Thursday, December 29, 2016

Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Strolling around the V&A just before Christmas, I came across Cornelia Parker's Breathless, which was made in 2001 and has been in the museum's collection since, I think, 2005.* It's made of 54 brass instruments that have been flattened, silver-plated, and suspended on thin steel wires. They float, these trombones and trumpets and tubas, between two levels of the museum, occupying a hole that was opened up where a ceiling and floor used to be.

I've been in the V&A quite a few times over the last ten years, but I'd not seen this piece before. I was immediately engaged by it and found myself wondering just how those instruments had been flattened (a friend tells me he thinks the deed was done with a steamroller§) and how it hard it must have been to get them all sitting in the same plane. Questions were also forming in my mind about the destructive side of the creative process that had taken place – I mean, shouldn't these instruments be used for playing music? I see that the V&A's documentation insists that they were 'defunct brass instruments', though. (Even so, an impish fantasy began to form in my head. Ms Parker had been made to play in the back of the string section in an orchestra and had had her ears blasted once too often by the trombones at her back. Now, with a steamroller at her disposal, she has her revenge....It's pure fiction of course.)

After thinking these subversive thoughts, I settled down to realising how full of meaning Breathless is. Brass instruments are enduring symbols of power – trumpets voice calls to arms and warn of the last judgement; trombones likewise accompany last things (they resound awesomely in the requiems of Mozart and Berlioz); tubas are usually quieter beasts, but when Wagner wants music to denote a dragon. it's the tuba he turns to. Squashing such powerful symbols can create a powerful symbol in itself.¶

Above all, perhaps, Breathless is a meditation in glinting silver on music and silence.† Squashed, the instruments have had their wind, and their speaking power, squeezed out of them. Their mouthpieces will no longer be met by an embouchure, their valves are jammed, their water keys are useless, their bells need no longer be fitted with a mute, for they are mute indeed. Yet for all this, their outline is still unmistakable – they could be nothing but brass instruments – and they shimmer in their silence with a ghostly new life.

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* More on Breathless can be found on the museum's website, here.

§ Thank you to a reader for enlightening me further about this. It turns out that the hydraulic mechanism that raises Tower Bridge was used to squash the instruments. Apparently there is a label somewhere in the museum that explains this, but I missed it; my mind must have been full of the Gothic Revival furniture that I'd just been looking at, and the wonderful Christmas carols that were being performed live somewhere in the museum, their sounds floating up through the squashed brass ensemble to the spaces above. The aisle was full of noises.

¶ If you hear the clash of symbols in this sentence, remember that it's not only the high seriousness of the most highly serious classical music that's at stake here. Think of what Louis Armstrong could make a trumpet do, or Jack Teagarden a trombone. Such musicians can be poignant and jocular by turns. Silencing them is pretty awesome too.

† Where there is music, there must also be silence. Silent and listen are anagrams, as Alfred Brendel, for one, has noticed.


Hels said...

I had a bit of a think about which instruments are usually used in two dimensional art, especially 17th century paintings. The Dutch and Italians loved their lutes, guitars, harps, pianos etc and I in turn loved the idea of an exhibition called "Listening to Paintings" (Met 2015). But were there many images of brass instruments back then?

Philip Wilkinson said...

An interesting question, Hels, as yours always are. Perhaps it helps to think HOW the various instruments were used. Lutes, guitars, harps, and keyboard instruments were popular for domestic use, so they appear in paintings set in house interiors (by Vermeer, for example). Brass instruments were more widely used out of doors – for martial music, for example – so might be more likely to appear in battle scenes. Medieval depictions of angels have them playing all sorts of instruments especially lutes and harps but also sometimes brass instruments.

Incidentally, the other thing is that brass instruments have evolved quite a bit over time, so 18th century and earlier ones wouldn't have valves, for example.