Cardiff and Miller’s ‘The Murder of Crows’: a haunting case of cinema through sound alone

'The Murder of Crows' is on now at Park Avenue Armory (James Ewing)
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In cinema, “acousmatic” is a fancy term for a voice whose source remains unseen. While radio, telephones, and recording have made the acousmatic voice common in our era, the cultural theorist Mladen Dolar argues that it retains a certain “secret power,” presenting “a puzzling causality, as an effect without a proper cause.”

The Murder of Crows, the breathtaking 30-minute mixed-media soundscape by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller (pictured below right) now receiving its U.S. premiere at the Park Avenue Armory, compels listeners to grapple with the disquieting mystery of voices and sounds without causes. Created for the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, and on view at the Armory through Sept. 9, Murder is a kind of auditory film without external imagery or action.

Deep within the velvety blackness of the Armory’s 55,000-square-foot drill hall, spotlights shine on a gramophone horn shorn of its playback mechanism. It lies on a table with a red surface, surrounded by a few dozen folding chairs. Ninety-eight loudspeakers—a handful on chairs, most suspended from the ceiling or set on stands at the dark perimeter of the space—encircle the illuminated area, emitting sound inward.

Questions arise. Why sit and watch a gramophone horn? Could the installation be some kind of postmodern gloss on His Master’s Voice, the old painting of a dog peering quizzically into a pickup horn? Thought quickly gives way to panic as footsteps sound in the shadows and a door creaks open. Necks crane and eyes dart about as audience members strain to make out where the sounds are coming from, but the immediate material sources they are looking for aren't there. It’s all just sound, traveling among the loudspeakers and ricocheting within the inky, cavernous hall.

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The specificity of the auditory cues in the absence of visual anchors brings on a kind of cognitive queasiness. At last week’s preview, several reporters bolted from their seats soon after Murder began, regrouping outside the ring of loudspeakers. They didn’t seem to be angling for a better view. Their hasty retreat suggested fear.

Almost immediately, a woman’s voice seems to emerge from the gramophone horn, recounting three dreams (or three episodes of one dream). The royal road to her unconscious takes listeners to places where cats and babies are ground into a bloody pulp, an enslaved young man is threatened with dismemberment, and the dreamer stumbles upon a severed leg. Her words, clear and soft but steeped in trauma, mirror the room: dark, still, yet aswarm with drips and wheezes and sawing strings. The soundscape penetrates listeners’ psyches and guts, calling forth inner visions as disturbing as they are vague and shapeless.

Hundreds of layers of ever-shifting channels make up Murder’s sound-world. Operatic song morphs into noise and then into bird shrieks; a loud, rushing squall (a tornado? a tsunami?) and other nameless dins crash against listeners. The feeling of vulnerability brought on by the immersive experience, the blurring of inner and outer limits, explains some of this spellbinding work’s immense power. (I sat through most of it twice and found it no less stunning the second time around.)

The title is a play on words. “Murder” denotes an assembly of crows, like a “pride” for lions, and crows are believed to mourn their dead by gathering in a circle and cawing. The recorded voice in Murder grieves for lost wholeness, both bodily and communal. Snippets of Tibetan chant and anti-fascist song evoke a fraternal, purposeful spirit absent from her private terrors. Cardiff and Miller also drew inspiration from one of the Enlightenment’s darkest relics, Francisco Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1797–99), in which a blotch of sinister owls and bats stands in for a sleeper’s nightmares. The etching’s precise meaning is elusive, but its horror is evident.

Further questions arise. If the dreamer is speaking to us, are we in some sense her analysts? (The talking cure and the gramophone disc both emerged in the 1890s.) Are we eavesdropping on an interior monologue? If so, who or what utters it, given that the spotlit gramophone horn is dismembered, connected to nothing? Speech is often associated with presence, but at its center Murder offers us a radical absence. Finally, why does this work’s sound-world leave listeners feeling so shaken and violated when the loudspeakers that relay it are in plain sight, only feet or inches away?

One answer is that sound and music, while intangible, are deeply bound up with the body. Murder makes its overwhelming impact in part by seeming to bypass the intellect, quickening the pulse, triggering involuntary responses, and “playing” listeners as if their bodies were fleshy instruments. Freud described as uncanny things that seem both lifeless and animate (dolls, wax figures) and “the impression of automatic, mechanical processes” operating in the mind. With its society of birds, spectral dreamer, and disquieting cascade of sourceless sounds, Murder confronts us with the uncanny in many different guises.

Human beings as “mere” animals or “mere” mechanisms are uncanny terrors that have long haunted science, philosophy, and art. The Murder of Crows is co-presented by the Mostly Mozart Festival, which this year highlights birdsong in its programming. Music can mimic the twittering of birds in wholesome contexts: think of “Spring” in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise, where the chirruping of birds tells of nature redeemed by divine grace.

In other contexts, though, birdlike peeps and warbles mark characters, usually female, as irrational or soulless: the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, for example, or the chirping doll Olympia in Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann (cited specifically by Freud in his essay, “The Uncanny”).

In addition to The Murder of Crows, Mostly Mozart will offer pre-concert bird walks in Central Park (home to some 200 bird species and varieties) led by New York City Audubon on Aug. 14, 17, 21, and 24. The documentary Winged Migration (2001) will be screened on Aug. 11, and ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) will perform programs of bird-inspired music by Messiaen, Kaija Saariaho, John Cage, and others on Aug. 11 and 12. Also on August 12, WNYC’s John Schaefer will moderate a panel discussion entitled “The Music of Birds.”

Reached by email, Schaefer listed a few of his favorite works inspired by birdsong: Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus arcticus (based on recorded birdsong), songbirdsongs by John Luther Adams (an instrumental reworking of birdsong), and Maria Schneider’s recording Sky Blue. WNYC’s archives include a number of programs exploring birds and their song.

A haunting and unexpected bird song closes The Murder of Crows. It may or may not come to a very quiet cadence. Either way, the silence that follows Murder comes as a shock.

'The Murder of Crows' runs through Sept. 9 at the Park Avenue Armory, and the Mostly Mozart Festival continues until August 25. Janet Cardiff’s 'The Forty-Part Motet' is installed through September 4 at MoMA PS1. Photos, from top, by James Ewing, Zev Tiefenbach.