The set up is in the basement of Somerset House…in the building recently abandoned by the Inland Revenue. Visitors are guided through the former rifle range after decompression and mobile drop-off on the ground floor. In a one-way mirrored cubicle in the old gymnasium, the musicians, producer and technicians are already at work…we can see and hear them but they are isolated from us. No one within the recording studio looks up to the glass, the barrier remains intact. I find it hard to concentrate at first….this audio/visual voyeurism is unfamiliar territory. The space is full of instruments some of which look like props – though a beautiful old snare rum is later pressed into service. Listen out for a hurdy-gurdy on the new PJ Harvey album. The talk inside the box is technical but then the assembled musicians run through a fairly short section of a song…or maybe it is a fairly short song…and it is possible to discern the beginnings of a ‘track’. It all looks like hard work and everyone is very well-behaved and patient. They do know they are being watched and this is bound to affect the ‘performance’. John Parish as producer sits on a white sofa (the whole interior is very white) and nods and suggests different approaches to the instrumentation. Snare drums, flute, saxophone, guitar and melodica are put to use with a good deal of experimentation with percussion on a marching-style rhythm. He asks PJ Harvey – ‘How’s your song doing in the middle of this?’ – she laughs in response. It seems quite tentative from everyone’s point of view…I have no idea if this is normal. At one point Parish says to Kendrick Rowe on drums something along the lines of ‘…you get into the groove at that point and there’s nothing wrong with that but maybe it should be a kind of standing up groove rather than a sitting back groove…’. The ‘audience’ are very attentive and quiet though we have been told that we don’t have to be. The session is about 50 minutes long and there is the feeling that people don’t want to miss anything.
Here is the text that Steve Donald (who was there with me) sent me afterwards: ‘Just thinking about the PJH gig…Spatially and temporally I though it seemed an ‘immersive’ experience but simultaneously I was acutely aware of being outside of ‘the vitrine’ and, consequently, excluded from the process…Nevertheless, in this instance, I sensed the contrived exclusion ‘set up’ somehow provided a privileged vantage point…(view is somehow too inexact). In retrospect, the vitrine set up made me think of the recording, documentary process more as an experimental, anthropological science project…More than a formal art installation…’
PJ Harvey, voice, saxophone.
Kendrick Rowe, percussion.
Terry Edwards (?), flute, melodica.
Alessandro Stefana (?), guitar and percussion
John Parish – producer.