Soundscapes at the National Gallery

In principle, the exhibition is totally brilliant. And in practice too. The idea is simple: six artists given free choice among the paintings from the National Gallery, commissioned to respond to the painting with a brand new piece of music. The collaboration is most fruitful, and the exhibition is one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever been to. It’s hard to believe (although not once you’ve been there) how from already existing paintings so much new material can derive. The exhibition space consists of six dark rooms separated by sound-isolating corridors, which favour the visitor’s total immersion within the artworks, both visual and acoustic. Given the variety of works presented, I think it’s worth going through what the single artists have come up with.

Chris Watson & Lake Keitele

Akseli Gallen-Kallela Lake Keitele 1905

The artist has chosen a landscape from the early 20th century. The music accompanying it recreates the wildlife he imagines would have surrounded the painter during his artistic production. I loved the idea that, much like in visual art there is a perspective you can adopt, just so when recording natural sounds you can (and must) choose where to place your microphone, which ultimately affects your recording. Watson wants us to take away from his work the idea that all landscapes (which feature prominently in the National Gallery’s collection) were produced in an all-sounding environment.

Susan Philipsz & The Ambassadors

Holbein The Ambassadors

The music in this room is the simplest: only three violin tones. This contrasts a lot with the detailed Dutch painting, which is full of colours, textures, and symbols. The artist 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 touchable surfaces of the painting.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller & Saint Jerome in his Study

Full title: Saint Jerome in his Study Artist: Antonello da Messina Date made: about 1475 Source: Contact: Copyright © The National Gallery, London

As well as sounds, the two artists have recreated the physical space of St Jerome’s study, with little objects, windows, backgrounds hills, and all. The sounds reproduce the different outdoor noises at different times of the day, which give the sense of what St Jerome, in his scholarly activity, is missing. The expansion from bidimensionality and the acquisition of sound effects makes the painting a powerful reflection on boundaries and domains.

Nico Muhly & The Wilton Diptych

Wilton Diptych

Drawing inspiration from a medieval gothic diptych, Muhly creates an atmosphere of mystery and meditation, which captures well the aura of the period of the artwork. As he says, ‘there is a musicality to everything’ and his aim is to make people realise this. I think his music also captures admirably the warmth and co-existing coldness of the painting. He also picks up nicely on the repetitive and rhythmical movements of the diptych, which are echoed in his music. Finally, he has decided to surprise the listeners with unexpected accents and unusual instruments suddenly featuring the composition, which recall the unnoticed details of the painting (the red boots of the king on the left, the little mushrooms on the bottom right). Life is made of such small details, which are there for us to spot.

Gabriel Yared & Les Grandes Baigneuses

Cézanne Les Grandes Baigneuses

Stepping into the penultimate room, something changes. Each speaker has a different instrument, encouraging the visitors to move around, and see what changes as they hear all the different elements composing the symphony. The result as a whole, however, is intimate and peaceful, reminding of a mystic grove of nymphs, who are giving us their backs. At some point, after wandering around, I sat on the bench in front of the painting. And at that point I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the painting changing before my eyes: all of a sudden I noticed a subtle dynamism emerging from the figures, which, coupled with the warm sound of a clarinet happening to be playing just then, made me see the painting in a completely different light.

Jamie xx & Coastal Scene

Van Rysselberghe Coastal Scene

From a distance, the painting chosen by Jamie xx looks a lot like the first one. But the soundscape accompanying it couldn’t be more different. There is a deep pulse which greets the visitors in the room, only to decompose itself 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 and beyond what you see. It’s as if the painting was being set into motion.

As I got out, I was overwhelmed by the experience. If this becomes a new trend in contemporary art – to synesthetically explore the interactions between senses – then I’m very much looking forward to any future piece of art. Because there, you see, there is a richness that we can’t even imagine.


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