Soundscapes at the National Gallery

The National Gallery invites a group of composers to collaborate in creating a unique and innovative exhibition. Having chosen a painting each from the collection in the National Gallery, these composers have gone on to create six sound installations in response. At the start of the exhibition, the audience is able to watch a documentary the provides a fascinating insight to the process each composer went through on this project. Each composer is interviewed and followed right from their choosing of a painting, through the breakdown of their interpretation and reaction to the art, and finally their response through the medium of sound.

Chris Watson is the first composer guests experience as they enter. Having chosen Lake Keitale (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallel, Watson decided to visit the actual lake in Finland. He believes painters to be affected by the acoustics of their surrounding environment, that this influences the painting itself. This idea inspired Watson to capture recordings of the environment that provides the subject of the painting. In this way, as the viewer admires the painting they are able to listen to the ambience that Gallen-Kallela would have heard as he painted it. These sounds of nature add life and realism to the existing serenity of the beautiful painting.

An interesting and different approach to the project is seen with Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller‘s section. The pair chose Saint Jerome in his Study (1475) by Antonello da Messina as they were fascinated by the architectural structure, depth and perspective of the painting. In order to really get inside the head of the artist, Cardiff and Miller constructed a large 3D model of the painting, complete with a 3D background of outdoor nature scenery. The room in the exhibition contains both Antonello’s painting and the 3D model that the viewer is able to walk around (and experience from a chin rest that provides the perfect view that emulates the painting), whilst listening to the accompanying sound installation. Taking in the religious subject and the large, open, high-ceilinged hall, the voice of a solo opera singer can be heard singing a hymn-like melody, while echoing footsteps scurry about intermittently and ambient outdoor sounds of nature fill in the background. Cardiff and Miller successfully echo the perspective of the painting in their sound installation.

While composers Susan Philipsz and Nico Muhly equally share their responses to chosen paintings, the final two pieces of the collection are most prominent and effective of the collection. Firstly, composer Gabriel Yared chose to use the well-known painting Les Grandes Baigneuses (1900-1906) by Paul Cézanne. This beautiful post-impressionist painting has great style with uncomplicated human forms, brush strokes and a colour palette that are rich and evocative as well as a romantic composition. It is visually a very musical piece and therefore an exciting choice – exciting to see how Yared interprets it audibly.  His composition, performed on cello, clarinet, piano and a soprano singer contains different movements that address certain aspects of the painting. The mood throughout is romantic and fluid, the freeness of which reflects the openness and nudity of the female bathers. One movement that hears the soprano voice and light piano keys in the higher ocataves of a major key also impersonates their delicate femininity. In contrast, a minor section of the composition is comparative with the abstract style of the painting. The accidentals here reinforce the distortion of the figures.

The final room of the exhibition is host to Coastal Scene (1892) by Théo van Rysselberghe, chosen by electronic music producer, DJ and remix artist Jamie XX. Painted in a French pointillist style, this piece is made up of many layers of excess intricate daubs of pure, unmixed pigment. The painting has such a tangible, animated depth and texture that is revealed only as the audience changes their distance to it and angle of viewing. Jamie XX brilliantly reflects this feature in his composition, with layers of electronic sounds that are infinite and ever-changing. A constant beat comes through sounding almost like a heartbeat and as with the painting, the lighter notes and colours pop over the top of the deeper tones that altogether illustrate the pulsating water of the ocean. The music has a similar ebb and flow, a storm and then calm. A lot of time is needed to take in this impressive sound installation and painting to experience it fully.

Overall, the exhibition is an interesting and innovative project, bringing together two sensory mediums in collaboration to create a new experience.

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