Soundscapes at the National Gallery: How do we hear art?

Is it possible to hear art; to look at a painting and hear the textures and tones? Not just technical sounds but emotive qualities; can a painting evoke music from our curious gaze? The National Gallery in a newly commissioned exhibition, Soundscapes, has given six composes, musicians and sound artists the opportunity to explore a piece from their extensive collection through music. The result is a dizzying and exhilarating experience, where observer becomes dancer within paintings meeting sound installations.

Across six rooms within the lower level of the Sainsbury’s Wing of the National Gallery the art of sound and responsive art is explored with six paintings and their accompanying sound installations. From Contemporary Turner Prize winner Susan Philipsz (no stranger to sound responsive art – I saw/heard Part File Score in Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof last year) to contemporary composer Nico Muhly (remember his Two Boys debut opera with English National Opera in 2011?) and James xx (one third of The xx and DJ/producer wonder), the ecletic lineup is an intriguing provocation from curator Minna Moore Ed.

After a twenty minute video introducing the music-makers with their chosen National Gallery painting which is designed to give a greater context to the work (at times I found it a little too revealing) you can wander through sound proofed corridors into intimate black chambers where the chosen artworks reside. There is something interesting to note about the setup here; the paintings carry an intimate and magnifying quality within the darkened rooms. With gentle lighting against the blackness of the space the focus is pulled immediately to the artwork. The design of the exhibition makes us as spectators just as integral as the art on display; I constantly found myself watching how people interacted with the art within the subtle lighting state just as much as observing my own experience.

Philipsz’s Air on a Broken String for The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein heightens the strain between the encounter of state and religion depicted by the artist in his painting. Using a single violin (Leila Akhmetova) and three strings Philipsz installation is one that is incredibly stretched on the ear. You can feel the pull of the singular strings as they reverberate around the space. Holbein’s painting seems to shine within the space too, the sound heightening the brushstrokes and richness of colour. It is, quite simply, a profound experience but where Philipsz’s work shines my reaction to Chris Watsons’ Lake Keitele which only uses recorded nature sounds taken from around a lake was quite the opposite, dull even.

Conversation with Antonello is perhaps the most artistic in scale with Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller creating a full 3D model of the 1475 Saint Jerome in his Study by Antonello da Messina. Visitors are encouraged to rest their head on a small ridge to look through the model to see the piece in full. Interestingly the sound accompanying the work creates an environmental space for the work. To the ear there are people walking, sounds of animals, movement in rooms, perhaps some distant river sounds, Messina’s painting through Cardiff and Miller’s sound becomes swelled filling the entire room

The juxtaposition between the responses of the commission is what makes Soundscapes such an enjoyable exhibition. Muhly’s infinite sound to The Wilton Diptych takes the panelled artwork in four movements whilst Gabriel Yared’s installation for Paul Cezanne’s Bathers is a cinematic deconstruction of five instruments. It is within Jamie xx’s Ultramarine that the exhibition climaxes. Directional speakers create a disorienting space where the music producer has fragmented sounds to mimic the brushstrokes of Theo van Rysselberghe’s Coastal Scene. As you move through the space your focus on Rysselberghe’s painting comes and go, much like the focusing of a camera. Jamie xx’s space is so all-encompassing that I could have sworn I saw the painting rippling in time to the electronic beats and rhythms. Maybe it was the darkness of the rooms or the brush of a fellow visitor against my arm but Ultramarine is the standout piece within this bold and at times hypnotic exhibition.

Soundscapes feels less about asking the question of what does art sound like than asking its visitors to question how art moves them; emotively and physically. Placing each of the artworks within their own spaces, blacking out and giving soft lighting removes all distractions. Add the layer of music and the sound artist begins to create atmospheres and environments to experience the work. As the overly emotional fool that I am the music evokes an emotional response within me. Philipsz had me incredibly sad, Yared’s music overwhelmed me with joy whilst Jamie xx’s just made me want to dance, a lot. As an investigation into the combining of art with sound and music to create a totality you have to applaud The National Gallery. The diversity of responses makes for a rich and rewarding experience and I found myself lost for over an hour and even looping around the entire exhibition again to experience the work. It’s not often I do that.

Soundscapes is at The National Gallery until 6 September. Tickets and information can be found on The National Gallery website.