September 17 2015

Soundscapes at the National Gallery: art & sounds merging with astonishing results

This summer, the National Gallery has put on an exciting and innovative exhibition, ‘Soundscapes’, which closed its doors on 6th September 2015, but whose echoes are still very much resonant. The concept behind ‘Soundscapes’ is simple, as the tagline suggests: ‘Hear the painting. See the sound’. The curators asked six composers to select a painting from the National Gallery and create a new piece of music or sound art to match the artwork of their choice. The project was an ambitious one, which aspired to merge different sensory experiences and stimulate the viewer from various points of view. In our interview with Mariana Lopez, we had already taken an interest in immersive experiences, where spaces and narrative are communicated using sounds. This exhibition looked at how all this can be done through art, and how sounds can complement famous paintings.

The exhibition consists of six self-contained dark rooms, so as to immerse the viewer in a meditative atmosphere where shapes, sounds, and colours can be fully enjoyed. Even by looking at few artworks, one gets a flavour of the variety of outcomes that ‘Soundscapes’ achieves.

Lake Keitele2

The very first work is the painting Lake Keitele (1905), for which Chris Watson has created a wildlife record. The visitor is thus presented with the painting of a lake and its striated reflections of the sky, and at the same time surrounded by life-like sounds which may well have been present when painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela was working on his canvas. As Watson explains, in visual arts painters always have to adopt a perspective in their works. When recording natural sounds, he did exactly the same, by choosing carefully where to place his microphone. This ultimately affected his recording, as the sounds he was able to capture from that specific point of the wood (birds, winds, wildlife, leaves), were to be found in that spot and nowhere else. His work thus leaves the viewer to wonder what sort of sounds might have accompanied other famous landscapes, such as Monet’s Impression, Sunrise or Van Gogh’s Starry Night.


Another very interesting painting-music combination is Holbein’s masterpiece The Ambassadors (1533) and the piece composed by Susan Philipsz. The music in this room is the simplest: only three violin tones coming in succession. This contrasts hugely with the detailed Dutch painting, which is full of colours, textures, and complex symbols. Philipsz was inspired by the broken string of the lute, and decided to focus on the concepts of tension and physicality: the subtle tension between the two ambassadors is reproduced in the chords’ tension, and the physicality of the violinist playing her instrument recalls the almost tangible surfaces of the painting. In spite of its simplicity, the music has still the power to add something to the picture.

Coastal Scene2

At the other end of the spectrum in terms of music complexity is Jamie xx’s piece, which, as befits a remix artist, makes extensive use of technology. His piece of sound art is called Ultramarine, and was composed in response to Van Rysselberghe’s Costal Scene (about 1892). In some ways, the picture choice recalls Watson’s Lake Keitele. But the soundscape accompanying it couldn’t be more different. The visitors are greeted by a rhythmical pulse, which then ‘decomposes’ as they make their way towards the painting. This is supposed to match the optical effect of the pointillist painting, which is made up of thousands of little brush-strokes. The idea is that sounds should ‘wash over you’, taking you beyond the sea (ultra means ‘beyond’ in Latin) and beyond what you see. It is as if sounds set the painting into motion.

The relevance of the exhibition is manifold. Perhaps the most important aspect is the interesting way in which it explores creativity as stemming from sense interaction. A further point arising from ‘Soundscapes’ is that it is always possible to look at ancient artworks with new eyes. The exhibition features the Wilton Diptych, and though the painting is dated about 1395–9, it is made absolutely contemporary by the music accompanying it. In many cases, though by no means all, it is thanks to technology that we can see art with new eyes. It is crucial for the visitor to enter the exhibition with an open mind, ready to embrace the experimental and the new, trusting in the endless possibilities they may lead to.

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