Soundscapes – six famous paintings from the National Gallery displayed with six commissioned sound installations, each installation set up in a dark or dimly lit sound-proofed room. Not exactly “Hear the painting. See the sound.” (NG website) There were extremely varied approaches to this brief – from sounds of nature to electronic music. The sound installations convey a dimension of the painting that you don’t really notice at first, often in contradiction to the work.
Looking at a single painting with sound or music is a very unusual, almost private experience, even in a crowded room. You concentrate on the work in a way that’s impossible in normal gallery viewing. You struggle to find the connection between sound and image. A short film of the six sound artists and composers at the end of the exhibition provides some explanation.
Wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson’s ‘Lake Keitele’, a natural soundscape of birds recorded at the lake of the title, is a complete contrast to the symbolist painting of an arctic landscape, a mysterious place, devoid of life. Wind ripples the surface of the lake. At 50 minutes the sound track a bit of a stretch. Intermittently, though, soft echoes of native chanting, a communication from the ancestors, evokes the mythic dimension of the work.
Chris Watson tries to give both aspects of the painting – real world, mythical world – in sound.
Susan Philipsz’ sound installation ‘Air on a Broken String’ draws out the tension in Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’ by focusing on the iconography of the lute with a broken string. Three slow, rending notes played on a violin (one string removed) vibrate with a sound that goes directly to the nerves.
Cardiff and Miller’s ‘Conversation with Antonello’ is a comic sound and light show in a miniature theatre (a model of the architecture and landscape in the background of the painting) that takes up the whole of the room. The sound artists emphasize what goes on over 24 hours in the world outside St Jerome in his study. The ‘conversation’ with the artist Antonello da Messina is pretty bombastic (a neighing horse, crunching footsteps, loud knocks on the door, a male vocalist). As you exit, you see the small painting of St Jerome on the wall. A whacky interpretation of the exhibition idea. But you won’t forget the painting. The contrast with Susan Philipsz’
installation is striking – both paintings being Renaissance works filled with iconography.
Nico Muhly’s ‘Long Phrases for the Wilton Diptych’ creates a kind of sacred space as the viewers progress around this votive work (set in a vitrine to view both sides) to slow, repetitive riffs of sacred music, both contemporary and timeless, for a secular time.
Gabriel Yared’s ‘Les Grandes Baigneuses’ – a pastiche of a modernist piece of music from the same era (Debussy?) with soprano voice for Cezanne’s large bathers. Yared, I suppose, shapes the sound to imitate Cezanne’s almost abstract construction of rocks and female bathers. Not surprisingly Yared composes Oscar-winning film sound tracks.
Jamie xx’s ‘Ultramarine’ – the track for van Rysselberghe’s pointillist ‘Coastal Scene’ – seems like they saved the best for last. No one wanted to leave this room. The upbeat dance music, absolutely contemporary, coming out of different speakers, created a similar in-out effect to the painting with its play of white light across a deep blue sea. An amazing experience for the senses and the ultimate destination of the exhibition I imagine. The same music seemed to be the track of the short video advertising ‘Soundscapes’ on the NG site – a female head-shot moving in ecstasy against a deep blue background.
A bold and interesting experiment. A success if the exhibition does no more than encourage us all to slow down our viewing and to concentrate on fewer works at a time. The interchange between sound and image in these six paintings is difficult to analyze. They are among the most important works in the history of art. Susan Philipsz and Jamie xx are, for me, the most successful. Gabriel Yared’s piece seemed a bit too obvious.
In my work on Picasso’s writings (unclassifiable prose poems (340 of them) and two plays), sound is written into the works, as well as other aspects of performance. Picasso brought all the senses to bear in these written works. Picasso was very forward-looking in the 1930s. Decades later one play took the form of a Happening (thanks to Jean-Jacques Lebel) and the other had input from Carolee Schneemann in London (1970). A number of Picasso’s greatest paintings involve a scream. Now a whole new category has opened up as a way to think about art.