Canary songs by Teresa Dillon at Phoenix

Artist Q&A – Teresa Dillon, Canary Songs

A Q&A with Teresa Dillon, artist behind Canary Songs in which a choir recreates the sounds of a WW1 munitions factory in the Phoenix cinema

What was it that initially inspired you to create Canary Songs?

I’ve been making sound and performative based works for some years. Most often the works are site specific in that they focus on a particular space or building and its history, daily rhythms and social relations. Last year, I was carrying out further research on noise abatement laws within cities and became interested in the spikes that occurred around the World Wars (1 and 2). War and military efforts are essentially one of the main drivers of ‘innovation’ and this lead to looking into the labour and industrial conditions under which highly intensive military action is carried out, such as the industrial complexes or warehouses where the people who make bombs or uniforms work. I was reading many different accounts of noise laws, warehouses and factory conditions both in Germany and the UK and started to imagine how they might have sounded as often they were massive spaces, filled with machinery and people. As I’m interested in performative modes of expression this lead to thinking about recreating these spaces, acoustically as a sort of sound re-enactment.

It was during this period of research that I learnt about Canary Girls, the name given to the female workers who packed TNT into shells in the UK Filling Factories during World War 1. TNT is used in explosives but is also poisonous, so the women who worked in the factories – who were largely drawn from domestic service and other low-paid jobs – were digesting this poison as they worked. It turned their skin and hair yellow and ginger and as a result they were called the Canary Girls.

So these are some of the inspirations behind Canary Songs – the sound of military warehouses, the echoes of such spaces and this picture in my head of the women who worked in these factories, who ingested poison, which turned them into ‘birds’, while they made bombs for boys and men to use in war.

What is it that interests you about this time period in particular?

As I mentioned, I have become interested in periods of highly intensive military action and the World War’s are very specialised cases of such action. For me this also extends into contemporary surveillance contexts, Smart Cities and ‘societies of control’ by which I mean the different situations and enclosures we pass through on a daily bases, which hinder, enable, promote or negate certain behaviours. I’m also interested in the modes of governance which emerge as a result of such periods, the ‘stuff’ that gets tested or produced and the impact it has on our ways of reading the world and the literacies and fashions that emerge as a result.

Do you feel like there are any parallels between your work, and current factory conditions of women workers – for example the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh in 2013?

From what I know of the Rana Plaza Factory, the owners are now been charged with murder as over 1,000 people died in the factory when it collapsed. Even though it is reported that the workers did not want to enter the building on the day it collapsed, in essence it seems they were forced to continue to work. This is a tragic situation, which is also calling for reform in Bangladesh in relation to the garment industry. I don’t see a direct connection between this situation and Canary Songs as both are very different.

However in focusing on the women who packed the TNT into the shells and in inviting 25 female volunteers to sing as part of the choir for the performance, I am placing an emphasises on the working conditions of women back then and this may provoke reflections on conditions that exist now. Inequality in relation to female pay and the conditions under which women in many countries have to work remains one of the major issues in our global society. People still get poisoned while trying to make a buck.

Overall, the women who worked in factories during World War 1, played a major role in transforming the position and conditions for women in the work place and society. This is part of women’s lineage and history but also leads to questions about working life in general. As a female artist interested in contemporary technology and civic relations then, I guess its no surprise that such references appear and creep into my work.


These back stories did guide the explicit decision to work with designer Mia Morikawa, who works in New Delhi at the fashion house 11.11. I have known Mia for some years and this commission offered the chance to work in a small way with her. Mia and her team made the capes which the choir will wear during the performance. Her approach to fashion could be defined as a slow approach, which pays attention to the source of materials, fabrics, the production methods used and the relationships between people. This complements my own approach. The capes are beautifully made and intentional, dipped dyed, with a burnt yellow and faded look, which references the colour the TNT poison turned the women’s skin. Lyndsey Cockwell, who is the choir director for the premiere described them as chemical uniforms, which I think is quite appropriate.

Could you talk more about the live and audial aspects of the work, and what it is that interests you about this durational approach?

Sure. I got really into this side of the project, which has lead to a new approach to composition. It also stems from the research which I was carrying out on noise and sound in cities. I am currently a Fellow at the Audio Communication Department at the Technische Universität, Berlin and Music Department at Universität der Künste, Berlin. I worked with researcher Zora Schärer Kalkandjiev who created an acoustic model of the Chilwell Factory.

To make the model, I spent time at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) archives in London, listened to various World War 1 material on the BBC online archives and drew on the (WWS) archive, which is an archive of endangered or disappearing sounds of industrial society. From the IWM and BBC archives, plus visits to Beeston library and other online sources, I had quite a bit of material, which provided an overview of the daily life of the factory – oral accounts, for example, of women who worked in the factories and who were Canary Girls.

I also found a document at the IWM which provided details on the size and materials used to build the factory and in particular the ‘Great Store’, which is what I decided to model. Once I had all this material, including many pictures of the store, which were also available via the IWM and also some film footage, I shared it with Zora who created the model. I also went to visit the site of the factory – which is still used for military purposes – but the factory and all the buildings are gone. It seems there only ever existed some hand drawn, rough sketches of the factory. So all this background ‘forensic’ work was necessary in order to recreate the model.

Essentially to make the model Zora worked with the impulse response rate and this enabled us to create an acoustic impression of how the building would have sounded. I then selected a dozen or so industrial sounds from the WWS archive, which were suitable. It obviously did not make sense to record modern machines or create digitally fabricated sounds as they would have not sounded ‘right’ in an 1916-18 factory. So this was one solution. Once I had selected these sounds, I divided the store into a grid and instructed Zora on where to place the samples. Working in this way, you could literally hear the sounds then travel around the space. Once Zora had worked this in the model, she passed me back the samples, which I cut up and used to arrange and create the composition, which forms the industrial back track, the base or foundation of the piece.

To complete the arrangement, I divided the composition sections, which also provided the template for the choral performance, which I sent to Lyndsey Cockwell, the choir director. In working with Lyndsey, I selected three popular songs in the style of musical hall, which were popular at this time. Oral accounts also indicate the women would sing popular songs, while working on the factory floor. Lyndsey has rearranged two of these songs, which she will teach to the choir, along with a set of extended vocal techniques, which we have defined. The choir will then ‘sing’ this arrangement live over the industrial backing track which will be played in surround sound in the cinema space at Phoenix.

What do you hope to achieve through the performance of Canary Songs?

I’ve been really pleased with the process, approach and partnerships – obviously the performance still has to happen (this weekend)! So we shall see what else emerges in these final dates. Ideally it would be great to see the piece tour to other cinema spaces and to continue working with local people interested in participating in the choir and also other musicians. I’m also hoping to make a second part to Canary Songs, which is still bubbling up. Overall, I’m really excited about this approach to composition, which I will continue to develop.