In the 1980s, I was lucky enough to study radio documentary production with Stuart McLean as part of my journalism training. Besides being one of Canada’s great storytellers, McLean regularly pushed the radio doc format in unexpected directions. (Terribly afraid of heights, he once recorded himself climbing up into the operator booth of a skyscraper crane.) McLean is remembered here as a great writer and journalist. He was also a sound artist, even if that’s not a job title he’d ever have used himself.
Increasingly, sound artists are meeting McLean halfway. I’ve written a couple of times about the documentary potential of sound art and field recordings. Whenever I hear a new work that combines the principles of journalistic and artistic storytelling, I wish I could knock on Stuart’s office door and share it with him.
Olivia Louvel is one of those artists. Her 2017 recording Data Regina tells the story of Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I, two monarchs who ruled simultaneously in the male-dominated power politics of 16th century Britain.
Her new work is focused on another fascinating Brit, sculptor Barbara Hepworth. SculptOr leans heavily on Hepworth’s writing, read by both her and Louvel. Hepworth was one of the great twentieth century modernist sculptors. Her work earned international recognition.
Louvel marries Hepworth’s written passages with various sound vignettes. We hear what sounds like a typewriter, irregular beats and other sporadic electronic sounds. Mostly though, what resonates are the spoken-word passages. They’re edited in such a way as to encourage the listener to ruminate on specific ideas.
The titles speak for themselves: “Use Your Own Body” is a reference to Hepworth’s call for sculptors to, literally, put their back into the work. “Must Carve a Stone” speaks to the obsessive nature so many great artists live with. “I Draw What I Feel In My Body” strikes a similar theme. The nine pieces that make up SculptOr deliver a sense of Hepworth, both personally and artistically, that illustrates the power of sound art as a storytelling medium.
The album’s most personal note comes to us in “A Woman Artist Not Deprived.” Louvel reads: “A woman artist is not deprived by cooking and having children. One is in fact nourished by this rich life, provided one always does some work each day. Even a single half hour so that the image grows in one’s mind. I detest a day off. No work, no music, no poetry.”
It is a passage loaded with relevance for parents who struggle to balance domestic responsibilities with personal and professional growth. It is more than that though. Hepworth’s son Paul died in 1953 when his Royal Air Force plane went down in Thailand.
Louvel’s SculptOr is a thoughtful, reverent tribute to a great artist. Her choice of medium is a deeply respectful way to recognize Hepworth.