Libraries, as ‘sanctuaries of quiet’, are unique places, both culturally and acoustically: they soundproof our thoughts from the distraction and the noise outside their walls. However, they also coerce us into behaving quietly, amplifying the sounds we make beneath their domed acoustic chambers.
Manchester Central Library’s main reading room, placed on the top floor and filled with natural light, was designed to impose a state of quiet on the reader, with every small sound amplified by the unique acoustic of the domed roof.
The amplification of personal sounds of page turning, typing, coughing etc. turns the ‘silent’ reader immersed in their private experience, into a performer within the public space of the reading room.
Using audio-visual recording, I investigate how the acoustic environment and the architecture of a building can affect our behavior in a public space.
My recordings delve into the different gradients of sound and silence, capturing the acoustic properties of the physical structure of the building, the sonic environment of the library created by its users, its technology and the noise of the city seeping in.
Presenting the audio and visual body of my research gathered in the building and its surroundings, I explore the unique soundscape of the reading room – both protecting and controlling – and its relationship to the city whose voices it reverberates.
Presented with my audio recording of this public space, Heather Ross was invited to respond, through writing, to the sounds heard and images conjured. This written experience of an unknown space was performed and recorded by Ross and then composed by me, to produce a new onomatopoeic soundscape.
On the record cover the text is layered in a 7 colour screen-print on to the architectural plans of the building, to create a visual impression of the rich acoustic fabric of the library.
RESONATING SILENCE [split screen projection]
For the split screen video projection, the right screen using a static camera depicts a woman reading, as if she is internally rehearsing a performance, while on the other screen the image is captured by a gliding camera which moves between the empty chairs and tables examining reflecting and absorbing the surfaces of the acoustic chamber.
Although the library is empty, apart from the presence of the reading woman, the personal sounds of the absent readers are audible and layered with a voice gradually amplifying from a soft whisper to a full screaming blast of the word Silence! The structure of the domed ceiling amplifies and resonates the voice which travels back to the silent reader. It’s unclear, if the voice is present in the library or just in the sonic imagination of the woman.
Heather Ross produced a new text score specifically for our project, Resonating Silence, which forms the basis of her performance in Manchester City Library’s reading room and it’s visible on the pages of the book she is reading. Her contribution of text and performance is connected with her wider practice-based PhD research into a relatively unknown work by avant-garde German artist, Kurt Schwitters, known as Leise/The Silence Poem. There is no written, visual or audio documentation of Schwitters’ performance; it exists only in accounts provided by fellow artists and peers who witnessed the work being performed.
The meaning of this work shifted according to location and personal circumstance: what was a frivolous performance in one venue could be experienced as an expression of protest or embodiment of trauma in another.
Magda Stawarska-Beavan 2019
[Photos Resonating Silence, vinyl record, photo: Jo Garrett photography of performance Toby Gregory]
Chapter In ‘Practising Place’ publication co-written With Dr James Mansell
Between the Noise and Silence: Listening to the Modern City