For Jane Benson’s recent exhibition “Song For Sebald,” at LMAKgallery on the Lower East Side, words turned into music. To start her process, Benson took a blade to the 1995 W.G. Sebald novel The Rings Of Saturn and painstakingly removed all the text that does not contain components of the musical scale: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti.
What was originally a book about a nameless narrator trekking around Suffolk, England, became abstracted by the artist into what was both a discrete work and a guideline for a new musical vocabulary. Ultimately, this took the form of a ten-panel series, each with its own individual sonic accompaniment.
The visual side of “Song For Sebald” resembled a collage in reverse, highlighting the deconstructive nature of the process. The sliced-and-diced pages—one chapter per panel—were neatly clustered, with the occasional image making its way through the gutted text. It is a work defined by its modifications.
These panels were placed next to a headphone feed of audio that collaged together choral studies into a sort of serial composition. The result was a combination of nonliner fiction and exploratory music that can almost feel like its own sovereign island. It certainly allowed me a bit of a respite from the workday—the gallery’s foam-covered stools probably contributed to that sense.
While I was in the space, the show’s complete score was playing over speakers, creating a double sonic experience. The effect of the amplified sound on top of the more enclosed headphone experience was something akin to listening to music on the subway or, perhaps, walking between stages at a music festival, only more calming. (Less calming were the relentless nearby construction noises.)
Benson intended each chapter to have its own mood defined by the original text. While there were certainly differences in each piece, there was also the sensation of a pleasant sonic interchangeability that accented the show’s meditative qualities.
Ultimately, the exhibition provided a few brief moments to disconnect from the confusing reality of New York City. That is, until the construction outside once again picked up momentum.