A call and response is issued as an installation in the gallery, as speakers sound a deconstruction of ‘The Last Post’, a military score that signifies the end of the day, a point of return and retreat.
Susan Philipsz’s work ‘Broken Ensemble’ brings into the space combat-damaged instruments, recorded as they were played for the first time since their return from a multitude of nineteenth century battlefields. Six directional speakers sound five instruments: a military bugle from Hanover pierced by a bullet, a bass ophicleide from München, a pair of unsigned Bayern trumpets from the Heavy Cavalry Regiment of the Austro Hungarian Empire, an Ingolstadt wing horn that summoned flanks of troops. One speaker remains silent, awaiting a recording of the Balaklava Bugle used to sound the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War. You feel the drawing of breath, then hear it as it is expelled, hissing out of the instruments, the damage unseen and the gallery emptied, as air rattles through pierced metal, the first breaths blown into the instruments since the battlefield.
You do not witness the players, you hear them as a sculptural work that begins from silence to build through sound and collectively, freed from the vitrines of museum display, they create a space for the viewer to create their own interplay of realisation and connection. The symbolic weight of the instruments becomes apparent as their disembodied sounds loop into a physical force. To play a British military call on these instruments is to bring in the divisive histories that separate us, recognising our commonalities as we witness the Centennial of the First World War. There is a poignant fragility as the speakers converge together the ensemble then peel away to a single sound. The individual recordings take on a collective nature, before becoming separate and distant. Droning, drifting, rattling with air that is as soft and warm as the body, life is brought to the metal for the first time since their collection. Philipsz navigates the bureaucracies of the museum to release the sound of the instrument back into the world.
‘The Last Post’ was played on the battlefield as a reminder of a return for the wounded, a directional sound that could be followed to safety. The death tolls throughout the nineteenth century battlefields that lead to the First World War are nothing other than an unimaginable utilisation of the human body as a material in conflicts that progressed territory by increments of inches. The symbolic weight of the score is a recognition of a soldiers’ humanity, a close to the day of fighting; and a call for the lost and wounded to not be alone in moments of trauma. For human lives not to become small and scarred by unimaginable violence, for them to come home. The instruments sound not as ghosts but draw in the shattered & disparate as a whole. ‘Broken Ensemble’ will grow as Philipsz continues to add new recordings of instruments recovered from battlefields, the work building to a greater force with each individual return.