Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have built their installation The Murder of Crows from voices, songs, music and other sound effects. The viewers find themselves in a space physically and acoustically tuned by 98 loudspeakers and devoid of all potentially narrative visual elements.
The audience can move among the flocking of speakers, lie down on the floor or sit on the wooden folding chairs on which some of the black speakers already perch, as if to observe the performance of their colleagues. All the elements visible in the space are functional and serve to create a total aural and emotional experience. The story and poignancy of the installation provide a unique experience for each listener – they are exclusive creations of the subjective source of mental images.
The visual inspiration for the piece was provided by Francisco de Goya’s famous etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1799) that depicts a man, asleep at a table, surrounded by his anxious nightmares in the form of flitting owls and bats. Just as in Goya’s etching, so in the centre of the installation sits a small table with an old-fashioned megaphone playing four nightmares narrated by Janet Cardiff in a dreamy voice.
Following the tortuous logic of dreams, the stories articulate and bring cohesion to the complex aural drama. The stories call for a sensitive ear and an immersive ability. The narrator’s hypnotic voice leads the listener into the mood of the text of the dreams even if one cannot discern every word of the story.
It is like the soundtrack of a film heard through a superb sound system, joined by the sounds and energy of the presence of other co-listeners in real time. The Murder of Crows can be entered at any time; it is not a concert performance that needs to be heard in one go from the beginning to the final applause. With repeated listenings, the work grows in intensity and one is
ultimately captivated by its addictive charm.
The dark drama of the piece is underlined by its title. ‘A murder of crows’ is not only an idiomatic expression for a grouping of crows, but also an allusion to the violent death with which crows, ravens and other ominous birds are associated in many traditional stories and myths.
Despite the title of the piece, the cawing of the birds and the flapping of their wings are only a small part of the varied soundscape of The Murder of Crows. Some of the music was commissioned for the piece, and some is borrowed from various sources. Among the more pompous elements is Sacred War, a famous patriotic Soviet song from World War II performed by an army choir. An entirely different type of charm is in the Tibetan prayer music with its heavy drums and grating horns. Contemporary young composers are represented in the piece by Freida Abtan from Canada and Tilman Ritter from Germany.
As the voices of the last birds fade away into the invisible horizon, the touching and suggestive climax of the work comes in the form of a lullaby composed by George Bures Miller and interpreted by Janet Cardiff, entitled Crows Did Fly (Kathmandu Lullaby), which contains melodic elements for an addictive hit song: ”I hear their cries / From far and wide / Echo through the sky / Strange lullaby / Crows did fly / Close your eyes and try to sleep…”
The installation is accompanied by an artist book of the same title, complete with a DVD of the piece (Hatje Cantz 2011).