Susan Philipsz’s thoughtful and elegantly presented exhibition might have been considered a distilled sonic and visual biography of German-born composer Hanns Eisler (1898–1962). Eisler, whose father was Jewish, fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, eventually arriving in Los Angeles in 1942, joining his close friend Bertolt Brecht. Part File Score debuted in 2014 at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin and is a multi-channel sound installation of vertical black speakers lining both sides of the main gallery paired with large digital and silk-screen prints on canvas. Philipsz combined the annotated scores that Eisler composed for films for Joris Ivens, Walter Ruttmann, Charlie Chaplin, and numerous others with pages from his heavily censored, blacked-out FBI files. Overlaying the music and the files, the concept of creative freedom is contrasted with acts of suppression and intimidation, the relationship between them intermingling in complicated ways.
The audio component for Philipsz’s installation is also based on Eisler’s movie scores from the 1920s through 1940s, which the artist deconstructed into separate notes, the way she did in her Study for Strings (2012), created for Documenta 13. Channeled to separate speakers, the pure, plangent, and, at times, dissonant tones of a violin, separated by intervals of silence, emanated from around the room, beckoning and enveloping the spectator.
It is, of course, ironic that Eisler, who escaped a totalitarian regime for refuge in a supposedly democratic one, was later under surveillance, blacklisted as a Communist, interrogated by the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee, and deported. It is a timely work in our uneasy era of increasing concern about balancing individual privacy, personal freedom, and national security. Philipsz, with haunting, often miraculous immediacy, makes us think of that and much more.
A version of this story originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 74.