Exhibition Essay: Anthems Un/sung
William Robinson’s Duet is a piece of music created from the American and Canadian national anthems, played between speakers and at a distance from each other, like two fence posts facing off in a borderland. A compositional booklet shows the graphic breakdown of the composition, and if you like, you can follow along. The original scores for “O Canada” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” are treated first as physical objects, on which Robinson has drawn in order to change their patterning, resulting in mutations of sound, rhythm, and pitch. The subsequent score is sung a cappella, recorded, and further digitally manipulated: stretched, distorted, doubled, augmented, and peppered with electronic effects. In their final recording the anthems are still recognizable, and while skeletons and shadows of their former selves, maintain consistent ‘known-ness’ and inherent power over the listener. A powerful echo, which, coupled with their disruption and reconfiguration in the gallery, interrupts a clear notion of the anthemic and calls into mind the anthem as a potential site of protest.
A common thread in his practice, it was perhaps not surprising that Robinson chose to examine and play with the musical scores of the national anthems of Canada and the United States. After a lifetime in Canada, the last 17 years in Halifax, Robinson moved to New Brunswick, New Jersey to attend Rutgers University for his MFA. As I had also moved from Canada to the US in the Trump election year (I landed in New Orleans) we reflected on shared experiences over the last six months as Canadians living in the US. I wondered if Duet provided an opportunity to explore metaphors for the relationship between the neighbouring countries, or touch on the rise of recent Nationalist and White Supremacist groups and the desire to “Make America Great Again”. We talked about the roles of protest and monument in colonialism and civil rights. Robinson was curious how I felt living a few blocks from the now-removed confederate monuments in New Orleans, the Jefferson Davis monument and Gen. P.G.T Beauregard monument, which stood outside the New Orleans Museum of Art. We agreed that the empty pillars, like plinths in a gallery in the absence of old objects and in wait for new, signalled necessary change.
We also discussed Colin Kaepernick, and his use of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a site of resistance, and it led me to reflect on Robinson’s practice more broadly and his inquiries into how monuments, buildings, and music might provide architectures for new meaning. So how might music be an architecture of protest? The most obvious example might be the protest song, whereby lyrics speak to injustices or reveal prejudices. African American blues singers protested discrimination and other issues, like Lead Belly’s “The Bourgeois Blues” or Billy Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”, and folk singers of the 50s and 60s discussed Civil Rights, the War, and unions. However, alterations can reflect all matter of opinion. In 2016, at an MLB all-star game in San Diego, one of the Canadian Tenors was fired when he changed the lyrics of the Canadian anthem and held a sign in support of “All Lives Matter”.
The interpretation of a familiar tune can also be confrontational. It can be stretched, distorted, played irreverently, played to a rhythm or slant of an underrepresented voice, or a particular genre or musicology can be employed to call notice. Jimmy Hendrix’s version of the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, or Marvin Gaye’s 1983 NBA All-Star Game performance come to mind as versions that reflect cultures historically ‘unsung’ by the country.
This is also where I would locate Robinson’s work and the techniques he uses to create meaning, as in Duet. In the case of Kaepernick, while the music itself had not been altered, its framing as part of a traditional event with defined structural elements (standing, bowing, holding hand over heart, singing along reverently) was disrupted. In Duet, Robinson is interested in the many layers of potentiality in music—how it can be created, manipulated, and melded as a sonic art, but also, as an architecture. The anthem is its own kind of monument, and like the monuments in New Orleans, its structure can be dismantled.
By Erinn Beth Langille
Erinn Beth Langille is an award-winning writer who has published in National magazines, newspapers and journals. She has degrees from Dalhousie University, the University of Essex, and two from NSCAD, and is currently an MFA Fiction candidate at the University of New Orleans. A past participant of several residency programs, she is co-founder and creative director of The Lemon Tree House Residency in Tuscany, Italy. Her ekphrasis poem "Take Away The Bells", a commission by the artist William Robinson, was cast as a bronze plaque and displayed at the National Gallery of Canada from October 2016 to February 2017.