A Resurrection in Sound: 58 Processions in the crypt of St Pancras Parish Church

58 Processions is a work that dislocates sound. In its installation in London in 2008, the sounds taken from the streets of Seville over Easter were heard in the murk and gloom of St Pancras church on the Euston Road. Seville’s Semana Santa processions, where the recordings were made, are an example of ritual at its most sensually engaging. Incense burns and trumpets play, statues are carried on platforms above the crowd, and thousands of people are swept along in a frenetic mass. Transferred to a new setting, significant but different to their origin, the sounds both disorientate the listeners and encourage a careful attention to their content. What does it mean to take the sounds alone out of their rich environment? What effect does this have on how they are experienced, particularly in the new context of the crypt at St. Pancras Parish Church?

Sound in place

The crypt is cave-like, dark, its connected chambers and passageways thick with must. Damp makes the place smell and gets into your bones. The space is empty, apart from some littered memorial stones and discarded reliefs. These fragments give the names of the people whose remains were (and still are) interred here, alongside palms and shrouded urns: the iconography of a nineteenth-century death. The church was consecrated in 1822 but the crypt operated only until 1854, when city crypts were closed to burials and the new St. Pancras cemetery was used instead. The crypt was left empty, though it was used as a bomb shelter during the two world wars. It is now used for art exhibitions, but is no inert gallery space. It resonates both literally – in those echoing chambers – and with the charge of its own history.

The processions move invisibly through this space. A dislocated coughing, rustling, murmuring, a shuffling of feet. The odd bang or rattle, mutterings in Spanish. A few knocks on a hard ground. All of a sudden, keening trumpets and rattling drums erupt into a harmonious wail, just contained but always on the brink of complete abandon.

The sounds of the Semana Santa summon up crowds and movement, slow but deliberate. They present to us the rhythm of orchestrated ritual, but with an unpredictable dynamic. We hear a mass of people represented by an ebbing swish of sound. Overlaid onto this are the suggestions of actions by the processions’ major players, the signals and remarks that have been practised into invisibility, but which reappear aurally in these recordings. Then there is the music: the official soundtrack to the ritual, if you like, but which in reality is always accompanied by the noisy and incidental.

The sounds from within the crypt join in: more shuffling, though of fewer feet, and sirens and traffic outside. Mobile phone beeps come both from the recording and from real time. Recorded and present sounds combine.

The sounds of the Sevillian processions haunt the space. Wandering around, you imagine that the next chamber along has been wondrously expanded to fit all those people, and the procession is going on in there. The sounds of such an involving, social ritual – but the sounds alone – conspire to make you feel as though the party is going on somewhere else, without you. Like those gravestones, separated from the people they commemorate, the sounds are spookily bodiless.

There is of course something ghostly about recorded sound: taking sound, which can only exist in time, and allowing it to be heard over and over again, out of the time in which it was first made. The first effective recording devices were invented in the second half of the nineteenth century, and this new ability to capture sound was specially connected to the period’s fascination with death. Jonathan Sterne has pointed out that sound recording:

was the product of a culture that had learned to can and to embalm, to preserve the bodies of the dead so that they could continue to perform a social function after life. The nineteenth century’s momentous battle against decay offered a way to explain sound recording. (Sterne 2003: 292).

The crypt of St. Pancras is a product of a slightly earlier time, but it nevertheless seems appropriate to play out saved sound in this space. A celebration of resurrection is relocated to a crypt which still contains very mortal remains; sounds from the open air, full of life, are played out dark and underground amongst stones that commemorate the forgotten. The artists, rightly, did not deliberately play up these parallels. But for the visitor, exploring the space, encountering the live and the dead together, they work to create a new, uneasy but powerful experience.

Sound and ritual

The sounds resonate in the chambers, making it difficult to pinpoint where they are coming from. The recordings are played out from different sites in the crypt and, walking around, the listener tries to follow particular sounds around the space, to mimic the procession that’s being replayed. Veils disguise the playback equipment, but dummy veils trick you into expecting sound from behind a silent curtain. The sounds are acousmatic: their source is unseen; doubly so, because not only are their original sources not present, but the speakers that play back the recorded sound are hidden too. It is a disorientating experience, unsettling as you move around in the gloom.

The crypt exhibition also included a small, unobtrusive screen showing a beautifully-shot Super 8 film taken of the processions in Seville. It had no sound, and was out of time with the recordings playing, but the audience flocked to these moving images nevertheless, looking for an explanation of their aural experience. Steven Connor has written that:

hearing is vividly sensible precisely because it is not, like vision, immediately intelligible, because sound asks questions (what am I? where did that come from? what is going to happen now?) for the answers to which we must look to the eye. (Connor 2008: para. 5)

The screen allowed the audience to have their questions answered visually. Those who had been to Seville explained how the sound related to the film: these are those marching musicians I was telling you about. But whereas sound implies presence, these moving pictures removed the procession to somewhere past and far away. The screen encouraged a more passive relationship to the sound; it disrupted the delicate interplay between sound and space. The crypt turned back to being a rented gallery, and the mystery of the noises was solved.

Christian Metz, in his discussion of off-screen sound in film, was right to argue strongly against the cultural prejudice against sound as an object, against the preconception that “ideologically, the aural source is an object, the sound itself a ‘characteristic’.” (Metz 1980: 26). With the film, the installation – and the visitors who saw and heard it – fell into the trap that Metz describes. On the one hand, the film made the source of the sound starkly clear. On the other, it could only offer a visual explanation: one which in any case was out of synch with the sounds themselves. But we do not always have to find a physical object with which to explain the sound. This is particularly relevant to Seville’s fifty- eight processions, whose source is not simply a visual object, but a complicated ritual in which sound is one of many significant sensory stimuli. We may believe our eyes, but sight combined with our other senses creates an altogether richer experience.

The ritual of the Semana Santa processions depends on a rupture, and at the same time a combination, of time. In replaying the last days of the Passion narrative, participants become actors in the sacred drama. The past and the present conflate. The sounds, smells, tiredness of feet come together to make this ritual all-involving. Hyperrealist sculptures, carried on floats by members of the confraternities, are activated by this corporate action and come to life, so that it really is Christ up there above the crowds, complete with crown of thorns and bearing his own cross. This magic depends on action by the participants, on their movements and their beliefs. The ritual is a reproduction of the events of the Passion, played back in real time and simultaneously replicating what hasbeen done by citizens of Seville yearly hundreds of times before.

Recording and editing sound combines and alters time in a very different way. But the time-bound nature of sound means that when played back it likewise overlays the present, and recalls the previous instances of its own repetition. 58 Processions makes the Semana Santa rituals echo in a different way, making them enact another, different loop of performance and relocation.

In the crypt, the synchronous double-time of the Sevillian processions was presented in the abandoned dankness and among the paraphernalia of mid-nineteenth century English death. This juxtaposition created a new, particular, set of sensory impressions. The Semana Santa felt alive but visually absent; the crypt was present, its inert contents activated in a new way by the sounds that now accompanied them. It was an unexpected meeting of two very different rituals: but the strangeness of the combination enhanced the qualities of each side. The piece in that space created a new ceremony, and yet more will be created, perhaps, wherever else 58 Processions is shown. Tiny rituals might even spring to life when you play the sounds in this publication out from your computer speakers. The noises collaborate with their surroundings, however unlikely, to produce a new, involving experience that uses all our many senses.

References

Connor, Steven (2008). ‘Ear Room’: a paper given at the Audio Forensics Symposium, Image-Music-Text Gallery, London, 30 November, 2008. [accessed 15 March 2009]

Metz, Christian, trans. Georgia Gurrieri (1980). ‘Aural Objects’, Yale French Studies 60: 24-32.

Sterne, Jonathan (2003). The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham and London: Duke University Press