Last summer the National Gallery presented an experimental exhibition, ‘Soundscapes’, with ‘six new music and sound installations in response to paintings from the collection’. For me, it was a fantastic opportunity to see how musicians and sound artists interpret pieces of artwork as sound. Additionally, it gave me the chance to see how my own research could benefit and develop from the exhibition.
Journeying through the exhibition ignited the senses. In a departure from the whitewashed galleries, the visitor entered into a darkened room with a spotlight on the painting and the sound installation issuing from precisely positioned speakers. This created an immersive and very personal experience with the combined art forms. The eye focused on the selected painting while the ear tuned into the surrounding sound piece. It was an entirely new experience of perception in which each artist responded to the complexities of the artwork through different sound uses. Each sound piece became a creation of the painting itself. The shared aural experience demanded the visitor to actively listen to their surroundings.
I am interested in the abstract way sound is used and understood in literary texts and saw ‘Soundscapes’ as an opportunity to help enhance the interdisciplinary conversation; where the use of sound is not just an additional feature but a primary medium. This exhibition broke away from the National Gallery’s usual approach, encouraging a longer meditation on both the sound and visual pieces.
A highlight was Gabriel Yared’s piece in response to Cézanne’s Bathers. His dreamy soundscape, which featured the clarinet (my instrument of choice), had a natural movement. Each speaker played a different instrument: clarinet, piano and cello. Gravitating towards each speaker individually encouraged a different experience of Bathers. The introduction of sound to these artists’ works experimented with different contexts. Jamie xx composed for Van Rysselberghe’s Coastal Scene using his piece to reflect the pointillism technique. By situating yourself at the back of the room the combined perception created an overall impression of both pieces. As you moved closer the brushstrokes and layers of the music became more fragmented and separately identified.
‘Soundscapes’ shone a spotlight on the use of sound as an art form in its own right, adding another dimension to well-known pieces of art. In exploring the idea that visitors have forgotten how to look, ‘Soundscapes’ was an opportunity to reignite interest in the resident paintings at the National Gallery. The exhibition pushed the visitor to enhance their connection with much loved pieces of artwork and to see sound as a companion in the visual experience. The residual effect of this exhibition is that it has aided the development of my own research narrative and changed the way I view static pieces of art by adding imagined soundscapes.
Review by Charlotte Rudman, a second year PhD student in the Department of English at King’s College London, researching sound and sound representations in medieval dream vision poetry. Follow @charrud