Susan Philipsz has created a sound work for Tate Britain using war-damaged musical instruments. Sombre and peaceful, the work provides a striking contrast to the use of sound in weapons of war today.

Susan Philipsz, War Damaged Music Instruments
Susan Philipsz

Installation shot of War Damaged Music Instruments, 2015

© J. Fernandes, Tate Photography

War Damaged Musical Instruments was made as part of the 14-18 NOW WW1 Centenary Art Commissions to commemorate WWI. Though some instruments are broken and barely have the strength to emit the sounds they were designed to produce, they are brought back to life by musicians for their final, haunting song.

The Last Post, as this tune was originally titled, was used to signal to soldiers that it was now safe to return to base. The tune is symbolically played at military funerals; an Irish clergyman who conducted many of these ceremonies recalls: ‘Yet, standing above the lines of the rude coffins, viewing their names and numbers penciled on the lids, our hearts are lifted up. […] The final wailing notes of The Last Post speak our feeling: Good night. Good-bye. See you again, soon’1. Philipsz’s work revives a tune employed to bring comfort, through a medium that sings the significance of loss.

High corners of the Duveen Galleries reveal a number of horn speakers – matching in shape to megaphones. It could be that the artist chose this characteristic design of speaker to match the call to peace that The Last Post encourages. Barely recognisable, the broken notes of the old anthem fill the hall. Each unique segment is audible from beneath its speaker, building a whole tune in the centre of the gallery. As with much of Philipsz’s work, the piece was designed for the space, and considers how the architecture of the galleries affects each tone. The Balaclava Bugle, used to sound the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854, plays alongside a tuba recovered from German trenches in 1915. As we move from one speaker to the next, this last elegy of the broken instruments invites us not just to remember wars past, but to consider wars present.

The Ghost Army, 1944, US National Archives
The Ghost Army, 1944

National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD

Sound has the power to soothe, but also to frighten. Tests linking the potential of sound to generate fear were being conducted for decades prior to the Great War2. By the Second World War sound was being used to both attack and deceive the enemy. The U.S. 23rd Special Troops, known as the ‘Ghost Army’ operating from June 1944, consisted of ‘a cast of artists, designers, radio-operators, and engineers […] equipped with battalions of rubber dummies, a world-class collection of sound-effects records, and all the creativity the soldiers could muster’3.The unit included audio engineers, who recorded sounds of building bridges, bulldozers and moving tanks, mixing them into one recording to be played out of speakers strapped to vehicles stationed in likely terrains so as to trick the enemy into attacking empty bases. Ascending frequencies could deceive soldiers into believing that the enemy was retreating and they were safe again. The change in pitch, which alerts the listener to the distance or speed of a moving sound source, is known as the Doppler Effect, named after the Austrian physicist who observed the phenomenon in 1842. We notice this changing pitch in passing emergency service vehicles, and it is commonly applied in radar to track moving targets.

In the 1940s Bell Labs created the first digital scrambled speech transmission system and invented transistors to amplify a signal. When plans for a ‘sonic bomb’ failed to take form, focus shifted onto the use of sound as a decoy. ‘All military activity that could possibly be useful in mounting a deception was recorded – even the barking of dogs, after the engineer in charge of recording learned of a Japanese superstition associating this sound with imminent death’4.

Sound’s potential to generate unconscious physical responses was probed further in the 1970s. Research showed that frequencies below 7 Hertz could generate rage by stimulating the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that regulates our primary instincts and emotional responses5. In 1972 France was using infrasonic generators operating at these frequencies on its civilian population.

Infrasonic and ultrasonic (sound waves above and below the spectrum of human hearing) weapons were developed, which sent vibrating frequencies hundreds of miles away shaking floors and cracking foundations. When targeted at humans, respiratory systems were incapacitated, and vibrating internal organs had the power to kill victims. ‘Aimed at the head, the resonating skull bones have caused people to hear voices’ revealed the Federation of American Scientists6.

Warplane passing the sound barrier - U.S. Navy
Warplane passing the sound barrier

U.S. Navy photo By PHAN(AW) Jonathan D. Chandler - U.S. Navy

An F/A-18 photographed in high-speed flight, with water condensation highlighting the low pressure zone associated with shockwaves.

In 2005 there was international outrage as Israeli air jets repeatedly used sonic booms – an effect created by flying at low altitude faster than the speed of sound – and sound bombs to terrify civilians in the Gaza Strip7. The press reported ‘deafening sound bombs that cause widespread fear, induce miscarriages and traumatise children8 and the UN demanded the use of these weapons cease. Yet the stance of the press towards the sonic explosions used by police in an attempt at crowd control of Syrian refugees in Kos earlier this year, made no such objection9.

Michael Eden, Newport NATO Protest, 2014
Michael Eden

Newport NATO Protest, 2014

© South Wales Argus

Protests in the UK, alongside banners, actions, and increasingly digital media and social networks, continue to use chanting to express their unified message. For the most part, they use the battery-powered loudspeakers developed in the 1950s and shout through megaphones, like those seen in Philipsz’s piece. The horn carries impassioned words, and those with the red button for electronic amplification sometimes distort the voice so that only the speaker’s enthusiasm is clear. However, this instrument has not yet been replaced by a high tech alternative, perhaps because of its symbolism.

The remembrance evoked by the bugle call at Tate is far removed from the ways in which sound figures in modern warfare. Where such weapons drive fear and serve to isolate, the sounds we use to remember war encourage the opposite. The tradition of a shared two-minute silence to commemorate those who died in battle creates a sense of community, just as the music of The Last Post brings about unity in its final farewell.