Tamara Saulwick on death, dying and performance art (and yes, in that order)

Tamara Saulwick is a performance artist known for working with turntables and reel-to-reel tape players. Her new work Endings premiered at the Sydney Festival in January and opens in Melbourne next month. It is called  “part chamber concert and part performance work”  and is about “death, dying and the afterlife” but not in an Elizabeth Kubler-Ross kind of way.

Endings is an “ode to the recently departed” as “voices of the living emerge from the crackle of records turning; vintage reel-to-reels send tape loops round the space; performers converse with the recorded voices of past conversations”.

Voices are taken from interviews, stories, reflections and cut onto vinyl records and “embedded in a richly textured sound design; operated, accompanied and extended through live performance and song”.

The creative team of Endings led by Saulwick includes the voice of Paddy Mann, an electro-acoustic score by Peter Knight and a set design by Ben Cobham.

We asked Saulwick about death and dying, and making art about it.

Is death the last remaining taboo?

No, I don’t think so. I think there are plenty of other taboos alive and well in contemporary culture. That said, I think death continues to be, and perhaps will always be, a topic that we struggle with and are fascinated by. I mean, it’s a big one, isn’t it? That said, I am very aware of significant shifts in recent years in the conversations around dying. Perhaps this is inevitable within the context of an ageing community. Discussions related to palliative care and how we want to die (or perhaps more significantly how we are prepared to live), are much more prevalent these days. And I think there is a genuine desire in the community to speak more candidly about these matters, to reflect on their significance in our own lives and to share our stories with one another.

What drew you to this as a performance piece?

Initially I thought to approach the theme of ‘endings’ in quite broad terms, and to marry this thematic material to a sound world generated from records and record players. Somehow the two went together well in my mind. As I began to engage with the topic through the process of interviewing people, slowly but surely I began to focus in on the time around life’s ending: on death.

Is a death of someone close to you something that inspired this show?

The death of someone close was not the inspiration for the work, yet my father’s death is a narrative thread that runs through it. This thread is interwoven with the experiences of others, whose voices emerge from vinyl records and magnetic tape played on vintage record and reel-to-reel players. I operate these old players live on stage, with musician/co-performers, Paddy Mann and Peter Knight. The recordings are interwoven with live performance and song. In working with these vintage analogue players I hoped to embrace the qualities of unpredictability and fragility that they bring to the piece and so resonate with its overarching theme. Sine tones, static, crackle, and decay are features of the work’s sound world, and also function as powerful metaphors for life’s passing, ‘other worlds’, and the uncontrollable.

Are you scared of dying?

Sure. I think my own mortality has become much more vivid for me since I started raising a child. My sense of the future extends in a more tangible way now along a timeline that exceeds my own lifespan. You always want to be there for your kid, don’t you?

Are you religious?

No

Do you think religion is a way of understanding or accepting death?

Absolutely. You know, one thing I found really fascinating when talking with people about this topic is the way in which the pragmatic and the poetic, or if you like, the physical and the metaphysical, sit in such close proximity when we think about death. Whichever way you choose to frame it – whether through religious, spiritual or metaphorical terms — the unknown will always offer a space for us to imagine/believe/think into.

Do you think art can do the same?

Yes. I think art in many ways is a call into the unknown. And it also asks, How do we want to live?

Why do you think you have a preoccupation with recorded voices in your work? 

I am interested in working with recorded voices for a number of reasons. I am drawn to the particular quality that ‘real people’s’ voices and stories bring to works and the way their realness attunes the listener’s attention. I like the multiple/contradictory/accumulated perspectives that many voices bring. And I am equally interested in the ways in which these voices can be fractured, embedded, and remediated to speak to the live performance environment. I think this is all reflective of the fact that my process is that of a ‘maker’ rather than a ‘writer’ — one that emerges out of a confrontation with materials. In this sense the recorded voices are not simply the source for a script but are autonomous sonic materials to be engaged with.

How is Endings informed by your work in Denmark last year with Death Lines?

Death Lines in Denmark last year was a beautiful transnational, live-streamed performance event responding to the theme of death. Musician Joe Talia (revox) and I were broadcast live from a studio in the Arts Centre, Melbourne to a concert hall in Aarhus, Denmark. We were accompanied by Peter Knight (trumpet and laptop), who was in the concert hall itself. In this performance we used a small fraction of the materials from Endings in a more explicitly music/sound setting. Our section was part of an hour-long program that included dancers in Toronto, a gospel choir in New York, a singer/songwriter in London and numerous other performers in Aarhus. We had a great time with it, and I got billed as ‘composer’. Hah!

What do you hope people will feel watching Endings?

That’s a tricky one to answer because we all have such different relationships with this material and at different times in our lives. And I’m more interested in creating spaces for people to bring their own associations and memories into, than in engendering a particular emotional response. I certainly didn’t want to the work to be either morbid or overly sentimental, so I was pleased when we presented the work at the Sydney Festival earlier in the year, to hear that people found it life-affirming and uplifting. It is a homage really, to loved ones no longer with us. It reflects our desire to remain connected to the people who have had true significance in our lives. In this sense it is about life just as much as it is about death.

Endings is at Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, May 13-17. Main image: Tamara Saulwick in Endings in its Sydney season Photo: Prudence Upton.

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