Swan Song


With Marla Hlady

Part of the works produced during the Glenfiddich Residency.

First exhibit at the Artists at Glenfiddich space in Dufftown, Scotland, July 26 – August 25, 2019.

First Canadian exhibition at Christie Contemporary, Toronto, March 20 – April 18, 2020 (run extended to July 11 due to covid). The exhibition was featured in the Toronto section of ARTFORUM Critics’ Picks, reviewed by Daniella Sanader. The piece was presented alongside Sampler.

Reprise presentation at Christie Contemporary, Toronto, October 21 – November 19, 2022.

Exhibition at Produit Rien, Montreal, June 2-17, 2023.

Publication launch (2xCD + 16-page booklet) on November 19, 2022 between 2 and 4pm, at Christie Contemporary. More on publication here.

Scroll down for REVIEWS.

Two stills from the distillery were retired on June 28, 2019 after serving for 12 years. They were removed through the roof by a crane and replaced by new ones. The swan neck portions of the stills were then cut for us by master coppersmith Dennis McBain. They were then pressure washed before being brought into the gallery.

Through each swan neck we play recordings we made throughout the distillery: Robbie Dhu Spring cairn where the water first enters the Glennfidich property, the cooperage floor where casks are being repaired, vats were barley goes through the various stages of germination, bottling floor, a choir made up of staff working at William Grant & Sons (which houses Balvenie and Glenfiddich distilleries).

Each member of the makeshift choir volunteered to contribute two short voice recordings, one the highest pitched sound they could produce, and one the lowest. They were asked to hold the sound for as long as possible. The resulting recordings were arranged according to how long they’ve each been working at the distillery, 2 months being the shortest, and 39 years and 5 months being the longest (their collective average years of service: 10 years and 2 months). In terms of duration of the audio, the transposition was one month equals one second. The overall duration was based on the age of the distillery, founded in 1886 (so, its 133 years equals 26:36 using the same logic of 1 month = 1 second).

The treatment of the voices was primarily kept as simple as possible, stretching and repeating. Subsequent layering and panning effects add some edge to the recording that was otherwise intentionally kept monolithic—conveying a single collective mass, in constant labour, reflecting the fact that their constant work shifts enables the clear spirit to shift to whisky as it ages in the casks.

The Choir: Mark Beattie, Colin Corson, Gemma Cruickshank, Julie Ettles, Maureen Farquhar, Laura Forsyth, Carol Hendry, Sarah Law, Fraser McGill, Helen Murray, George Paterson, Fred Robertson, Adrianne Sellar, Vicki Shaw, Megan Thomson, Robbie Walker.

Their years of seniority: 6 months, 1 year and 2 months, 2 months, 24 years and 10 months, 8 years, 18 years and 5 months, 1 year and 11 months, 12 years, 4 years and 8 months, 39 years and 5 months, 9 years and 7 months, 5 years, 3 months, 17 years and 6 months, 3 years and 6 months, and 11 years and 6 months.

Their job titles: an HR Manager, a Food & Beverage Team Leader, a Hospitality and Events Assistant, a Senior Malt Barn Team Member, a Label Store Operator, two Technical Analysts, a Utilities Team Leader, a Warehouse Coordinator, a Visitor Centre Handyman, a Technical Planner & Site Development Leader, a Process Team Leader, three Bottling Team Members, and an Operations & Finance Team Member.

The recordings are triggered by devices that mash them up. They are treated kinetically. They are distilled acoustically. They are mangled mechanically.

Thanks to: Andy Fairgrieve, Dennis McBain, Douglas Paul.

Photo credits: Marla Hlady, Christof Migone.



There is a whole line of field recordings that are not “found” at all; that is, they are not the result of psychogeographic wanderings, but, on the contrary, are carefully prepared and have well-defined places and situations as their object. During a three-month artistic residency in the summer of 2019 in Glenfiddich (Dufftown, Scotland), Marla Hlady and Christof Migone chose to record the sounds of a whiskey distillery, starting with two large copper stills that were recently removed. The operation to remove the stills was not the simplest, given the decidedly large dimensions of the two containers, which required the use of a crane to extract them from the roof. The swan-neck portions of the old stills were then cut by a master coppersmith and used as the main components in a kinetic sound sculpture. When moving into the spaces adjacent to the sculpture, sensors activate a series of electronic mechanisms that rotate thin metal rods on circular axes. Through these two swan-neck components, the recordings made throughout the distillery are reproduced: the water flowing through mounds, the noise emissions arising from the barrels during normal work sessions, the bottling noises and those of the liquids being moved from one part of the warehouse to another. The two ends of the tubes act like a pair of giant gramophones that amplify each of the recordings made. Some of these recordings are also superimposed and mixed. The sounds obtained by a choir composed of the distillery staff are particularly important, voices grouped according to the years of service of each of the participants. Each member of this improvised choir was asked to produce two sounds, one as loud as possible and the other extremely quiet, maintaining the vocal emission for as long as possible. The overall effect is truly impressive and the ultimate indecipherability of the sounds makes us reflect on the work and materials that come together in often surprising and inscrutable ways, distilled with great care, skill and passion. From this ingenious project all the materials, sound and physical objects were subsequently used for an installation at the Christie Contemporary in Toronto.

Revue & Corrigée (Septembre 2023), review by Pierre Durr.

L’association entre l’artiste sonore Christof Migone et sa compatriote Marla Hlady, sculptrice cinétique, nous propose un curieux chant du cygne. Parce que ces cygnes, ce sont les restes des tuvauteries, en forme de col-de-cygne, de vieux alambics d’une distillerie de whisky provenant de Glenfiddich, à Dufftown en Écosse. Le lieu a dailleurs son importance, puisque ce matériau est justement mis en situation à l’intérieur de la distillerie, en usant d’autres sources sonores : la captation des eaux du Fiddich, le cours d’eau local, le passage de l’orge à travers ses différentes phases de fermentation, le remplissage des bouteilles, l’atelier de réparation des fûts, et même un chœur de 16 employés de la distillerie, du DRH au directeur de marketing en passant par des techniciens, chacun offrant deux courts enregistrements le plus aigu et le plus grave possibles), voix utilisées ensuite selon leurs années d’ancienneté dans l’entreprise (?). La mise en œuvre de ce travail résultant d’une résidence de trois mois, elle donne lieu à un rendu sonore en trois parties. Un premier CD, davantage centré sur le son des cols-de-cygne, munis de fines tiges de cuivre tournoyant dont les sonorités sont contrôlées par des interrupteurs motorisés, couches complétées par les voix humaines plus ou moins perceptibles. Des sonorités plus variées sont introduites dans le deuxième volet. Il est vrai que chacun des titres se réfère à diverses captations sonores, retra-vaillées, s’intéressant tantôt au brassage, à la captation de l’eau ou à d’autres activités de la distillerie. Accumulation de couches sonores, effet de bourdonnement (« Process/ Mechanic »), effets plus bruitistes, parcourus de rythmes (« Beat »), maelstrom répétitif (« Mash1 », « Mash2 »), écoulement des sons (« Source »). Le troisième volet, uniquement disponible à travers lachat numérique*, ajoute d’autres propositions : une autre version de « Swan Song » plus dense et d’une trentaine de minutes, l’exploitation de sons issus des fûts (« Cask »), et un « Spirit II » plus onirique (les vapeurs du whisky ?), en finissant avec une pièce vocale (utilisation de la voix de la personne chargée des visites ?). À écouter avec modération ?

Foxy Digitalis‘ The Capsule Garden (Vol 2.11: March 29, 2023), review by Brad Rose.

The concept behind Swan Song initially drew me in, but the sonic entanglements, beyond any concept, are the real show. Click through and read the full description for the full story, but the ‘swan neck’ portions of two old whisky stills were turned into sound sculptures, and that’s the general basis for Swan Song. Musically, an incredible range veers from hauntological by nature but is also infused with a transient, searching spirit. Shaded resonance blooms into full-blown sonic ecstasy, where voices are stretched into gilded forms and vibrant shapes. Electronic pulses skitter across the surface, creating oddly hypnotic patterns. There are so many different elements to Swan Song. It’s overwhelming, and Hlady and Migone show no concern for boundaries. Liminal whispers feel pointed in one direction, sweeping across long distances while sprouting glacial, discordant tendrils spinning in a thousand directions. This is massive and highly recommended.

Vital Weekly, number 1365, week 50, review by Frans de Waard.
A swan song is a metaphorical phrase for a final gesture, effort or performance given just before death or retirement (thanks, wiki). In this case, the swan song is for two stills from a whisky distillery in Scotland. From these stills, two swan necks were cut, used to play the recordings made by Hlady and Migone during their three months residency in 2019. The whisky, glad you asked, is Glenfiddich and Balvenie, if I got this correct. The sounds are from the distillery, but also its surroundings, as water is an essential source, of course. Also recorded was a choir of the staff, from the highest to the lowest pitch they could produce, for as long as possible. The first disc contains three versions of ‘Swan Song’, and the second has eight pieces, which I believe could be source material. There is another version of ‘Swan Song’ in the digital extras and more source pieces. That is a lot of music. As usual with Migone’s work (which I know better than that from Hlady, even when they have worked together since 2015), there is a solid conceptual side to the music. Still, as usual, I found the music equally intriguing without a lengthy explanation. The choir is used extensively in the three (four) parts of ‘Swan Song’. The first part was unprocessed, but in the other two, some processes took place. Knowing this duo a bit, no doubt the sound is fed through pipes at the distillery, altering the sound more acoustically. This all leads to fascinating results. First, maybe fairly traditional humming but in the subsequent versions, mysterious and spooky. In what I think is source material, there is also a strong emphasis on the minimal side of the proceedings. The microphone’s position is significant, adding another dimension to the sounds instead of applying digital processing. Maybe the titles give away something about the origins (‘Mash’, ‘Spirit’, ‘Beat’, ‘Pump’ etc.), but none seemed very recognizable. That makes this a fascinating listening. I don’t know what it is, and I continue to be intrigued by it. Maybe there has been an additional layer of transformations, but somehow I doubt that was the case. It is, at times, mysterious and drone-like, which should appeal to any fan of the genre. Great music all around.

FRIEZE (8 November 2022), review by Neil Price.

There is something uniquely irresistible in the way Marla Hlady and Christof Migone’s exhibition, Swan Song, mashes the familiar with the strange, causing us to reflect upon our often-imperceptible relations with materiality. After its debut at the Artists at Glenfiddich Space in Dufftown, Scotland, in 2019, followed by an initial Canadian run at Christie Contemporary in March 2020 disrupted by the pandemic, the work has returned to the Toronto-based gallery in a slightly different format to give viewers another opportunity to linger in its sonic interplay.

Made from two ‘swan necks’ – sections of metal piping used in the whisky-distillation process, before being retired after 12 years – the titular kinetic sculpture Swan Song (all works 2019) consists of tubular forms placed on a table, with their open ends facing opposite walls. When viewers walk near the sculpture, sensors trigger a set of electronic motors that cause thin metal rods to swivel on circular axes. The movement is smooth but occasionally suspended when the metal rods quietly meet. The mechanics then become enveloped in a massive wave of sound: the two ends of the tubes act as a pair of giant gramophones, filling the entire gallery with tones loud, ominous and intriguing.

The works in Swan Song were created as part of a residency that both artists attended at the Glenfiddich Distillery. They include a series of overlaid and mixed recordings that feature water sluicing through cairns, coopers working and repairing casks, substances moving through vats and noises of bottling. A choir, composed of distillery staff whose voices were arranged according to their years of service, adds a human texture to the show’s cacophony.
Inside a rusted round brass-appearing container, round metal pieces and wires are affixed, like a stethoscope

Apart from its sophisticated engineering, the power of the exhibition lies in how it questions what we may take for granted when we observe or use everyday materials, challenging us to see simple objects as containers – literally and figuratively – of complex ideas, histories and experiences. A seemingly singular sound, for example, actually derives from temporally fragmented and collective ones; the apparent unchangingness of distillery labour and movement, paradoxically, creates new matter. We see how the often-obscured inner workings of things are of no less importance. As if to reinforce this point, the web of wires and circuits that forms the sculpture’s brain centre are concealed beneath the table.

Part of the work’s intrigue is the indecipherability of its recorded sounds. There are moments when they carry the strain of a blaring siren; at other times, we hear the mechanical grinding and screeching of metal. Caught in an enjoyable state of curiosity, the viewer lingers with the work to discern its various sonic textures, to make sense of what has been upended or repurposed.

On a nearby wall, and within an upper gallery space, objects from the residency form an accompanying work titled Sampler. Among the items on display is Sampler (Single Blend), which shows a conjoined bottle containing one single malt from the Highlands and one from the Lowlands, slowly mixing into each other. Another object, Sampler (Tilt Level), is composed of two conjoined sample bottles: each contains water from different but linked bodies of water. It all amounts to a playful extension of the show’s overarching concern for interconnection, aural imprint and materiality. In their accompanying artists’ statement, Hlady and Migone revel in the ideas that these baffling items provoke. ‘They cannot be proven or disproven,’ the artists write. ‘They teeter, they unfold, they puzzle.’ Swan Song, with its thoughtful exploration of sonic and physical resonances, invites us to think about labour, sound and material coming together in often surprising and inscrutable ways, delighting while it bemuses.

ARTFORUM Critics’ Picks | Toronto (Summer 2020), review by Daniella Sanader.

The sound that emanates from Marla Hlady and Christof Migone’s exhibition Swan Song is a sustained jangling tone that gradually, sometimes imperceptibly, adjusts itself. The source of the music, audible before it is visible, is an eponymous kinetic sculpture, also titled Swan Song, featuring two curving tubes of worn copper that both widen at the mouth. They were originally functional parts at the Balvenie Distillery in Dufftown, Scotland, where Hlady and Migone were artists-in-residence last year through the neighboring and affiliated Glenfiddich Distillery. The audio was also “found” at the distilleries: It includes layered recordings of machinery, preparing casks, filling bottles, and, notably, a choir of workers who were each asked to alternately sing the highest and lowest notes they could reach.

The soundscapes that emerge from these metal forms—termed ‘swan necks’ by distillers for their distinct shape—are controlled by a series of motorized switches, thin copper rods that wobble tremulously in the air. The rods move on circular axes, occasionally making gentle contact with a fixed metal piece, turning on or off individual tracks with every slow rotation.

In a statement about this work, the artists referenced the act of toasting, that gentle clinking of glasses to celebrate the mundane and the monumental. A toast assigns social significance to things coming together—both the glasses and the individuals that hold them—yet the distance that surrounds the brief point of contact is equally important to its meaning. Similarly, the sustained tone of Swan Song belies the separations and gaps that govern the work: The hollows of the swan necks amplify the sound, the disconnected switches determine the notes’ length, and the spaces between the voices’ lowest and highest pitches vibrate with a dissonant hum. Resonating throughout the gallery, the work is both a record of a particular place and a meditation on our distance from it.