Ella Finer

Acoustic Epigraphy


It is a year since I gave what follows – an essay as invitation – to four guests in the winter of 2023. I asked Canan Batur, Denna Cartamkhoob, Emma McCormick Goodhart and Arjuna Neuman to listen with me to Marysia Lewandowska’s sound installation, borne out of her research into Maggie Keswick Jencks’ work. I asked them to think alongside me about the energetic relationship of writing and voice, and the ways reading-listening to this composition on the page and in the air connect us tenderly to an absent body and her movements through the world: what she has moved through, what has moved her.

This is where Lewandowska’s work has taken me, through a long conversation attuned politically and personally to the critical, care-work at the heart of her research which resulted in ‘voicing the archive’ of Maggie Keswick Jencks. Through a solar return – a whole turn of the seasons mimicking the implicit circularity of The Cosmic House – Lewandowska moved through the house as written and spoken by Keswick Jencks. And because of this deep attention to Keswick Jencks’ own deep attention to the house that was her home between 1983 and 1995, Lewandowska now knows another house, or perceives it with another kind of embodied knowledge. Her project how to pass through a door invites us also to sense The Cosmic House as she has felt it in this time, shifted. This work invites us through an acoustic veil to experience the house as composed by Lewandowska and Keswick Jencks, their shared dedicated attentions to both atmospheric and material detail.

This is more than affective archival work, more than placing a record of a voice in a room and asking us to listen; there is a political and representational imperative here. This is a woman’s work honouring another woman’s work by entering into a transhistorical collaboration. As Lewandowska has written before, in relation to the archive: ‘We are always facing the question of who is telling the story, in whose presence and in whose name?1

And so, who is telling the story of this house? – Who is composing its affective resonances and residues? I wrote the following to think through the complexity of such questions; I offer this now to you.

00:34:44 […] It's a place which is very physical and very sensuous, but it's also a place for the imagination and for the mind. And it has a very profound view of the world built into the way in which it's made. 00:10:53 […] Look at it! […] It's difficult to say it's natural, I must say, but you can say that it's interesting. And if you look at it as a magical place, you can see that in these strange evenings, when you get lights reflected off […] after a hot day where it's been salting and heavy and you get […] a steamy feeling and part of this disappears […].2

A steamy feeling, and part of this disappears – you may read these words and hear them. You may feel them. And how?

In your own voice, or a version of your own voice? A voice only you know the most intimate acoustic dimensions of?

The voice only you hear when you are alone and reading; the voice that translates what is seen on the page into what is, without giving breath to the voice, heard. Maybe even here inflected with my own voice, if you know it. Or Marysia’s. Or Maggie’s. Reading to oneself has an extraordinary and mysterious capacity to voice, to hear a voice only we can hear, sometimes a voice of many more voices than our own, a voice that brings the written word deep into the reading body, inscribes it there, a magical place.

Before you hear these words in the sounded voice of the body who wrote them, these words – for a time – belong only to the acoustic dimension of your reading.

And so whose words are whose? The question of who is telling the story gets confused the moment we begin to read. Because in the devoted acoustics of listening-in-reading, another voice can inhabit the sound of our own.

In the early summer of 2022, Marysia invited me to voice Maggie’s notebook. Reading the notebook to myself before, I became increasingly aware of the work in the words. This labour of deep attention, care-work for the house, inscribed in red biro, black and blue ink, in pencil. Could I hear her as I read? Faintly, and far away, like a voice on the other end of a long-distance line.

Marysia had found Maggie’s notebook in the night as if by chance, as if by magic. A written document, the notebook is a record of extraordinary and minute detail for the interior design of The Cosmic House. The house in the book. And as counterpoint to Maggie’s recomposed lecture playing in the Spring room the notebook was never written to be read aloud. What happens when a personal working document like this is voiced? Recorded? And by another? Who is reading who, for whom, with whom?

These are questions to ask of the ethics and effects of epigraphic practice through sound: to write into the air with voice. What are the conditions of a body’s inscription in sound? The sonic document allows the sound to travel far into the future, with the hopeful event of replay if the material remains intact, but what about the sound that inscribes itself in other ways, through relation and affect: ‘you get a steamy feeling, and part of this disappears’. Just as Maggie describes the light transforming perceptions of architectural space, her voice brings us into new relation with the house. Her voice shifts the affective dimensions of how we encounter the space in which she sounds, resonating in the mirrored alcove of her study, and in the hollow of the Solar Stair, the Moonwell and ventriloquising objects: the pink marble spoons, the scholars’ rocks, the crystal needles, the owls.

We could go listening for Maggie in the house and find her everywhere.

The voice never simply belongs anywhere or to anyone in reading, even while we might provisionally place the voice by attaching it to an imagined body. And while the voices we hear in our reading are all inflected with our own, we read knowing that any feeling of ownership here is as illusory as the walls that disappear in the light of strange evenings.

A private pleasure of/in reading then, that within this space, alone with the words, the voice you are reading is as much yours as mine, as much yours as mine as Maggie’s as Marysia’s. What we hear in the written word can move in unexpected ways; we will all experience this differently, how the voices we read acoustically shift in their belonging to bodies. So it is the sound of the live voice, a body in the airwaves, forcefully and explicitly reminding us of an ethical approach here, how reading is a listening practice with specific and unique voices carrying through the written word. While the voice also never simply belongs anywhere in the live – always on the move from speaker to listener, if she is there to receive – the voice can never be mistaken for another, as it forever belongs to that person and beckons its owner into being.3

The words I choose as epigraph now live in the yellowing warmth of the Spring room: where Maggie’s voice urges us to watch the changing light as she watches; experience as she experiences; feel as she feels. I stay in the present tense with her voice, I hesitate at writing felt: hers is an invitation to come closer in 1987, and still she invites us.

Maggie’s words and their replaying in writing and in sound open a space in which to write my reading–listening to and with her, through Marysia’s how to pass through a door; to consider how this work, among many other things, draws our attention to just how deeply inscribed Maggie is in this space. Inscribed as much in the material infrastructure of the house as in its atmosphere, its imaginative life, its histories.

Marysia’s work then asks us to listen to inscription as a record vulnerable to loss, or to leaving; to consider this politics of preservation: how bodies both inscribe themselves and are inscribed into spaces by others. How can a body belong beyond its lifetime? And to what, to whom, does it belong? I extend an invitation to listen for audible and beyond-audible inscription; to listen with our bodies and our imaginations to the softer impressions a voice makes on a building, on a book; to develop this as speculative practice – an acoustic epigraphy.

  1. Marysia Lewandowska, ‘Speaking, the Holding of Breath’ in Sound by Artists, ed. Dan Lander and Micah Lexier, Art Metropole and Walter Philips Gallery, Toronto and Banff, 1990, p. 55-62, p.56.

  2. Excerpt from Marysia Lewandowska’s, how to pass through a door(2022), site-specific sound installation playing in the , Spring Rroom of, The Cosmic House (10 October 2022–8 September 2023). The work is based on Maggie Keswick Jencks, audio recording of lecture (Dr Sun Yat-sen Garden Society, 1987, Vancouver BC, Canada 1987).

  3. Marysia Lewandowska’s, introduction, to the publication accompanying her installation how to pass through a door (10 October 2022- 8 September 2023exh. pub.), London: Jencks Foundation, 2022), at The Cosmic House.

Ella Finer
Acoustic Epigraphy
Maggie Keswick, Cosmic, Marysia Lewandowska, Residency, The Cosmic House, Women's History, Collaborations