Songsmith (The Great Karoo)

Interactive sound sculpture
Fossilised volcanic ash, kiaat, brass, steel, sound, circuitry
15 x 100 meters
Spier Wine Estate, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Songsmith is a trade mark of Jenna Burchell
Songsmith (The Great Karoo) is part of Burchell’s greater Songsmith project consisting of a series of sound instruments embedded into places and objects chosen for their age long histories and rich narratives. The Songsmith project explores how to re-connect people to each other and to the world around them by activating the exquisite cracks, places and objects that narrate the beauty of life lived.

The Songsmith project is unfolding over time in different objects, places and countries. Artist Jenna Burchell shaped the word Songsmith (n. v.phr.) in her practice to refer to a golden instrument that she uses to repair or transform an object or place in order to reveal an aural narrative. In creating a Songsmith artwork Burchell follows a method based on the Japanese art and philosophy of Kintsukuroi; this is the art of repairing broken pottery with gold lacquer, and in so doing the acknowledging that piece is more beautiful for having been broken and showing it’s time-worn history. The artist borrows from Kintsukuroi both visually and philosophically to allude to the passing of time in her work. Concurrently the songsmith repair has a functional reason; by forging a songsmith into an object or place it becomes a sensor. It is because of this that Burchell is able to create an interactive archive, holding within a song of time and memory: a song that can be revealed when the audience bring their hands near to the Songsmith artwork.
“I relate my Songsmith artworks to ritualistic, artefacts of modern storytelling; they allow me to reveal hidden landscapes of knowledge, experience and memory to new audiences. I feel that a completed Songsmith’s beauty lies in its fluency between; the real world and digital technology, storytelling and people, contemporary art and untold history”  - Jenna Burchell



In late 2015 Burchell began work on a triptych in her Songsmith project: a triptych made from ancient rocks found in three prehistoric, geographic locations: the Cradle of Humankind, The Great Karoo, and the Vredefort Dome. Burchell chose these sites as they each represent a moment of time wherein the world shifted: they are markers of change in our ancient history. The ancient rock triptych is formed into three collections named after their geographic locations. At each location Burchell embarks on an expedition to collect and archive ancient fractured rocks. In each collection a rock is selected following four rules:
A rock must be found within the relevant geographic site;
A rock must be naturally fractured in two or more pieces;
The fractured pieces must become a single whole;
A rock must be beautiful in form once made whole.
Each completed artwork is titled with the GPS co-ordinate of where the corresponding rock was found. This co-ordinate is engraved onto the plinth. At these locations, with the help of geophysicists, Burchell records the ground’s electromagnetism and translates it into harmonic, mathematical tonalities. Each song represents a recording of the layers of earth going down six meters beneath the rock’s final resting place: eons of time in geological terms. This allows each rock to sing a song unlike any that can be heard: a voice of time.


Songsmith (The Great Karoo) is part two of the triptych. It represents a mass extinction event that took place over 260 million years ago leaving behind a ghost-like mark on the earth. Its formation coincides with catastrophic volcanic activity, the ash of which gives it the whitish colour. Like a chalk line this extinction horizon marks the boundary between two ancient geological times, on the one side a time a great dying, but on the other a new beginning.
In 2017 the artist Jenna Burchell embarked on an expedition to walk along this extinction horizon. As she walked she collected twelve fractured rocks that had fallen from it. These rocks, made of fossilised volcanic ash, were then carefully repaired with the songsmith process.  Once this golden repair was integrated into the rocks it became a sensor for human contact. Upon bringing your hand near to the rocks each will sing a unique song. Each song is generated from the raw electro-magnetic reading recorded from beneath a rock’s original resting place. The resulting sound sculpture acts as a time capsule imbued by a place in time, connecting the present with an ancient history. 

Songsmith (The Great Karoo) is permamently installed at Spier Wine Estate in Stellenbosch, South Africa. The installation of the 12 sound sculptures proportionately represents the geographical locations of where each rock was found along the extinction horizon in a ratio of 1: 0.011. This allows the audience to symbolically walk, as the artist did, and experience the installation. 


"Although Burchell’s Songsmith series is primarily about deep trauma in geological histories and the radical shifts they brought about, they also parallel societal horizon extinctions and trauma. Her work suggests that perhaps by embracing and acknowledging the stories of fractures, shifts and trauma as she has done in Songsmith we can live differently." - Lucinda Jolly, Business Day Live, 2018. 

"Burchell's work, alongside that of other African artists, is not only groundbreaking but has a vitality often lacking at the present in art produced in the West. Burchell's own singing stones, fusing the ancient with the modern, could be seen as a symbol for Africa." - Beverly Andrews, New African Magazine, 2018. 

"African artists were once dismissed by the international art community as novelty Figures but not any more, they are now some of the most dominant figures on the International arts scene, known for standing at the cutting edge of innovation (...) Jenna Burchell's work escapes easy classification since much of it incorporates traditional techniques with the use of modern technology. She is perhaps most famous for her 'singing rocks', which literally emit musical sounds when you stand close to them." - Beverly Andrews, New African Magazine, 2018. 

Songsmith (Bangor City),  installation | 2015
Songsmith (Cradle of Humankind) collection | 2016 - 2017
Songsmith (Yorkshire Sculpture Park) installation | 2017
Songsmith (The Great Karoo) collection | 2017 -2018
Songsmith (Fragile Homes),  collection | 2018 - 
Songsmith (Vredefort Dome),  collection | upcoming