Saturday, 16 April 2016

Twangling instruments: the first sound artist in residence at Senate House Library

"Winston woke up with the word 'Shakespeare' on his lips."  - George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Senate House - the brutal/Deco University of London tower for which Georgian terraces were razed - is an Orwell-Shakespeare mash-up in the hands of Hannah Thompson, the sound artist in residence. 

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell uses Shakespeare to represent the opposite of the valueless life on Airstrip One. 

Senate House is Orwell's model for the Ministry of Truth: his first wife Eileen worked there, in the Censorship Department of the Ministry of Information, during the war. 

Nineteen Eighty-Four predicts that by 2050 the Bard will be a goner except in translation, but he's clinging on and in this anniversary year the building celebrates him vertically. 

Hannah has installed motion sensors in the lifts to activate recordings of the staff reading Shakespeare, although passengers have been accidentally muting the system by fiddling with it. Please leave it alone.

I don't know how many of Hannah's readers chose to record 'When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes', the sonnet which Shakespeare wrote for me personally, but I was one of them.

Ditto 'Not marble, nor the gilded monuments/Of princes' which I dedicate to the building's uncompromising walls and floors of Travertine, a stern but vulnerable substance, sallow, pockmarked, utilitarian, noble, tragic. 

Any staff and contract workers who'd like to record some Shakespeare should contact Hannah in her fourth floor workshop.  

Translations are welcome: Hannah already has a clip from Julius Caesar in Twi, a dialect spoken in Ghana. And on Wednesdays she holds open house, so pop on the earphones and listen to her mesmeric collages of Senate House sounds from eerie to regurgitatory.  

Today Hannah is visited by linguist, model and Dallas aficionado Gavin (@gavinodivino) who quizzes me attentively about the 1980s.

I'd never been inside the building until this year but for me the words 'Child Rowland to the dark tower came' have always circled it like rooks. (Give yourself one point for King Lear, another for Browning.) Now I'm collecting other people's anecdotes. 

Ahead of the pack is a wistful remembrance of being seduced with silent efficiency by a librarian and wafted up to what my friend describes as 'a secluded balcony'.

'What happened in the unseen labyrinth to which the pneumatic tubes led, he did not know in detail...' - Nineteen Eighty-Four
Hannah Thompson's project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, commemorates a time of upheaval for the building. For details and information about the exhibition Shakespeare: Metamorphosis, please see the Senate House Library and School of Advanced Study websites. 

And if any newcomer takes exception to my personal blogsnark, rest assured that I know about the pain of underfunding in higher education and the misery of looking after an old building.

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