Soundscapes - The Courtauld Institute of Art


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What sense is There in art?

Soundscapes, The National Gallery



What Sense is there in Art? group and research project began with a visit to an exhibition entitled Soundscapes at the National Gallery on 4th September 2015.

The curator, Dr Minna Moore Ede, commissioned seven artists and musicians to create audio compositions in response to chosen works from the collection.

The sounds were not experienced via headphones but heard in six sonically isolated gallery spaces.

Unless we leave the headphones of our audio devices in our ears when entering an art gallery, the experience of listening to recorded sound is still unusual. Some art museums invite DJs for late opening evening but the music they play stands rarely in a direct response to the art works in the galleries.

The simultaneous activity of looking at paintings and listening to mediated sounds is perhaps more familiar from a context of audio guides that describe and analyse paintings.

Because of the immersive environment of the exhibition galleries at Soundscapes, it was impossible to conduct a ‘conventional’ exhibition tour. This is why the group met before the exhibition and continued the discussion after experiencing it together.

This was an appropriate start to a series which aims to confuse and perhaps appeal to the senses of those who participate.

“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.”

Dr Kathleen Brunner

Soundscapes Reviews

Dr Kathleen Brunner

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.


Niccola Shearman

There were a couple of experiences that made a particular impression on me, so I will focus on these, briefly and as far as I remember. Both are to do with silence, in a way. This first struck me when looking at the Lake Keitele picture with the Chris Watson sound track: how even amdist the clarity of bird calls and the rush of wind in trees the overwhelming impression of wide-open space somehow made it seem that what we heard was just the intensification of quiet. Perhaps it sounded like solitude. And i remember also how the paths traced on the water by the wind seemed to intensify the more engaged one became with the sound of that wind.

In the case of the Saint Jerome painting, I think I agree with comments discussed afterwards about the whole 3-d model perhaps being unnecessary. Maybe the purpose it served was just to hold us in the room long enough to hear the full sequence of sounds. Anyway, these I found very well attuned to the spaces in the painting itself. While again this work seems to radiate a meditative silence centred on the figure of the saint, nonetheless the awareness of sounds of daily life coming from outside had the effect of opening up the space and locating it in a particular place and time. Still, however, I came away with the overwhelming sense of the solitary figure’s silent interior world.

I was not so affected by the other pieces as by these two, though all were thought-provoking; or rather, thoughts followed sensations, mostly meaningful for their own sake but sometimes hard to access in the presence of so many others.

Julia Secklehner

Soundscapes not only animated me to think about how I experience artworks differently when details are enhanced through particular sounds, but it also raised my awareness for the way people move in the gallery space. As there were only five rooms and a great crowd racing to see them, there were queues between the rooms, which had a positive effect: standing in darkness in between two different soundscapes was like a slow transition preparing you to shift attention from one artwork to the next, especially as there was no rush moving from one image to the next in order to be able to see everything.

As there were only five works, one in each room, the manner of curating alone allowed for greater attention being paid to each piece. Also, the darkness and singular lighting focus on the paintings drew you in. I think these features made the accompanying sounds particularly effective, because the way visitors behaved in the gallery was changed: moving in the room in front of the works, looking at them carefully from different angles, trying to make sense between sound an image.

The ‘soundscapes’ themselves within this setting changed my viewing experience in different ways, depending on the painting. In the first room, natural sounds that recreated the atmosphere depicted in the painting accompanied Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Lake Keitele, animating it through sound. The second room worked rather differently: composer Susan Philipsz’s high-pitched violin sounds focused on the tension between the two men in Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors with the detail of a broken violin string. As such, even spectators less familiar with the work were guided towards an understanding of it through the means of sound.

By comparison of these two images alone, it was fascinating to realize the different reactions to a work different soundscapes could provoke. It was a special viewing experience that highlighted the significance of sound to our perception of the world. Yet, Soundscapes was this effective largely because of the way it was curated: one painting in a darkened room, becoming the sole focus of attention. As such, it seemed like an experiment that would not be feasible on a bigger scale, which inevitably carries connotations of a one-time visitor attraction, focused more on the overall experience rather than the works. Having said this, the lasting impression of Soundscapes was thoroughly positive, on the one hand for the effect it had on visitor’s behavior in the gallery space, and, one the other hand, for experiencing first hand how different sounds can change one’s focus when looking at artworks.

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