08/17/2012 05:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Cardiff and Miller's "Murder of Crows" at the Armory Presents a Concept Album in the Guise of an Art Installation

A few years ago, Scottish artist Jim Lambie explained the experience of looking at his "RSVPmfa," a sprawling multimedia installation at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, as being drawn "inside that space that the music's making for you." The description also suits Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's installation "The Murder of Crows" currently on view at the Park Avenue Armory. The vast space of the drill hall itself is almost empty, save for 98 speakers and a gramophone placed on a flimsy card table. It's the sound that comes out of those objects that creates the contemplative arena in which the art takes place.


An installation view of "The Murder of Crows" at Park Avenue Armory / Photo by James Ewing

The duo has created a half-hour-long orchestral sound composition that narrates a passage through three dream scenes. During a recent afternoon, visitors made their way through a pathway of speakers to a central circle of chairs surrounding the gramophone in the center of the Armory, the area spotlit like the inevitable destination of a video game level. Speakers are arrayed throughout the space like watchful sentinels, some propped on chairs, others head-height on poles, still others floating in space, cords extending endlessly toward the distant ceiling. With an air of hesitant expectation, we sat down and waited while the sound of footsteps started emanating from behind and around us.

Cardiff's voice emerges from the gramophone, narrating the piece, which begins with an apocalyptic vision of a bloodied factory floor, followed by a description of a harrowing scene in which a slave who attempted escape from a jungle encampment is threatened with amputation, and finally a surreal beach house that contains another grisly surprise. The scenes are interspersed with instrumental interludes that range from electric guitar-driven progressive rock to chanting and military drums. The effect is not unlike listening to one of indie-pop outfit the Decemberists's sprawling, heady concept albums, particularly when the piece ends with a folksy, acoustic guitar ditty, the lyrics of which include "Crows did fly / Through the sky."

The twee lyricism and self-consciously ethereal voice they are sung in point to the central shortcoming of "Murder of Crows." The aesthetic experience of collectively listening to an immersive, three-dimensional "film without images," as the artists memorably describe it in the exhibition text, is interesting and provocative, even if the content of the piece lacks the critical difficulty to rise above the level of entertainment, save for some interesting complexities in some of the ambient sound arrangement (e.g. the floating calls of birds and dramatically stomping feet coming closer and then fading away). Like plenty of films, with or without images, it doesn't really transcend its status as amusement, even if it is a worthwhile diversion.

"Murder of Crows" runs at the Park Avenue Armory through September 9, 2012.


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