Live: Soundscapes @ The National Gallery, London, 02/09/2015

Théo van Rysselberghe - Coastal Scene (c. 1982), © The National Gallery, London

Truth be told, I was worried about Soundscapes. My mind kept flitting back to one memory in particular: explaining my interest in sound art to my gran back in 2011. I remember her sitting silently in thought for a second, before replying: “so is that where you push a button next to a painting and a sound comes out?”

This encapsulates the fact that, for so many people, sound is a subservient medium. Sound cannot exist independently in the world of art; either it must be used to prop up a visual centrepiece, or the sound itself must be supported by a visual accompaniment in order to be granted entry into the world of art. I was concerned that Soundscapes, by tasking six musicians/sound artists with creating an audio accompaniment to a painting from the gallery’s collection, would preserve sound in a state of subordination in the eyes (ears, rather) of the general public. The feeble strapline of “Hear the painting, see the sound” didn’t do anything to diffuse this.

Thankfully, the relationship between sound and image was presented as symbiotic rather than subservient. In the exhibition’s 20-minute introductory film, each artist outlined their approach for putting their piece together. The implicit thread running through the whole film was the sound can do things of which the still image is incapable. The spatiality of sound can haul the painting into three dimensions, which can then be coupled with sound’s durational nature to instigate movement, teasing out the picture’s narrative implications without squashing out the potential for interpretative ambiguity.

Chris Watson / Akseli Gallen-Kallela – Lake Keitele

AKSELI GALLEN-KALLELA - LAKE KEITELE (1905), © THE NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON

AKSELI GALLEN-KALLELA – LAKE KEITELE (1905), © THE NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON

Only two of the artists chose to envisage the actual soundscape of the scene itself. Chris Watson’s depiction of Lake Keitele overlays the rich, open birdsong of the lake itself – fluttering, liberated – upon the rasping cries of the inhabitants of the distant forest (birds whose cries come in serrated bleats, winds that scrape against wood and leaves). The sound renders the picture immersive, granting it a spatial depth. Equally, the picture seems to inspire a “flattening” of the soundscape, with the din of the distance just as audible as the sounds of the foreground, compressing the listening experience into the sonic equivalent of a two-dimensional picture.

Susan Philipsz / Hans Holbein – Air On A Broken String / The Ambassadors

HANS HOLBEIN THE YOUNGER - THE AMBASSADORS (1533), © THE NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON

HANS HOLBEIN THE YOUNGER – THE AMBASSADORS (1533), © THE NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON

The Ambassadors is a quietly uncomfortable image. Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to England, stands beside Georges de Selve, bishop of Lavaur. Between them rests a shelving unit containing a celestial globe, a portable sundial and several books. There’s a lute with a broken string, shadowing the image with the aftermath of angst and vigour. De Selve clutches his robe anxiously. In Phillipsz’s accompaniment, violin notes linger and collide in dignified, understated dissonance; conflict tucked beneath the falsehood of societal formality. As I listen to the music creeping at such a deliberate pace, my eyes deceptively see bulges and movements within the painting as I readjust focus to examine each figure in turn. The picture becomes precarious, a tightrope walk – dignity maintained for as long as the present parties can tolerate. Through Phillipsz’s music, I hear the accumulation of tension over duration.

Janet Cardiff + George Bures Miller / Antonello da Messina – Saint Jerome in his Study

ANTONELLO DA MESSINA - SAINT JEROME IN HIS STUDY (c. 1475), © THE NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON

ANTONELLO DA MESSINA – SAINT JEROME IN HIS STUDY (c. 1475), © THE NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON

I hear a loud rap against a wooden door. It seems urgent, irritated. Of course, within the painting, Saint Jerome does not react to this. He sits obliviously in his study, immersed in his work. Perhaps this event occurred five minutes prior to the immortalisation of the scene in paint. Perhaps it hasn’t even happened yet. I listen to Cardiff and Miller’s evocation of the sounds that would have surrounded Jerome as he worked. I walk around their three-dimensional model of the scene itself, which extrapolates hidden secrets from within da Messina’s work to architect an entire landscape around the painting. Within these two creations, the picture becomes a mere slither of time and space. The three axes of image, sound and space converge and a certain reality floats into view. Like a complete shape cast on the back wall from three separate silhouettes, illusionary and whole. Several characters within the painting (the peacock, the lion) do not appear in the three-dimensional model. Have they since vacated? The room lights dim, while the emerging sounds of hostile thunder and insect life tell me that it is night time. Is Jerome still studying?

Nico Muhly / ? – The Wilton Diptych

ENGLISH OR FRENCH (?) - THE WILTON DIPTYCH (c. 1935 - 1939), © THE NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON

ENGLISH OR FRENCH (?) – THE WILTON DIPTYCH (c. 1935 – 1939), © THE NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON

In a sense, the spatiality of the music mimics the spatiality of my sensory interaction with the diptych, with four panels around which I must navigate to ingest the work as a whole. Thematically, the panels largely seem disparate and unconnected. Muhly’s work turns this into a discordance, as though the images are uncomfortable with their own proximity to one another – the slow unfurling of strings comes punctuated with sudden spasms of dissonance, like someone jolting at unexpected human contact (a brushed arm, a wayward hair swiping against a cheek). In the introduction, Muhly talks about how his piece evokes the fixation on minute details. Two drones, a fifth interval apart, hold the music together in tense concentration, like two eyes narrowing on a molecular detail within the painting. The sounds circulate and zig-zag, mimicking the angles of clothing and feathers, or the sombre slopes of facial expressions. If I listen hard enough, hidden tones unveil themselves just like the camouflaged intricacies of the images – the gold paint upon gold surface, concealing the outlines of lions and jewelled crowns.

Gabriel Yared / Paul Cézanne – Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses) 

PAUL CÉZANNE - BATHERS (LES GRANDES BAIGNEUSES) (c. 1894 - 1905), © THE NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON

PAUL CÉZANNE – BATHERS (LES GRANDES BAIGNEUSES) (c. 1894 – 1905), © THE NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON

A quartet. The piano and soprano voice slope like the curves of the naked women, descending in elegant swoops of spinal glissando and rounded arpeggio. There is a tonal ambiguity to Yared’s piece that flits between inquisition and distress; voice and string press into eachother with both romantic intent and sly hostility, as the faces of the women stare out blankly, smudged and emotionally unclear. Sound and image rotate and change hue within my mind, as fluid as the brush strokes that run the length of each body. Is this a scene of serenity or brewing alarm?

Jamie XX / Théo van Rysselberghe – Coastal Scene

THÉO VAN RYSEELBERGHE - COASTAL SCENE (c. 1892),  © THE NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON

THÉO VAN RYSEELBERGHE – COASTAL SCENE (c. 1892), © THE NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON

This is the most overtly synaesthesic work of the exhibition. Unlike the 360 sonic immersion of the other pieces, the sound and image of Coastal Scene project themselves from the front of the room. I walk toward them. Just as the coastline collapses into tiny particles of paint – dynamic and alive, like marbles dropped upon a table top – Jamie XX’s sound reveals itself as a throbbing, bouncing amassment of molecules, arranged in melodic loops that etch angles and indents through persistent repetition. The painting has a cool, arctic temperature within its colour palette, and similarly, the sound cascades like crisp snowflakes. Each tiny morsel of texture is beautiful and present in its own right, and I as I stride ever further toward image and sound, this fact only acquires greater and greater clarity.