The Open Music Archive is a project that sits within the discourse surrounding notions of authorisation, ownership and distribution of music. The archive attempts to gather recordings and information whose propriety has expired and redistribute them to the public, including those that are tied to a physical material such as gramophone records, that would otherwise limit their accessibility. By releasing the music from its constraints the archive aims to distribute the material freely, and be a vehicle for future collaborations and projects.
The project’s founding artists Eileen Simpson and Ben White’s exhibition Eileen Simpson and Ben White: Open Music Archive showcases a selection of five collaborative projects: ‘Struggle in Jerash’ (2009), ‘Playhead: A parallel Anthology’ (ongoing), ‘The Brilliant and the Dark’ (2010), ‘ATL 2067’ (2013/19) and ‘Auditory Learning’ (2016). The works explore the archive from a performative perspective adhering to the Open Music Archive’s aim of creating a living collection, rather than the traditional static archive by creating new audio-visual responses to the collection. In doing so it looks at the past whilst simultaneously bringing the archive into the future, and this fusion of old and new resonate strongly throughout the exhibition. With particular focus on the vocal, the artists have taken sound recordings from the breadth of the music industry and collaborated with a diverse range of people to explore alternate distribution methods and push the boundaries of ownership and copyright.
A perfect example of this is in the piece ‘Auditory Learning’ (2015), commissioned for British Art Show 8. The work fuses chart records from 1962 and footage of a copy of Da Doo Ron, with present-day Southampton teenagers MC-ing and spoken word performances filmed from inside an anechoic chamber. Due to copyright laws the piece could only use auditory sound such as percussion but not the vocals of the 1962 tracks, and so this collection of sounds is paired with the teenagers’ performance, thus creating a whole new creation that brings the old recordings to a new audience.
This process of reworking archival recordings to produce new work can be seen in ‘The Brilliant and the Dark’ (2010), which sits adjacent to ‘Auditory Learning’. This operatic audio-visual piece contemporises the work of the same name by Malcom Williamson and Ursula Vanghan, by re-animating the 1969 performance to create a whole new piece using the female choir Gaggle. It re-stages moments of the original from the archive photographs held within the Women’s Library London’s collection, whilst also using the library as the site for the performance. The work incorporates more recent issues facing women such as female circumcision, thus continuing the original piece’s intention of telling women’s history through song, whilst making it relevant for a contemporary audience.
The curation of these carefully selected audio-visual pieces allows the communication of the Open Music Archive’s aims, and forms a conversation between the various pieces in reference to the overarching themes of authorship and collaboration, whilst also allowing each piece time to breath and the opportunity to share their individual narrative and uniqueness. The exhibition reflects a new model of practice of using archives, highlighting that once the entrenched attitudes to ownership are broken, these sources can be used in contemporary ways to redistribute work and reach a wider audience, breathing new life into once forgotten dusty relics. It is this which makes Open Music Archive’s exhibition notable, as it offers exciting contemporary approaches to our outdated view of collections, and provides longevity to the collection whilst remaining true to the original intentions of the pieces; with the once forgotten archives now invigorated with new life.
Claire Walker is a writer based in Wigan.
Eileen Simpson and Ben White: Open Music Archive, Castlefield Gallery, Manchester.
14th June – 18th August 2019.