Reviewer's rating

Tucked between the shops on the ground floor of The Galleries are two sliding doors and a small neon sign – polyphony. While I waited for this immersive audio installation to begin, it felt like a stop on the journey through the bright lights of the shopping centre. Waterstones, loo, WHSmith, coffee, loo, audio installation, on with the day. I liked that it felt part of the environment: one thing amongst many.

Step into polyphony and you are in a darkened room with a collection of frames, each holding a single suspended speaker. You are encouraged to stick your bags and coats down and use the space as you like – to sit, listen, or walk around for a bit. The frames are connected by slender bundles of wires that travel around the room above you, cords of pinks and reds wrapped around one another. It is an elegantly simple design – deceptively so, because as the sounds begin and you are taken through the chapters, titled things like ‘hubbub’, ‘stories #1’ or ‘laughter’, the experience of the room shifts and transforms. The chapters urge you forward, so that in one moment the room feels warm and communal, and in another quite disconcerting. This is not just a collection of people’s stories, although those are there, it is also an exploration of your own relationship to the humans around you. Standen and Clarke have sifted out the sounds we make – lip-smacking, grumbles and pauses, snickers and nasal breaths, and threaded them through the songs and the voices. It is at times intimate, at times alienating, and if you’re a fan of ASMR you’re in for a treat.

polyphony is a shape-shifting experience. As the chapters progress, the frames can seem like people, warmly lighting up as the voice within them speaks. It’s touching to see the visitors in the room leaning in to hear the words of a single person n a room full of sound. The stories explore questions around how their voices have changed, and how they feel about them. We hear about a person’s day, and how they spend their time. We start to get to know them, having been given this opportunity to connect in an instant to the life of a stranger. But then, suddenly, the voice in the speaker changes. So this ‘person’ that you have started to get to know – they’re gone, and it’s just a wooden frame and a speaker dangling in the air, piping out the words of someone else. The relationship shifts as does your trust in the space – is this environment really a human one?

Sometimes I felt sad at these recorded voices being played into the room, changeable and indifferent to who’s listening, like a loudspeaker calling out across an empty playground. But the chapters continue and the space evolves again, and now the frames seem like windows on a street and we are back in lockdown, each behind their own closed-door, breathing, wondering, mumbling, coughing. Then another shift and the room seems full of gaping mouths, the speakers dangling at the back of the throat, and the wires above running from organ to organ. It is a rich journey that travels at a pace, engaging you from the moment it begins.

It is a pleasure to be so enlivened by Standen’s intricate production, and the only thing I wished is that I had more time. More time to explore the individual stories, more time to linger in the chapters, and maybe, also, some final sense of cohesion. polyphony holds the noises we make up to the light, which makes for a beautiful and question-provoking experience, but as it draws to a close it can feel as though these findings remain like specimens behind glass, a still museum of sound. Regardless, it is worth making the decision to lean in and listen, and perhaps it is our doing so, and our willingness to experience one another (mouth-squelching included) that completes it.