The Soundscapes Exhibition at the National Gallery, London
8th July – 6th September 2015
I think that the Soundscapes exhibition at the National Gallery, London was what every art exhibition should be. There were only six paintings, but all of your senses were engaged and we left feeling enriched in mind, body and soul. What I loved about the exhibition was that it was one of the first times I've seen an audience sit, lie or stand before a work for more than the few seconds it takes to take a photograph or read the blurb. People were spending ten, even fifteen or twenty minutes just immersing themselves in each piece, experiencing it on so many different levels. Standing in the darkness, vulnerable and open to experience, we were able to pause and allow ourselves to be moved. It was pure escapism.
In technical terms, the musicians and sound artists utilised natural sounds, classical compositions and electronic music to respond to the paintings they had selected individually from the gallery's permanent collection. Despite being sound artists by profession, their shared interest in visual experience was captured by the sensitivity of their responses to the subject matter. The exhibition began with a beautifully shot film about the production of each sound installation and a series of interviews which illustrated why the sound artists were drawn to each of the works. To watch them speak candidly about their own process of discovery only served to intensify the experience. Rather than fiddling around with leaflets and headsets, the film was a simple way get us comfortable with what we would be exposed to.
Spoilt for choice, I will just choose a few of the works to highlight. The wildlife recordist Chris Watson, known for his work on David Attenborough’s films opened the exhibition with his interpretation of Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Lake Keitele, 2015. Using the distinctive ‘yoki’ of a native Sami, he played with the natural phenomenon ‘Vainamoinen’s wake’ from Finnish folklore, whereby the water’s surface is cut by the wind. As a great lover of folk culture and self-confessed Scandiphile, the breath was near knocked out of me as I felt transported to the edge of the lake. I can only describe it as being almost hypnotic standing before the painting, experiencing the melodic call of the Sami.
The other work, which particularly moved me was Nico Muhly’s interpretation of Long Phrases for the Wilton Diptych, which seemed somewhat archaic in comparison to his edgy, monochrome attire. However I soon discovered that I had wrongly stereotyped him and that rather than being a pseudo-hipster DJ, he was a classical composer of the highest regard.
The New York-based classical and rock composer has not only had his opera premiered at the English National Opera in 2011, but has composed music for Conrad Shawcross’s ballet. His musical response to the diptych was a circular piece of music, which led you across its surface as if taking you by the hand. It guided you across Richard’s coat of arms, before swirling around the Virgin and Child and touching upon the fairy circle of mushrooms.
Finally, there was no escaping Jamie xx’s electronic response to the Belgian artist Theo van Rysselbeghe’s Ultramarine. The DJ and remix artist is known for his band The xx, but has also worked with Radiohead, Florence and the Machine amongst others. I've always loved his music, because it's heady and atmospheric, a true form of escapism.
Though, illustrating the diversity of his talent, he's also working on a ballet with the choreographer Wayne McGregor at present. In the exhibition, he emulated the way pointillism’s brushwork appears to be a unified form as you move closer. As challenging as it may seem, his diffused music forced us to move around the room, changing positions to experience the art from alternative viewpoints.
Sadly I caught the exhibition on its last day, but I wanted to write about it, because I really think that it’s the beginning of something profound. There is no doubt that the interplay between art and music will continue to develop as we seek to cross the boundaries of art and engage our senses on a deeper level. In fact, i’ve already heard murmurs of fine art galleries commissioning composers to respond to their works in anticipation of art fairs like Frieze or Art Basel.
Written by Flora Alexandra Ogilvy, founder of Arteviste.com