Over the course of several years Duncan Whitley has been investigating the role of sound in Andalusian religious rituals. His new exhibition at London’s Soundfjord gallery focuses particularly on a musical form known as the saeta, which musicologist José María Sbarbi once described as “capable of producing in the mind an impression similar to that caused in the body by the wound from an arrow”. A Palm Sunday procession in Seville is portrayed in a film and multichannel audio work, the movement of an ornate float carrying a statue of Christ depicted through flashes of oblique still images. The sound seems to roam from the very thick of the action, where leading elders dedicate the procession to the memory of the fallen, to the peripheral crowd of whimpering children, murmuring adults, and shushing listeners straining to hear the now-distant benedictions. The work’s central axis is marked by the performance of a saeta, solo and unaccompanied, the singer’s wavering, undulating voice no less striking than the thunderous tumult of the marching band that precedes and follows it.
Were the audiovisual work presented on its own, it could easily be mistaken for a simple ethnographic study seeking to capture the experience of an exotic and archaic ritual. However, the exhibition also includes a set of textual, visual, and audio documents that begin to tease out some of the project’s more subtle and complex ideas. These documents, which are periodically added to as Whitley continues his field research in Seville, point to themes of serendipity, cultural history, contemporary religious practices, and time travel. It was this last notion, explored through the persistence of traditional Andalusian musical forms and encapsulated in a long held trumpet note that punctuates a band’s performance, that stood out most strongly for me. Time travel is often invoked in attempts to define a critical history of modernism: for example, as both Susan Buck-Morss and Eduardo Cadava have commented, Walter Benjamin’s writing attributes to everyday objects and images “the power to explode history’s ‘continuum’” and “place the present into question” (Buck-Morss, ‘Dialectics of Seeing’, p.x). “Sbarbi’s Arrow” could plausibly be understood from this perspective, the held trumpet note or the flash of the Palm Sunday stills constituting a kind of shock or rupture that shatters the modernist myth of time as unrelenting teleological progress.
However, such an approach risks overlooking the vitality of the saeta as a living and actively developed cultural practice, as well as uncritically applying a theory of the image to sound. The latter medium has a duration of its own that sets it apart from the instantaneity of the flash, now so effectively recouped by advertising. This duration can be thought of as a container or buffer, able to hold historical meaning rather than being pierced by it. The performative playback of this buffer then becomes the trigger of sound’s critical potential: agency is located not in fixed acoustic features, nor in the shock of their sudden appearance, but in their creative deployment as an event. This raises the question: what effects are generated by the playback of the Andalusian saeta in a sound art gallery in North London? If the flash aims for a single arrow-point of rupture and collapse, what can take place between the two points of sound’s durational extension, the start and end of the loop?
“Sbarbi’s Arrow” runs at Soundfjord on Thursdays – Sundays 2-6pm (8pm on Thursdays), or by informal appointment, until Sunday 21 April 2013. There is an extensive programme of events accompanying the exhibition — for more details see the gallery’s website.