Arts and Design

From Signal to Decay Volume 1 – review: An exhibition that sings to itself

There’s a rumble in the gallery, rising through the building. Sliding in and out of one another, cycles of white noise and hiss come and go, along with a deeper, sonorous note, sometimes quickening with a quiet pulse or jolting with staccato beats. A distant door slams with a bark, and dubs into delayed echo, and a metal ladder clatters and screeches on a concrete floor. Or is this a real door shutting somewhere in the building, and someone shifting a ladder in a distant room? Who knows how long I’ll have to wait for the sound to come round again, if it ever does, in Trevor Mathison’s audio installation From Signal to Decay: Volume 1, at the Goldsmiths CCA. There goes that door again.

Scottish weather moving in … From Signal to Decay: Volume 1 by Trevor Mathison.
Scottish weather moving in … From Signal to Decay: Volume 1 by Trevor Mathison. Photograph: Rob Harris

A founding member of Black Audio Film Collective during the 1980s, Mathison has gone on to design the sound for numerous films, including several for fellow BAFC member John Akomfrah. Who is to say where the music begins and ends as it reverberates through the building, changing as we walk around Mathison’s exhibition? Mathison says he’s playing the building back to itself. The sounds creep down corridors and rise through the often under-utilised double height central gallery into the floor above. It shifts as we turn a corner, finding its own boundaries and edges as it meets other sounds from other speakers in the gallery’s spaces. The noise of the New Cross Road, with its dopplering sirens and grinding traffic, is fed straight from a microphone on the street along a corridor, and a muted orchestra joins the mix from a pair of speakers mounted next to a single-channel video in the next room. The silent film shows grey sea and sky, rain at a window, swell on the water, shining droplets on the camera lens, lowering clouds, Scottish weather moving in.

Lengths of audio tape dangle from a rail. Numerous DAT and cassette tapes, with collaged photographs and text covers, sit in vitrines alongside notebook drawings and other materials culled from the Walthamstow-born artist’s 40-odd year career. Framed drawings, with intersecting circles and ellipses, with pivots and vectors and arrows and lattices of twirling wave forms appear to function as imaginary scores. I think of Joan Miró and Paul Klee, and the playfulness of John Cage’s notations.

Pivots and vectors and arrows and lattices … From Signal to Decay: Volume 1.
Pivots and vectors and arrows and lattices … From Signal to Decay: Volume 1. Photograph: Rob Harris

Mathison’s scores might also relate to the artist’s hand movements as he moves his fingers and palms around the gold metallic plates of the Landscape “touch based feedback instrument” he often uses to create his soundscapes. Working between the analogue and the digital, Mathison’s process appears as much intuitive as it is structured, and uses his body as much as his ear. Other drawings, using graphite on a nubby artist’s paper, pick up the gravelliness of the paper’s texture, and Mathison creates fields of grey differentiated by changes in the amounts of pressure his hand applies. These drawings are also divided by occasional verticals and horizontals – one thinks of horizons and the corners of walls, and of the particles on electromagnetic tape. These drawings also echo the overall texture of Mathison’s soundscape, which has within it all kinds of shifts in depth, timbre and resonance, from which details arise, some scanned from radio broadcasts – a discussion of the Covid vaccination programme in Jamaica, snatches of church singing and reggae and gospel music, all emerging from the whistles and phasing of a radio dial as it scans the stations. Everything connects.

A space to make you slow down and linger … From Signal to Decay: Volume 1.
A space to make you slow down and linger … From Signal to Decay: Volume 1. Photograph: Rob Harris

Everywhere is always a soundscape of some kind, if only you pay attention to it. Making a distinction between passive hearing and active listening, the composer Pauline Oliveros said that “to listen is to give attention to what is perceived, both acoustically and psychologically”. When Oliveros performed with a group of musicians in a subterranean concrete cistern in Washington State, the musicians felt that they were playing the space as much as they were their instruments. So it is in Mathison’s engrossing show, which is as much a sculptural as it is an auditory and visual experience. He makes you aware of space, and gets the sound from several different works, as well as the incidental sounds of the building and the world beyond, to all play their part. So it was, too, in Cage’s “silent” 1952 piano piece 4’33”, which redirects the audience’s attention to the space they occupy, to the sounds of the room (whether it is the air conditioning or heating system, outside noises or the bodies on their seats) that intrude.

The lower floor of the CCA is the coolest spot to be in London right now. It is a space to make you slow down and linger, to sit and listen and move about, first attending to one thing, then another, to circulate between the rooms along with the sounds, performing your own delays and returns. Mathison has likened his work to the dub reggae recordings and performances of Jamaican sound systems, the innovations of performers and producers such as King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry. Their influence on artists such as Mathison – and Bahamanian artist Tavares Strachan, who has said how much sound systems, dub and mixing have informed his work – as well as on later musicians and acoustic artists, is not to be underestimated. Both clamorous and quiet, Mathison’s show is an unexpected and thoughtful delight.


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