PJ Harvey at Somerset House

PJ Harvey is currently recording her ninth album in a specially constructed studio in the New Wing at Somerset House in London. And, as part of a project created with Artangel, members of the public can go in and watch her…

Identity and graphic design for the Recording In Progress project by Julia


PJ Harvey is currently recording her ninth album in a specially constructed studio in the New Wing at Somerset House in London. And, as part of a project created with Artangel, members of the public can go in and watch her…

Titled Recording In Progress, the project offers a rare opportunity to see an artist at work. The studio, which has been created by Something & Son, features two large, one-way windows, from which viewers can peer into the space and see Harvey, her producers Flood and John Parish, and her fellow musicians and technicians working on her album. Everything they say or do is relayed to viewers via speakers. For those in the studio, the windows look blacked out, so they are, to all intents and purposes, working in the same way that they would in any studio.

It’s understandable if this all sounds a bit gimmicky. There have been experiments such as this before – as part of the art project fig-1 (a series of week-long exhibitions that took place over a year in London in 2000), author and journalist Will Self took up residency in a small Soho gallery and worked on a short story. Visitors were invited to come by and, if they proved inspiring enough to Self, they might find themselves appearing in the text. Similarly, in 2008, Grazia‘s staff moved into Westfield shopping centre in London for a week, and created an issue of the magazine in full view of the public.

Perhaps what sets Harvey’s experiment apart from these projects however, is the sense of spying, or eavesdropping, on the musicians at work – we are not there to be part of the creative process, merely to watch it, silently. I remember visiting Self at fig-1 and being struck by the awkwardness of the occasion – the audience all sat deferentially at his feet, while he worked on a laptop in the centre. It was hard to imagine anything more removed from a normal working environment.

Initially, on entering the space around Harvey’s studio, it all seems similarly contrived – the various instruments, including saxophones and an old piano, feel like props – but as the viewers settle into the environment and tune into what’s going on inside the studio, the sense of pretense fades. As we watch, the musicians slowly work together to develop a version of a song and what initially feels incomprehensible to the layperson – there is a lot of talk of tuning drums – suddenly emerges into a fully formed, and very beautiful, piece of music. The musicians seem excited about what they have accomplished and, somehow, we audience feel part of that experience too.

There have been many films made of musicians in recording studios. At the artier end of the spectrum there are works such as Steve McQueen’s film of Tricky: a portrait of the musician which reflects the act of performing and recording as an intensely physical experience. Compelling as McQueen’s film is, it avoids any of the banality of recording that is revealed by Harvey and her band: there are exciting moments, but also plenty of dull ones in the 45 minutes we are allowed to watch.

Perhaps a better parallel is found in Jean-Luc Godard’s film One Plus One, which intercuts footage of The Rolling Stones recording the song Sympathy For The Devil with seemingly unrelated scenes. Godard relays the protacted development of recording, and some of its ordinariness, though by switching back and forth between this and the other, at times perplexing, scenes, he gives the recording process a theatrical atmosphere. In Harvey’s piece too, there is a sense of performance lying above that of the ordinary studio experience – it’s impossible not to wonder what she, and the other musicians, feel about working knowing that strangers are peering in, and how it might be affecting their behaviour.

In the booklet given out to visitors to Recording In Progress, Harvey talks at length in an interview with Artangel’s Michael Morris about how important studios have been in the creation of her previous albums. “The acoustics of a particular space are inevitably captured in the sounds of the recordings – but more than that, the resonance of the building on a different level – its atmosphere, its character,” she says.

It is interesting to discover that Harvey herself instigated this project (having been in discussions with Artangel for some time about possible ideas) and that the decision to record in Somerset House was carefully chosen. “Acoustically the room sounds right to me,” she says,”the journey to the room has a particular atmosphere too – you have to walk through the Inland Revenue’s old rifle range to get to their former staff gymnasium. The Tax Office was here since the late 18th Century, until fairly recently, and a range of different offices regulating public life, from The Stamp Office and The Navy Office to the registry of births, marriages and deaths… All that history will fuel me and help tap into a different level of consiousness.”

At one point as I watched, Harvey commented, “I think it might just work, this crazy experiment”. She was speaking of a specific moment in the act of creating the album – again to do with the drums, I think – but it feels like this comment could sum up the whole project. When our 45 minutes were up, the sound was abruptly cut off and the band, which we were by now totally tuned into, were muted, leaving us behind. There was an audible gasp of dismay from the audience: what will happen next? I guess we’ll all just have to wait until the album is released to find out.

Recording In Progress will take place until February 14. Currently all slots to view are sold out, though more were put on sale unexpectedly just last week so it’s worth keeping an eye on somersethouse.org.uk/recordinginprogress or artangel.org.uk/pjharvey in case of any further developments.

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