What better way to spend a crisply cold Sunday afternoon than tracking down ethereal sound installations in obscure alleys and corners of the City of London? These temporarily deserted streets are the site for Surround Me – A Song Cycle for the City of London by Susan Philipsz. We start in Change Alley, where three loudspeakers, placed at different ends of the dogleg alley, broadcast a recording of Philipsz singing New Oysters (written by Thomas Ravenscroft in 1609) into the middle of the space, the recordings overlapping as if sung as a round. On to Tokenhouse Yard where, once every 10 minutes, her slightly faltering rendition of The Silver Swan (Orlando Gibbons, 1612) briefly floats out into the quiet yard.
Our next stop is one of those soulless sixties spots, Moorfields Highwalk, up a creaking escalator next to Moorgate station. There, in a concrete courtyard, where a straggly tree in a concrete planter valiantly stretches skywards, we stand and listen to the beautifully mournful madrigal Weep, O Mine Eyes (John Bennet, 1599), Philpsz’s tender singing multiplying and interweaving across the desolate space.
By the time we find the junction of Milk Street and Russia Row, it’s almost dark. The street layout is hundreds of years old, but the buildings are recent, sleek and polished metal and glass. Here, John Dowland’s Lachrimae (1604) has been abstracted to individual notes, broadcast separately on seven small speakers ranged along a curved façade. A calming, reflective piece; but by now, it’s too numbingly cold to linger more than a few minutes.
Hurrying on, we just make it down to the Thames Path in time to hear the last notes of Dowland’s Flow My Tears, Philipsz’s unaccompanied voice resounding beneath London Bridge, the Thames high and lurid in the reflected red light bleeding from the bridge.