In the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night the Duke Orsino, a man made unhappy by his lust for love, cries out to the crowd “That strain again! it had a dying fall.” Twelfth Night was written as a Christmas production, a kind of 16th-century Love Actually that was to be played on the twelfth night of the holiday, and in Elizabethan times it would have been accompanied by the bawdy performance of live music, a band playing along as the Duke makes this speech in which he famously describes music as “the food of love.” By “strain,” he means the particular musical passage that is playing as he speaks, and the words “a dying fall” can only have meant some kind of fading cadence, a few slow notes that slip and disappear and that to him sound like the sound of dying.
I have often wondered what exactly it was that those Elizabethan musicians chose to play as Orsino makes this speech. The term “strain” suggests stringed instruments were involved, this usage deriving from the fact that stringed instruments are themselves “strained” into tune, but it is possible to imagine something even more abstract, some sound that contains the mystery of mortality. Like a black silk robe sliding off a table? Or voices falling to a hush in a farther room? It might be possible for a historian of music to find out what exactly was played, but the sound of death, like most things to do with it, is more exquisite to imagine than to know.
There is a prison in Syria, known as Saydnaya, where the prisoners can attest to that fact. In this prison, which is closed to international observers, the detainees are locked in near-total darkness, and blindfolded or made to cover their eyes, and it is estimated that, since 2011, some 13,000 of them have been executed. Their experience of this place, with its atmosphere of death impending through the walls, is known only and entirely through its sounds.
The acoustic memories of the handful of prisoners that have been released from Saydnaya form the basis of Earwitness Theatre, the work of artist and “private ear” Lawrence Abu Hamdan, which was first shown at London’s Chisenhale Gallery and with which he became the co-winner of the 2019 Turner Prize. Using a combination of digital sound effects libraries, test-tones and objects of his own creation, Abu Hamdan has sought to glean information on the prison through interviews with its survivors, interviews in which he delves into their memories of Saydnaya’s sounds. Through this testimony a picture of the prison is built, one in which distances are measured by the “tong” of footsteps on metal stairs, the number of detainees by the sound of locking doors, and the violence of the Syrian regime by the noise of people in pain. The sound of dying in Saydnaya does not sound like a fading cadence played on an Elizabethan violin.
The importance of this work is less in the viscera of experiencing it, though experiencing it will undoubtedly change how you hear, but rather in the knowledge that it has had a direct use and effect in the real world, an involvement with horror and geo-politics that goes well beyond the walls of the Turner Prize. The work is after all the result of a commission by Amnesty International for use in their ongoing investigations into the prison, and Abu Hamdan himself has been called to testify as expert witness in a number of criminal trials. Earwitness Theatre is a body of work whose bones are real, and which has a purpose in the world beyond the personal experience of the art viewer.
And yet, aside from the horror of the violence, the lasting impression of a viewing of this show is how very unreal our relationship with sound is, and particularly the sound of dying. Unsatisfied with the accuracy of the foley objects and sound effects libraries he had access to, Abu Hamdan built his own mnemonic devices to help him reproduce the prisons’ sounds, which when the work was shown at Chisenhale were spread around like sculptures. As it turns out, the closest substitute for a building falling down is the popping of a popcorn machine. And the sound of another execution by gunshot a rack of metal trays collapsing.
For the Turner Prize presentation, a lightbox stretches along one wall as a standalone work titled Saydnaya (the missing 19db). After the Syrian uprisings of 2011 the prison enforced a policy of silence, brutally. Speaking became punishable by death, and screaming during torture meant only the prolongation of the torture. The lightbox here shows the 19 decibel drop in the sound at the prison as voices were forced into silence, the increasing quietude correlating directly with the rising violence, and marking the shift of Saydnaya from prison to death camp. It echoes the sentiment of one of the interviewed survivors, who says that “If you hear screaming, you know newcomers have arrived. When there is no screaming, we know they are accustomed to Saydnaya.” This lightbox, we could say, is a literal vision of a strain that has a dying fall. And in the end it is silence, rather than sound, that might come closest to the sound of dying.