question the "personal" nature of headphones.
also wanted to open the visitors' eyes to the museum's collections
and spaces in a new way," explains Lauren Parker, the curator
of contemporary programmes at the V&A, who is pointing at Raphael's The Healing of the Lame Man while "The voice of god" - as Elizabeth Fraser was once described - fills the space with
her soaring vocals.
is very shy. She did not do many interviews even before she quit
the band in 1998. Since then she has collaborated with Massive Attack,
and sung "Isengard Unleashed" for the soundtrack to The
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. But, having just finished
a painting course, she tells me this new project for the V&A
has come at the right time. "This project for the V&A has
really changed me. It was a chance for me to do something on my
own, rather than a collaboration. Often the other projects I do
are started off for me by other people and are half finished - like
my new solo album."
curators were very keen Fraser took the space. In most cases they
invited the musicians and fine artists to pick their own spaces. "It was hard to take the room home with me," recalls Fraser
who, at the time, was trying to capture the atmosphere of the room
and the acoustics of the space before recording her piece in Bristol,
in the basement of her house. "It is so much more than just
the paintings, you see. I went back a handful of times and tried
to sit still in the room." She adds: "It took a long time
for the song to develop."
stop on the sound trail is the china gallery. Here, in stark contrast,
is the artist Jeremy Deller's audio piece, Celia's Tour .
He grabbed a friend's six-year-old child, Cecilia, let her loose
in her favourite room in the museum, and recorded her rushing from
object to object, reading labels. "She is breathless because
she is so excited,' says Deller. He is better known for Acid
Brass (1997) - a music project that consists of a 120-piece
brass band who play acid house music.
then take a surreal journey into the sculpture galleries. These
contain the most comprehensive collection of English post-medieval
sculpture in existence, with outstanding examples of marble portrait
busts, terracotta models for monuments, and free-standing statues.
I walk aimlessly among the disembodied heads and dead stares that
inspired Faultline, aka David Kosten, whose dark electronica and
heart-stirring melodies are now playing in my headphones. Faultline
are best known for their albums Closer, Colder and Your
Love Means Everything, which featured collaborations with
The Flaming Lips, Chris Martin from Coldplay and Michael Stipe from
REM. "I wandered all the way around the sculpture gallery to
create music that suited the gazes of the statues and busts," David Kosten tells me.
this atmospheric three-part electronica soundtrack, it feels like
a stroll through an ancestral home, and puts statues in a whole
new context. I feel like I am in a remake of the film Picnic
at Hanging Rock , but instead of being compelled to go up a
mountain, I am being drawn to portrait sculptures from Britain in
the 18th century and statues. There are even garden sculptures made
of lead and alabaster effigies. They come alive.
music that I made, with its occasional warped female voices,"
says Kosten, "was not deliberate. It just fell from the sky.
I stood here and closed my eyes and the music came to me like magic.
I had considered another space for a while - the ironwork gallery,
but, in the end, I would have fought a battle to death to stop another
musician or artist from stealing this space."
piece is meant to be mind altering," adds Jonny Dawe, a curator
of the show. His other job is providing live soundtracks for Miu
Miu during Milan fashion week. He does this with his partner, Nick
Powell, and together they form Oskar, an electro acoustic duo. They
have a commissioned artwork in gallery 62, the start of the trail,
which is simultaneously broadcast in the room and in the headphones.
on to a walkway, I hear the sound of mobile phones. David Byrne,
the former art-school punk from Talking Heads, has done four pieces
in odd places around the V&A, such as "I Will Not Pick
Up The Phone" heard along the cast court ramp for 0.55 seconds
(repeated play) - mobile phones ringing - footsteps in the ramps
- until we walk into the V&A unisex toilets (still in use throughout
is very disconcerting standing in this beautiful old toilet, with
those lovely old tiles, part of the old refreshment area, listening
to David Byrne's soundtrack of flushing toilets and dripping taps,
and wondering if the sound is real or not? "There is a little
bit of a trompe l'oeil involved in my pieces - I do hope
that someone hearing a mobile phone ring on the recording will turn
to see if someone is answering it, or someone hearing a toilet flush
might believe that a person is about to emerge from a nearby stall," says Byrne about his toiletscape that we are all standing around
hope the effect will be a strange incongruity between the interior
private world of a headphone wearer and the sounds one expects to
hear around one. It's the dislocation that always happens with people
like myself who are often listening to their own music in public
spaces - we're in our own world and a public world at the same time," he says.
the café foyer where the Persian-born DJ, producer and composer
Leila, has created "The Wondering" - soulful electronica.
Leila has released two albums - Like Weather and Courtesy
of Choice - and collaborates with Björk. Her piece of music,
basically a low buzz of conversation to a background melody, is
a fair if unenlivening reflection of the museum goers, whom I can
now see eating and drinking through the glass windows of the café.
Her next piece - "The Maker" on the Exhibition Road entrance
landing is beautiful as we look up at the staircase and domed high
ceiling with a view towards the Renaissance Galleries.
Shhh trail (where you are led by digital signage to the next space)
takes an hour and a half. Into the Norfolk House Music Room with
its gold encrusted walls and silk emerald green curtains and candelabra
- to hear Roots Manuva's "You Rang Me Lord" - a dub hip
hop track. The ceiling panels are decorated with trophies representing
the Arts, and the ancient god of music. When the house was opened
in 1756, its interiors instantly became famous for their swanky
Rococo decoration. And Roots, one of the most influential voices
in the UK hip hop scene, blends a heartfelt lyricism with the reggae
sounds of the sound system culture. It is a strange environment
to be listening to the lyrics - "Some of us are slobs ...the
young wait for inheritance cheques." Why did you choose the
space? "The space chose me!" says Roots, who was inspired
by the architecture and the mood of the room. What do you want the
visitor to experience when listening to your piece? "To be