Hearing Voices

Jesse Dorris on Kristin Oppenheim's Night Run: Collected Sound Works 1992-1995

Cover: Kristin Oppenheim's Night Run: Collected Sound Works 1992-1995.

FROM THE EARLY TO MID-1990s, the Brooklyn-based installation artist Kristin Oppenheim made hushed, hypnotic, almost impossibly minimal recordings, singing with herself, by herself. At the time, visitors to galleries in New York, Nice, or Milan might have stumbled upon them playing from a tape deck displayed on a plinth, or perhaps hidden from view. The first of these recordings she considered finished, 1992’s “Shake Me,” is a loop of roughly twenty-two seconds, repeated some twenty times, of Oppenheim softly warbling the title. Yet the track sounds massive, at least emotionally. With each repetition, the pair of words shift from command to plea, accusation to dare.

Night Run: Collected Sound Works 1992—1995 is Oppenheim’s first anthology of these pieces, iterations of which have found homes over the years in the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Reese Cox of Berlin’s INFO record label first heard them on the invaluable UbuWeb, and cold-called her to coordinate a vinyl release of eight tracks, out this June, with an additional volume to follow. Oppenheim’s long a cappella rounds link the early 1940s “tape music” experiments of Cairo’s Halim El-Dabh that inspired the musique concréte movement; the subsequent, subconscious mechanics of Delia Derbyshire; the explosive inner dialogues of John Giorno; the gee-whiz genius of Robert Ashley; and the post-vocal fantasias of 90s ambient explorers like Seefeel and Slowdive, whose rippling dubs of female voices influenced the echoing work of contemporary artists like Grouper.  

Oppenheim moved through various art worlds before she picked up the mic. Her father was the iconic conceptual artist Dennis Oppenheim, and as a kid she appeared in his silent videos, sack-racing with her brother, or performing with her father as he mimed the letters of the alphabet across her back. In the 1980s, she joined up with San Francisco post-punks Minimal Man for an album, Sex With God, and a European tour. Her 1996 installation Hey Joe at Barcelona’s MACBA typifies Oppenheim’s immersive sensibility: In an otherwise empty room, a pair of spotlights stalk and bleed into each other, while the sound of Oppenheimer singing the opening lines to the American rock standard haunts the air. “Hey Joe, where’re you going with that gun in your hand?” she asks again and again, as the lights, which seem to reference flashlights, headlights on the highway, searchlights, and Kleigs all at once, move around the room.


Night Run features “Sail on Sailor,” a nod to another 60s hero, Brian Wilson, which first appeared in Oppenheim’s debut solo show at 303 Gallery in 1994, and later in the New Museum’s NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star. “Who sails the oceans, so many oceans,” Oppenheim chants into the left channel, then into the right, her dueling choruses almost syncing up from time to time. Her version is utterly unmoored from Wilson’s placid original, the loop of her voices spinning like beams from a lighthouse, ringing like sirens, producing a touch of seasickness.  “She Was Long Gone” (1995) is more alarming, with Oppenheim murmuring the title in a descending melody that recalls Krzysztof Komeda’s chilling score for Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The ineffable momentum of the artist’s track somehow feels related to the (probably) false fact that the children’s sing-a-long “Ring Around the Rosie” is in fact a plague hymn. Its ruminations feel doomed. “She Had a Heavy Day” (1992) plumbs similar depths, but its repeating left channel, like a weight hung on one side, destabilizes the round. No wonder a bearer of such a burden might stagger in circles, like the cursed heroine of 1995’s “Sally Go Round,” who, in Oppenheim’s telling, spends seven-and-a-half minutes circumscribed in the stereo field, never resting yet getting nowhere. If “Shake Me” is epic, “Sally” is as claustrophobic as hell.

Three tracks show both the limits and liberties of Oppenheim’s go-it-alone recording strategy. “Cry Me a River” (1992) underwhelms at first; her breathy tone pales in comparison to Julie London’s technicolor coo. Yet Oppenheim’s coolness starts to burn like dry ice, and eventually her insistence that “I cried a river over you” sounds biblical and threatening, a teeming flood of heartbreak drowning not the bereft, but any fool who’d dare to cross her. “The Spider & I” (1993) transforms queer hero Lesley Gore’s squeaky-clean “I Would” into an abject endurance test: “I would swim the coldest ocean/I would walk in burning sand/I would crawl across the desert with my heart in my hand,” she vows in whispers. It sounds like Vito Acconci at the sock-hop and to my ear, is at least an hour or two too short. 1992’s “Through an Open Window” brightens, uncertainly, a hungover morning after a tough night. Selected lines from Jefferson Airplane float around what might be her own, woozy observations. “My head feels light,” Oppenheim observes. “And the room seems to tip.” Filled with Oppenheim’s returning voice, yours will too.

Kristin Oppenheim’s Night Run: Collected Sound Works 1992–1995 is available digitally starting May 21st via Bandcamp. The double LP vinyl release will ship in June from INFO.