A Conversation: Audra Wolowiec and Freya Powell

This interview took place in a small office booth at Parsons School of Design, where we both teach—a liminal space that seems appropriate to talk about the interstitial qualities of Freya Powell’s work and her upcoming project, Only Remains Remain. We met having just become (working) mothers and over this past year have communicated in fragments and texts, checking in with each other about how to navigate the unknowns that surround our new roles. Freya’s work engages with ideas of memory, loss, and how to record these states of being, oftentimes within the confines of political systems that include place, belonging, and otherness. She works fluidly across platforms from video, sound, installation, and performance, with undercurrents of writing and storytelling. The ways in which she uses the materiality of language to evoke voice, through slippages and gaps in translation, are especially inspiring as they are the elusive yet embodied qualities that I aim for in my own work with sound. 

AW I was listening to the recording of your rehearsal for Only Remains Remain on the train, as I traversed along the Hudson River, and was glad to listen without reading the script first. I knew a little bit about the project from speaking with you but something about being immersed in the “ocean of sound,” as David Toop calls it,1 seemed important for the first read. I heard both speaking and singing, words, phrases, and deconstructed syllables, and there was also a call and response that emerged, a layering of individual voices and a chorus. From reading the script afterwards, I became more aware of the language and various roles of each character. I wonder if you could talk about how you came up with the structure of the work ?

FP It’s set up as a chorus of fifteen women, and if you think of a chorus in terms of classic Greek tragedies, they are a collective voice. So I think of each person, even though they are part of a collective, as having their own individual place that they’re speaking from and they each are given an action word to keep in mind. When I wrote the script I was following the format of the chorus in Antigone, a parados, five stasimons, and then the exodus.2 Each of the fifteen performers are each assigned a section that they are speaking from. The parados and the exodus (spoken by the first and fifteenth performers, respectively) are essentially the introduction and the conclusion, the backstory and the “where do we go from here.” Then the lines of the five stasimons (the Ode to Man, the Ode to Hope, the Hymn to Eros, or Empathy, the Ode to Fate, and the Ode to Mourning) are divided amongst the remaining thirteen characters. That’s how it was initially written, in this linear fashion, and then I cut it up. I interwove the lines but when each performer is speaking they are still speaking from the intention of their stasimon. I’m hoping that comes across when people experience it. It’s probably more complicated than people need to know to get the gist. But that’s the behind the scenes of it.

AW You’re translating the story, not retelling the story of Antigone, using translation as a framework to shed light on the current story of the U.S. border and the tragedy surrounding many of these border crossings. The lives that you’re addressing are often unknown, putting into question the process of being honored and mourned after death, which is the crux of Antigone.

FP Instead of telling Antigone’s story, I took the characters for how they behave in Antigone and then matched them to characters in the story on the border. In Antigone, Polyneices was the brother who, after he died, was refused any acts of mourning because he forged battle against the city. So, Polyneices becomes the migrants. Antigone, Polyneices’s sister, believed that it was a crime to leave him unburied as his soul would wander forever and never find rest. She’s the one who went to his side and began spreading earth across him, then returned to bury him. Within our story she represents the forensic anthropologists, the ones who are doing the exhumations and DNA testing to try to name the people and to hopefully, if possible, send their remains back home. For Ismene, Antigone’s sister, I am taking her character from a French writer, Jean Anouilh, who reinterpreted Antigone and made it more contemporary. He framed Ismene as someone who understood what Antigone was doing but didn’t want to join her because she was afraid of the repercussions. So, I am proposing Ismene as us.

AW As the general public.

FP Right, we know that bad things are happening on the border but we aren’t taking the steps to address it ; even though we are implicated, we are not following through on it with any action. And then Antigone’s uncle, Creon, is the state, the border patrol, the whole system.

AW And the current presidency, too.

FP Yes, although this started back in the Clinton era.

AW The lineage of that neglect.

FP Exactly. So, to return to your question about speaking and singing, the narrative is moving between the two. Most of the singing is actually a Greek translation from Anne Carson, the way she translated sounds of mourning when she translated Elektra, so it’s “Oimoi, O Talaina, Pheu Pheu,” which essentially translates to “Woe is me.” I mean, there’s no direct translation but that’s, from what I know, as close as we can get.

AW Does this have any relationship to Anne Carson’s 3 interpretation of Antigone ? I think, what is it titled, Antigonick ? Where she writes, “How is a Greek chorus like a lawyer / they’re both in the business of searching for a precedent / finding an analogy / locating an example / so as to be able to say / this terrible thing we’re witnessing now is / not unique you know it happened before / or something much like it.”

FP This is from her translation of Elektra. The whole thing about this translation, the reason she uses the Greek even though she translated the work from Greek to English, is that it’s the bodily utterances that are beyond language when you’re in the state of grieving or mourning. That really resonated with me, and I was emulating that. We have four singers, two of which are opera singers. One is a mezzo-soprano and has this really grounding voice, she’s the one who sings the “OiMoi.” Each iteration is different as the singers are essentially improvising with each other. Though they each have their own adjectives, one will be a heavier one, and one would be a lighter, more haunting or eerie one.

AW And I noticed, too, that in the singing, or parts of the singing that are overlaid with speaking, you hear it more as a sound, or as a layer. You don’t always hear the complete words ; it sounded as if there were phonemes or syllables or parts of words being voiced.

FP Quite often when that happens, well, I love synonyms.

AW Okay ! (laughter)

FP How else can I say this ? I love synonyms. I love how words can be deeply related but also different, the meaning can bleed a little. So, often you’ll see in the script that there will be a line and then a word listing happens of synonyms related to a word in one of the previous lines. When those happen, the outer chorus (the ones speaking) will be reading down the list and the inner chorus (the singers) are just extending that word from the same list. So that’s why you’re hearing syllables.

AW So it was just an elongated phrase or word that I was hearing fragments of.

FP Yes, it was to add a little bit of color.

AW Or like a tonal, visceral quality. That’s also interesting in terms of synonyms and translating a text is that, while I don’t translate texts, I would imagine if you were to try to find the word in English that encapsulates a word in another language . . .

FP Especially in Greek or something like that !

AW Right, something that doesn’t even have a word in English, you search for the closest meaning. And it’s not always about the direct meaning itself, but also how it sounds, and I think that’s maybe why Anne Carson kept that phrase because it’s more about the sound of it, and how it makes the body emote or feel when saying those sounds.

FP Absolutely.

AW There’s this great article by Michael Cunningham where he talks about translation as a human act. He uses the first line in Moby Dick that begins “Call me Ishmael” as an example and breaks down the phonetics into their “musical” qualities : Listen to the vowel sounds : ah, ee, soft i, aa. Four of them, each different, and each a soft, soothing note. Listen too to the way the line is bracketed by consonants. We open with the hard c, hit the l at the end of “call,” and then, in a lovely act of symmetry, hit the l at the end of “Ishmael.” 4 What you’re doing with this performance is similar in how you’re conjuring and evoking mourning through not only what the language means but the way in which it sounds.

FP Oh, how curious. I am not familiar with that text. I often come back to Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s essay The Aural Contract in which he speaks about the bodily excess that accompanies the voice. He says : “This bodily excess of the voice resides not in its linguistic functions, but in its nonverbal effects ; such as its pitch, accent, glottal stops, intonations, inflections, and impediments. As byproducts of the event of language, these effects reveal other kinds of evidence. . . .” His research is much more clinical but I often think of this excess and hope to harness it to evoke mourning through the voice.

AW When you are interacting with the actors and singers who are performing, in terms of being the director, what are some of the cues that you give or, how has that been for you to try to communicate these qualities of cadence and form ? I imagine that you have something in your head, that you have already heard in a way, and that you’re trying to give directives on how to bring that to life.

FP It’s difficult because it’s the first time in this role for me, so I don’t necessarily have the language—which we’ve talked a little bit about before. Even though I have an idea, it’s more a sense or a feeling, than being able to be like “this is what I want.” I’m not always able to necessarily point to what I want, and I feel somehow it’s just that actors are amazing, just as a broad stroke, or I have been incredibly lucky with the people that I’ve been working with. I think that they have read the text and responded to it really well, they have a sense, and from interacting with me, they have given so much in terms of shaping the work, and probably responding to my facial expressions, you know ? ! (laughter) “Like, oh, that’s happening, okay.”

AW And then dealing with it in real time.

FP Right, it’s a really exciting place to be in because I think for a lot of them, it’s an unusual work, experience-wise it’s varied. This is new territory for most of the performers. So somehow we have found this magical way of pointing to things and agreeing or not agreeing. I try to be as collaborative as possible, but sometimes I think “hmm, that’s not right” and it’s not going to work for me. They’ve been giving a lot to it, which has been great. I also have an amazing assistant on the project, Joy Salomon-Corlobe, who is an actor herself and a linguist. She has helped me navigate whatever distance I have in language with the actors. And, I have been lucky to have Samuel Lang Budin, an artist/musician, helping with the musical direction. It is truly an inspiring experience to be able to collaborate with them all—they somehow have read the work and intimately understand what I am after.

AW Do you think it’s different because it’s experimental or because of the structure, or is it the content of the work itself ? How do you think it’s a departure from something that they might know or have done before ?

FP I think it’s experimental, it’s non-linear, it’s interwoven, there is a lot of layering that happens.

AW How has this process related to previous works, and especially with sound and voice ? Your work is a lot about memory, and inviting people to participate in some way by telling a story, whether that’s about a place or a site, or their own personal memory. So how has this been either a departure or continuation from these past works ?

FP It’s definitely a departure in terms of working with actors and staging something that is happening in real time, versus mediated through a lens or through speakers.

AW Or the process of editing.

FP Exactly, or through a book, so this feels much more instant, in a way, or at least I imagine for an audience it will feel a lot more instant than having these things that have a form or a mechanism attached to them. So the similarities : I’m constantly interested in the question of “when is a life grievable ?” and in sites that have been potentially overlooked or have these very strong histories that are just not necessarily known, or are not known very widely. I’m interested in how sites can hold memory. We tend to think of history as things, as data that is recorded, that is one voice. Whereas memory is more ephemeral, only existing on the lips of those telling. I am always working around the question of the individual versus the collective memory. When does an individual become a part of the collective memory ? I think the way that the layering is happening in this piece first occurred in a more recent video project, which was a total departure from the way that I had been making videos. It’s called “A Murmuring” and that was actually the first time that I engaged directly with a text. It has excerpts from Hamlet in it, and I worked with actors to do voice-over reading for that. That also has the same kind of synonyms, going back to synonyms ! (laughter), a similar word listing, and through the editing process I did layer upon layer. It starts out with a conflict between what you hear and what you see, so the same list comes up as text on the screen, and then is in a different order from what you hear. So, it starts out slow and then there’s this building up of visual and aural layers, which ends up building upon building upon building and feeling quite intense, where with other work, I tend to make things that are slower, and I want to say, softer almost—they evolve over time, whereas this felt much more immediate.

AW Something that struck me both about your interpretation of Antigone and in some of your previous work is the physicality of the act of mourning, of being known and being put to rest, how this act is physical, and experienced by family members.

FP As a closure.

AW The idea that the soul will be at rest for the body or person themselves but also for the people who love that person, and it reminded me of that film Nostalgia for the Light [by Patricio Guzmán]. Have you seen that ?

FP You’re the second person who has mentioned that to me.

AW It’s a heart-wrenching film that takes place in the Atacama Desert, where the women in the film are searching for the remains of their sons, from under Pinochet where their bodies were discarded, in a sense to bury the past without trace. But the Atacama Desert is also a place without clouds, because of the dry climate, so it’s a site used to look at stars and outer space.

FP It has a parallel narrative.

AW Yes, you have people looking up at the sky through very large telescopes and then people looking into the earth and searching with their hands, for different things, for different meaning. There’s something about the remains, finding a clue or a part of that person that is so important. These women can’t stop, even though so much time has passed, they seem to be enveloped in the question that maybe, if we don’t see the body itself, there’s the chance that it didn’t happen.

FP I think that’s the situation for a lot of people who have family members that are in that same situation, the forever not knowing if their loved ones have made it, that they could be somewhere, but you just don’t know. From what I have read, it is just incapacitating.

AW It’s also this intangible thing, this form of searching—how do you try to get those qualities through with the performers or, how do you create that space of telling this kind of story ? It’s difficult, it’s about other people in a lot of ways. Have there been some strategies of how to create that sense ?

FP There are a couple things. I keep telling the performers that we are all Ismene. No matter what we do, we are all Ismene. This is not our story. But we are implicated in it. We have a duty to some extent to be responsive, so I keep telling them that. In terms of finding that mental or emotional space, there’s a circling that happens. In terms of movement and sort of “acting-ness,” it is very minimal as I’m interested in the language, and the voices, and what the audience can perceive through bodily access. So there’s not grand gestures happening or anything like that.

AW It’s to be listened to.

FP Yes, and there are moments during the “OiMois,” when the singers are holding the space of mourning, the performers will be circling and making gestures of mourning. The performance is immersive for the audience. There’s an inner circle, and there’s an audience, and there’s an outer circle, and then more audience. There are moments when the outer chorus comes into that in between space and circles. In that moment they are all performing gestures that they’ve come up with, these manifestations of mourning. But minimal. I asked them to make small gestures of mourning, for themselves. Because the focus is not about the gesture, it’s about what is happening with the voice.

AW The subtlety and nuance almost reminds me of Pina Bausch,5 a movement that isn’t a huge display but is so emotional at the same time.

FP Pina Bausch is a great example because she was someone so interested in the everyday actions, everyday gestures that we do, and this is very much a thing about how would you, what would be your daily mourning gesture, what would you be doing with your hands ? With your body ? Then a few of the singers are going to be shrouded and there will be moments when they unveil.

AW Is that in terms of showing absence and presence, or ?

FP Absence and presence, and anonymity—they’re not individual people, more in terms of coexisting.

AW Or the collective unknown.

FP Right.

AW So in terms of the audience, will they have any role in intermingling or will the audience be seated around the performers ?

FP The only stage set is a mound of earth that the four singers will be around. Then about five or six feet out, there will be these gray benches creating a circle, and another five or six feet out, there’ll be the outer chorus. The inner chorus will be in their spot in the center for the most part, and from the beginning when people are filing into the space, they will be holding a space through improvisation of an extended note. Then as the audience enters, they will be directed to either sit in the inner circle or they can stand around the outside edge. The outer chorus will be doing grid work. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, I’m not even sure which acting school this comes from, but this notion of walking on a grid so that they are only able to go in straight lines and create 90-degree turns, not running into each other or running into the audience, and they’ll be walking on the grid and performing these gestures of mourning, so they’ll be moving through the space as people come in. Then once people are settled, they’ll start walking in a circle around the interior audience.

AW I love that because I think a part of what this really is about is empathy, and about understanding the struggle and the way that it’s been neglected and the powerlessness, not just of the people involved, but of the average person to really do anything—and so implicating the audience seems important, even if they’re not active participants, but just maybe to hear a voice coming from an odd angle or to be encircled by the performers.

FP Right, they’ll have to be actively moving around.

AW There’s something about when a performance is on a stage and you’re sitting in front of the stage, there’s a distance, one is removed from the action and can almost become a passive observer.

FP A huge part of the structure is because we were working in the Dome at PS1, which is a circle, so then we were trying to figure out ways to address the sound of the dome, and having to struggle through how the way sound moves in the space, so we came up with the circle, and then we had to put the audience in the circle in order for the performers to be heard.

AW Because of the reverberation of the space ?

FP Right, so we were working through this. I definitely like the structure for this because it’s equalizing in a way, but we couldn’t have that and then have the audience on the outside because then they’re just watching this thing transpire and are not implicated. With them on the inside there are moments when the actors will be directly making eye contact and breaking the fourth wall, even though the fourth wall isn’t in one physical plane, to directly address the audience.

AW And this performance will happen in the gallery setting at PS1, and you’ll keep the circular format.

FP Yes, the sound will be so much better ! The white noise was so much, like you’re in an airplane hangar, or something.

AW The recording you sent was pretty intense, just the way that the voice travels, I think it would be hard to control. I mean, there’s something interesting about it, that you could probably play with, but it would completely alter the work.

FP It would change it because, again, coming back to the language is what’s important, the text is what’s important, if it were about movement then there’s infinite ways to play with that space in a beautiful way, but because I want the lines to be heard, by everyone, it got a little tricky.

AW Something else that struck me about the project and your work in general were some of the influences that came up while listening. I know that writing plays a strong role in your work, stories that are both ancient yet parallel our contemporary experience, but also Janet Cardiff,6 and I know you take your students on her Sound Walk in Central Park. The vocal installations of Susan Philipsz 7 too, I think it was her Lowlands, the recording installed in the tunnel, that sort of haunting quality came up when I was listening to the rehearsal. In certain parts the voices were dissonant, a little uncomfortable to listen to sometimes, and I think that’s what she does with her own voice, not being a trained singer. There’s something I really love about that because there’s a tenderness to it, there’s a vulnerability, you’re being caught by surprise. There’s something a little bit off about it, which I think has more power to communicate than something that’s virtuosic. It’s not about the skill of the singer, it’s about the ability to communicate something human.

FP I have no training in music, at all. I’m totally useless at that ! (laughter) The singers will ask, what vocal range are you looking for ? And I have no clue, I just don’t know how to name it. But there’s something, I’m always drawn to the voice. And I feel like, again, there’s something unnamable, but deeply emotive. It can physically get you in a way, that I don’t get by visual things alone, sometimes by movement I suppose, but it’s just something intangible that gets you in the gut, and I would love to be able to harness that.

AW There’s also something that stays with a person and lingers. In terms of our visual culture at the moment, it’s pretty fast and attention spans are so short, we see things and almost don’t even spend time looking or hearing because we take in so much. But I think with the voice or sound, the haunting quality about it, is that it stays with you.

FP It lingers.

AW Yes, it has the effect or quality of memory, almost built into it in some way.

FP I hope so !

1 David Toop, Ocean of Sound : Ambient sound and radical listening in the age of communication, Serpent’s Tail, 1995.

2 (on what defines a parados or stasimons structurally . . . ) The parados is essentially the entrance to the entire story. I am using it to set the foundation of the tragedy, the performer who is mostly speaking during this is leading us through the story, giving the background information. The exodus is the final scene or departure. The stasimons are historically when the chorus sings, also known as a “stationary song.” Instead of creating a whole play with characters and a chorus, I have just taken the structure of the chorus to tell the story. —FP

3 Anne Carson is a Canadian poet, essayist, translator, and Professor of Ancient Greek. In addition to her many translations of classical writers such as Sappho and Euripides, she has published poems, essays, libretti, prose criticism, and verse novels that often cross genres. Her recent writing for The Mile-Long Opera, conceived by composer David Lang and architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, co-written with Claudia Rankine, was inspired by real-life stories, gathered through first-hand interviews with residents throughout the city, asking what 7pm means to them. This was performed by 1,000 singers along the High Line elevated park in New York City in 2018.

4 Michael Cunningham, Found in Translation, The New York Times, Oct 2, 2010.

5 Pina Bausch was a German dancer and choreographer whose experimental movement-based work was often composed of repetitive, yet fluid, gestures that embodied everyday actions from intimacy to loss, with sparse stage sets ranging from domestic interiors and cafes to a floor covered in soil that stained the skin and clothing of the dancers. Her work influenced the field of modern dance from the 1970s onwards. “I’m not interested in how people move, but what moves them.”—Pina Bausch

6 Janet Cardiff is a Canadian artist who works primarily with sound and installation, and is best known for her audio walks. “The format of the audio walks is similar to that of an audio guide. On the [binaural recording] you hear my voice giving directions, layered on a background of sounds : the sound of my footsteps, traffic, birds, and miscellaneous sound effects that have been pre-recorded on the same site as they are being heard. This is the important part of the recording. The virtual recorded soundscape has to mimic the real physical one in order to create a new world as a seamless combination of the two.”—Janet Cardiff, from The Walk Book

7 Susan Philipsz is a Scottish artist based in Berlin who works with spaces, narrative, and sounds. “The song at London Bridge, Surround Me, can be interpreted as a cry from those who have disappeared beneath the waters of the river ; and Lowlands is about the ghost of someone coming back to make a final farewell. ‘I think people are fascinated by mortality,’ concludes Philipsz. And, as we walk away, the sound comes after us, as if it doesn’t want us to escape.”—Lena Corner, The Guardian, 2010

A Conversation: Audra Wolowiec and Freya Powell