Songsmith, Jenna Burchell

Using sound to communicate emotions, memories and experiences symbolically, artist Jenna Burchell is constantly in search of ways to archive sounds into objects. She reflects on the July riots in South Africa through her work that combines Kintsukuroi with her Songsmith, and in conversation with Sarah Jayne Fell expands on her artistic practice.

Songsmith is above all else an assertion of life and its beauty, not in spite of, but in acknowledgment of ruin.

Songsmith / Bangor City, Wales (2015)  –  Sound of Place

To compose soundscapes that resonate with a sense of place, Burchell embeds herself into a community with a field recorder. The resulting soundscapes weave together first person narratives that sing of a community’s experience of life, memory and place. This can be heard in her work Songsmith (Bangor City).

JB: It’s a golden instrument that repairs a crack or a fracture or fills a hole in a historic object. The point of a songsmith is that it allows you to reveal sound. It essentially becomes the access to an archive, so you can hear sound in the form of memory or history or experience and it gets embedded into these objects or vessels or archives and it allows you to reveal that and hear what is going on.

It started with the Wales project. I responded to an open call to a sound project in Wales. They wanted some kind of public sound intervention. It started with wanting to reveal and explore the stories around certain sites. It got me thinking, how can I explore and reveal those stories?

I pulled in Kintsukuroi, the Japanese philosophy and art of repair with gold, especially in ceramics. I thought, this is a fantastic philosophy to borrow from and repurpose, because people recognise it and understand its meaning and its symbolism. So to repair a crack meaningfully with something golden, it draws people towards it to touch it, which is perfect for what I needed to do. It also has a very technological and functional reason, to get it to actually work and play sound.

If I really go back to why, it was wanting to look at or touch the world and to see and hear the stories of its past and that wondering, how many people have walked over this piece of land, how many stories have played out over all the centuries over this square metre. And that fascination to pull the stories out of the land and pull the stories out of objects and to be able to hear them and experience them. That fascination is what triggered all of it.

SJF: Kintsukuroi captures the story because it’s not hiding the cracks or the breakage, it’s embedding it into the thing.

JB: It’s an acknowledgement of ruin.

Songsmith / Cradle of Humankind (2016-17), The Great Karoo (2018), San (2021-present)  –  The Echo of Land

In Songsmith (The Great Karoo), Songsmith (Cradle of Humankind), Songsmith (Fragile Homes), and the upcoming Songsmith (Sān), Burchell collaborates with geophysicists using Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR). This allows her to get a waveform of the earth’s substrate going down into the ground; eons of time in geological terms. Burchell then translates these soundwaves to unearth songs that sing of the ancient history of land.

JB: I was working for a public commission for the Sarah Baartman Centre of Remembrance in the Eastern Cape. Our country genocided the Khoisan, and their history and culture was just eradicated. There’s no way you can possibly fix that. A lot of our country is like that. 

You can’t fix it, you can’t ignore it, you can’t repair it, but you can acknowledge it.

A lot of that history is oral history, it’s orally transferred. It’s spoken, sound-based history.

SJF: And so I suppose what you’re doing with your work is bringing those two histories together… embedding the oral history into the object or structure, into the physical history, adding a new dimension, a layer of emotiveness and richness.

JB:  Speaking one’s lived experience is what’s important, especially marginalised experience or experiences people don’t consider significant to write into memory making or history.

JB: My work is very aleatoric. Composer John Cage refers to the aleatoric as the roll of the dice. For the type of things I want to talk about, like who has the power to create archives, who has the power to write history, I feel like it’s significant that I remove my power from that scenario and I allow the relational aesthetics to form, I allow the things I encounter to form, the people I encounter to form it, my limitations to form it, people’s input, the technology… all of that forms the final object. I am very limited in making aesthetic decisions, I am very limited in making subjective decisions.

SJF: It’s almost as if you have developed a methodology and allow the artwork to create itself.

JB: It’s a bit of an authorship decentralisation. That’s kind of what occurred at Wales. If I was making these compositions they would sound super different. If I was curating them and forcing them into my particular taste they would sound different. But the thing that excites me is I don’t have control over that. They will emerge the way they will emerge based on the process I’ve set out, and who I find. When that project launched, the community was so involved and so supportive. It was their project. It wasn’t my project.

Drawing sound from the land evolved from this process. I got to Nirox and thought, how do you experience the sound? There are no people to tell me a story. So I started exploring, how can I experience the ground, how can it tell me a story? That’s when I started working with the Ground Penetrating Radar and the Echo of Land.

In the Cradle of Humankind, I started a triptych of rocks from deep ancient history, from a time before we understand what time is. I was interested at the time, based on my own personal life experience, how something very small and fleeting could make such a massive impact in the world. 

The Karoo ones come from a worldwide extinction event with volcanic ash, it was only a couple of hours and yet it marks the end of the Permian era and the start of the Triassic era.

The Karoo used to be an inland sea and when there was this catastrophic event, a lot of volcanoes erupting, a lot of ash spewing into the air, all that ash fell into that inland sea, souped around with the silts and sedimented the bottom of the sea. That became the Karoo Basin and with the Cape Fold Belt, this folded upwards, and now it’s literally like a metre-deep chalk line across all the mountains that we can see. We don’t see it anywhere else because it’s underground. It goes all the way to South America. You can see it from Google Maps. It’s one of the proofs we have for Pangea.

Songsmith / Yorkshire Sculpture Park (2017) – The Signal of Memory

When Burchell is composing soundscapes that work with mind, spirit, and memory, such as in Songsmith (Yorkshire Sculpture Park), she works with EEG (Electroencephalography). This is a monitoring method that records electrical activity in the brain. Burchell perceives the brain to be like orchestra, each memory and emotion creating a frequency. Burchell collaborates with people to record and translate their brainwave signals into delicate musical notes that dance along their thoughts, feelings and emotions.

JB: Then again I shifted later on with Yorkshire Sculpture Park where I started doing memory recordings… and there I didn’t want people to talk or to tell me, I wanted to experience their thoughts. I’m constantly looking for new ways to represent thought and memory and feelings in symbolic ways.

When I was about 17, my parents moved to Doha. They lived there for a decade. It was pre-Skype, pre-social media, pre-WhatsApp, and the only way we would communicate really was through the phone and all my sense of security and love and fulfilment came over voices and over sound. And I think, when you get told to create work that’s meaningful to you, my brain just did it through sound. So that’s how I communicate, it’s where I feel emotion sit.

This evolved into the Sound Portrait Library where I explore the idea of the quintessence of a person – the thing that is more than the sum of the parts. We have all the materiality of who we are, but what is emergent in who we are? So I was recording different people’s minds and then processing them into sound. At first I thought they were all going to sound the same, but something comes out and emerges in each sound portrait. 

I etched them onto vinyl records so you can sit and play it and listen to a person for 22 minutes and experience their mind. It’s weird, you can feel things. You can feel an anxious person, or a gregarious person… Will everyone sound unique? I don’t know.

Songsmith / Fragile Homes (2018-present)

Songsmith (Fragile Homes) is an ongoing collection of bones and remains that Burchell encounters while walking across landscapes such as the Cradle of Humankind and The Great Karoo.

SJF:  Embedding the sound from the land in which these bones or skulls were found, it’s like a memorial to their final resting place.

JB: They are memorials. Most of my work is memorial based, but those in particular.

The Gemsbok I had seen a few months earlier walking around with his one horn, and then encountering him later…

It’s about this idea of the entanglement of life and death with land over time and the cyclical nature of it, and just honouring those moments. We’re so fleeting. Everything is so fleeting.

Songs from the Unknown / Heartbreak Pots (new work in progress)

JB: The ceramic stuff is all very new. It’s an extension of the Signal of Memory work. 

I’m working on a series of pots that I nickname the Heartbreak Pots and it’s very much in response to the Covid era of our lives. I’m working with something called Takotsubo syndrome. Takotsubo translates from Japanese to mean ‘octopus pots’. Medical doctors call it takotsubo syndrome or heartbreak syndrome  –  it’s how your heart changes shape under extreme emotional experiences, it takes on the shape of this Japanese pot. I’m busy working with the takotsubo pot shape and recording people’s memories of things that they love, that they’ve lost and that they cherish and remember. Recording their memory of them and putting their memory into the pot. But instead of it being the data itself I’ve taken it one step further and I’ve been printing their memories into sheet music and then a singer improvises the notes on the sheets. So these pots kind of sing, and they sing in voices from everyday people. It’s not the person who experienced the memory, it’s somebody else, so it’s more than one person coming together to celebrate a memory and to archive it.

I  did the first test run four days ago… it’s really early days. I’m going to be raku firing them so there’s a high chance of breakage but I’m hoping to work with the broken parts and fixing them with bronze pins so you see the pot repair and hear the song. I think the feeling you get from them will be fairly intuitive.

It triggers into this idea of the sublime, or awe, or childlike wonder, and I love that. It’s kind of how magic triggers people’s imaginations.

I love playing with generating a sense of magic and awe in people. It makes them feel alive and it makes us feel like kids again. I love that being the first encounter they have with the work. It opens them up and makes them willing to connect with people, to talk with people, to discuss everything and anything with someone. | @jennaburchell

Words: Jenna Burchell & Sarah Jayne Fell
Videos, Images & Captions: Supplied by the artist

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