Soundscapes at The National Gallery

When I was a child I used to put on my headphones, press play on my Walkman, and draw the song I was listening to. I have always been fascinated by the blurring of the senses and how clues from each build up our perception of events. The entire world is synesthetic in this sense.

Soundscapes is an incredible exhibition. It is small in sizebut vast in emotion. Six music artists have composed soundtracks to paintings from the The National Gallery, interpreting the image, process and experience in powerful and diverse ways.

Chris Watson is a wildlife sound recordist, and his soundscape in response to Lake Keitele by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1905) is an atmospheric immersion into the scene. The breeze of the water, the rush of the shores and the quivering trees absorb the listener, and the unstructured approach means that sounds cannot be pre-empted. Just like in the wild, the call of a bird or bark of a dog cannot be scheduled in. The highest praise of all is to say that ‘it’s as if you are there.’

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Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s piece Conversation with Antonello, based on Antonello da Messina’s 1475 painting of Saint Jerome in his Study, takes a similar approach in that the sounds are those you may hear if you were to inhabit the painting. What is striking is the lengths they went through and demonstrate to come to this place. Installation artists, they have recreated the architecture and outdoor space in the painting as a large 3D model, and encourage visitors to imagine walking through the painting, the installation, the setting, and the sounds of people working, footsteps running, horses passing, thundery skies and chanting monks evoke a very real setting, animating the image that lies before us. In the introductory video to the exhibition they explain that their approach was one of exploration, seeking to answer the question as to what you would see if you walked through Jerome’s study, through the monastery, and out into the hills. They succeed.

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Nico Muhly’s grand string response to The Wilton Diptych is more classical in approach, elegant and structured. He describes it as a ‘slow look at all four panels’ and there certainly is a graceful deliberateness to the music. Whilst Muhly’s piece is specific, Gabriel Yared’s string and piano response to Paul Cezanne’s Bathers (1900-1906) is more fluid, the looping and shifting music being fluid and changing. Each speaker plinth in the room represents a different instrument – cello, clarinet, piano and vocals – as the viewer moves between them the intensity changes and the experience of the sound alters. There is a link between the figures in the painting, but they are all individuals, and the same can be said of the solo instruments that combined make a liquescent whole.

In Air on a Broken String, Susan Philipsz evokes the straining tension in The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein’s 1533 painting of Henry VIII and the Bishop of Lavour. By removing one string from the violin a sense of subtle discord is created. Standing in front of the painting even the cloth becomes visceral, the globe rich, and the air thick with emotion. The sense of tension is not defined, but is certainly substantial.

Unlike the other pieces in the exhibition which imagine the sound of the events in the painting, Jamie xx has depicted the process. Entering the room labelled Ultramarine, the name of the sound installation that he produced inspired by Theo van Rysselberghe’s Coastal Scene (1982) the viewer is greeted with a whole. An image of a lake side and a piece of music evocative of that. Moving closer towards the painting, this whole becomes fractured, individual beats and sounds becoming distinct – just like the dots which make up this pointillist image. Directional speakers mean that the experience changes as individuals move around the room, encouraging a different perspective. Multiple sources make up the one whole, and this creation of cohesion from disparate pieces is something that Jamie xx is celebrated for.

The exhibition has received praise from the critics, and I’m surprised. It was a vibrant, emotional and profound experience that raises questions of perspective, interpretation and experience.

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