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 The Instrument of Troubled Dreams, hands at piano
The Instrument of Troubled Dreams, hands on piano

Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller, The Instrument of Troubled Dreams, 2018.

A dog barks somewhere, horse hooves trot past, a cello plays two chords. The sound of a medieval chorus accompanies the church organ the hallowed space of Amsterdam’s oldest building, transfiguring its ceilings, seeming to raise the soaring roof even higher. Hidden behind wooden screens, where the high altar used to be, in the middle of the Oude Kerk’s choir, stands Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s The Instrument of Troubled Dreams (2018) – a black mellotron. The orientation of three rows of chairs beckons you to sit down and play. Short descriptions of themes have been tagged above the mellotron’s 72 keys, divided into three categories: sound, music and voice. 

We have experienced most of the sounds – the weather, animal noises, etc – of the ‘sound’ keys before. Other sounds visitors will only know in their mediated forms, like machine guns firing and the roar of airplane bombers. For the instrumental recordings the artists worked together with film music composers, the choral and organ portions recorded in the church itself. The 11 narratives triggered by the ‘voice’ keys (and spoken in Cardiff’s well-modulated voice) structure the mellotron’s sounds and guide your imagination through stories from the past, present and future.

“Too many people crowded together, the boat’s toilet was filled by the second day, water was running short,” begins one of the narratives. From this story fragment the mellotron player can layer in the sound of a person breathing heavily. The voice continues: “She thought there must be a murder onboard as the people grew fewer every day and their faces more terrified.” The tragic scene can be underscored with a sound effect like ‘windgusts’, or one can give it the uncanny atmosphere of a 1960s horror movie by accompanying it with the ‘carnival organ’. While the narrator’s story seems to have taken place outside of any particular time, it is impossible not to imagine a contemporary refugee crossing the treacherous Mediterranean waters.

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