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See the painting, hear the sound

See the painting, hear the sound

Can a musician respond to a painter to help the viewer get more from a piece of art? This is the central question inherent in The National Gallery’s ‘Soundscapes’ exhibition, which presents six different music and sound installations where composers react in their own way to a chosen painting.

Nico Muhly
‘The Wilton Diptych’ (c1395-9) (top) and composer Nico Muhly (bottom), both courtesy of The National Gallery

“There’s a musicality to everything that’s constant,” says American contemporary classical composer, Nico Muhly, as he explains his long phrases for ‘The Wilton Diptych,’ an audible musing on an artwork designed as a portable altarpiece for the private devotion of Richard III. French film score composer, Gabriel Yared says of his piece ‘Les Grandes Baigneuses,’ which pertains to Cezanne’s ‘Bathers’, that “there’s this melting between individuals – you don’t see them properly. It’s just shapes […] an ensemble of things which melt together.” His musical response is to create a sense of “stillness is inhabited by movement at the same time” via a four-minute multi-channel sound installation.

Installation and sound artists Cardiff and Miller take things one step further with a 3D model that they say allows the viewer to step inside the painting. Here, a lonely singer’s voice surrounds the viewer alongside other sounds – for example, the noise of walking feet – imagined to have been going in inside the world of the painting.

Chris Watson
‘Lake Keitele’ (1905), by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (top) and composer Chris Watson (bottom), both courtesy of The National Gallery

Wildlife recorder, musician and composer Chris Watson adds a layer of sound to further the natural beauty of Finnish painter Gallen-Kallela’s ‘Lake Keitele’, while Susan Philipsz exposes the inherent tension between two ambassadors in Holbein’s ‘Jean de D’inteville and Georges de Selve’ via the medium of an inharmonious stringed note.

Last but hardly least, Jamie xx, who produces and writes for the world renowned band, xx, creates a remix for Belgian artist van Rysselberghe’s ‘Coastal Scene’. It’s a perfect match of painter and musician as Jamie’s layering of sound mirrors the dots and daubs through which the painting was developed.

Jamie xx
‘Coastal Scene’ (c1892) by Théo van Rysselberghe (top) and music producer Jamie xx (bottom), both courtesy of The National Gallery

Can sounds add another dimension to images? For this viewer, the answer is a resounding (pun intended) yes. What we’re left with, however, isn’t just one fused work of art but two entirely separate and complimentary ones, infinitely complex yet also beautifully simple. And very much worth checking out before it closes.

Soundscapes is on at National Gallery in London until 8 September.