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Scottish Turner nominee Susan Philipsz finds the sound of silence the ideal canvas for her creations

HAVING somehow forgotten about the time difference between Glasgow and Berlin, I'm an hour late when I phone the Glasgow-born artist Susan Philipsz in her adopted city. She's far too charming to complain, but, hoarse from a day singing a 16th-century English madrigal, (more of that later) she does mention the imminent arrival of a friend.

Philipsz is packing her bag tonight for an early flight to London. There's an incredibly complex art installation to complete in the City of London - "the most ambitious in scale" of her entire career - and then the opening of her Turner Prize 2010 show. Philipsz has been doing a lot of packing like this lately. The 45-year-old Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art graduate has reached a number of milestones and clocked up a lot of air miles.

Recently there's been a commissioned installation at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, more biennials and important group shows than you can shake a stick at and, above all, inclusion in the once-a-decade, career-defining Mnster Sculpture Project, where the public liked her work so much it was acquired permanently for the German city to sit alongside work by art world legends such as Bruce Nauman.

All this would be impressive enough, but it's more so when you realise that Philipsz has achieved success not through an army of assistants and fabricators, but with the slenderest of means: her own unaccompanied voice in haunting sound recordings in a gallery setting or in unusual public spaces.

She rarely performs live, though she likes to sing socially and once sang Nirvana through the public address system in a well-known supermarket. Until January, her lovely but defiantly untrained voice will fill the public spaces of the City of London during the weekends, when it is normally silent. You'll hear her under London Bridge, and on a desolate walkway in Moorfields singing the traditional rounds and madrigals collected by the 16th-century chorister and composer Thomas Ravenscroft.

The songs she sings are not the grand songs of church and state, but the folk songs, love songs and ballads that form the warp and weft of everyday life from Burns to Radiohead. The closest to an anthem she is likely to sing is the Internationale, which she learned as a young Marxist during the darkest days of Thatcherism.

Her Turner nomination came for the work Lowlands, which captivated audiences in Glasgow this April. Commissioned by the Glasgow International Festival, the work saw Philipsz install three separate recorded versions of the song Lowlands Away, under three bridges on the Clyde. The tragic ballad that has also been sung as a traditional sea shanty, and was most recently revived by the tremendous Glasgow traditional singer Alasdair Roberts, tells of a ghostly lover appearing to a woman, thus confirming her worst fears that he has been drowned.

For those who experienced it, Lowlands seemed like the ghostly voice of the river itself. More than one grown man admitted to me that it had made him cry. For Philipsz the work fell into place when she saw the memorial bunches of flowers that are sometimes tied to railings on the Clyde Walkway.

"The Clyde has such a strong history," she says. "It has its own stories to tell."

Despite her gloomy subjects the artist herself is very cheerful in person. "You're right, I'm not a melancholic person. I think everyone is drawn to the melancholic folk songs and ballads, to murder ballads for example. We're all fascinated by mortality."

Philipsz spent her early years in Maryhill, "the heart of Glasgow", and her parents now live in the shadow of Hampden Park. She spent some time in the choir of her Catholic church. "It wasn't that long, really, but I think that it, and singing with my sisters, did inform what I do now." Her brother Michael introduced her to music: "He collected his NME every week." And also to Trotsky: "It was hard for my parents - they were such devout Catholics."

Philipsz always knew she wanted to be an artist. "It was very early on, my parents encouraged it all along. I was good at drawing and my dad was always showing my drawings to other people. He was good at drawing too, always drawing us and wanting us to keep still, which could be very annoying."

Philipsz's father is Burmese. His family's life pulled apart by the war, he came to the UK in his twenties, first to London and then Glasgow. Her mother's father was from Donegal, and with her flame-red hair the artist has inherited some of these Irish genes. "I don't really think about being Scottish or coming from the UK, but I'm very proud of coming from Glasgow." How does she feel about the Turner nomination? "I was thrilled about it, didn't expect it, couldn't believe it."

Philipsz has been working this way for a good 15 years, but these days the acceleration of her career seems down to more than just hard work and longevity. Firstly it suits the do-it-yourself culture of the internet age - there are few artists you can check out on YouTube but she is one of them. Secondly, as recorded music gets more and more processed, the unaltered human voice has an ability to touch us more than ever before.

"The unaccompanied voice heightens your own sense of self," she explains. "We're so used to hearing the voice post-production - unaccompanied it draws on all these other associations and emotive effects."

Shortly, the doorbell rings, the friend has arrived and Philipsz has to go.

There are important decisions to be made.The Turner Prize 2010 exhibition is at Tate Britain, 5 October until 3 January. Surround Me, a song cycle for the City of London, will take place on Saturdays and Sundays, from 9 October until 2 January, in various locations through the City of London

• This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday on September 26, 2010

 
 
 

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