Slapdash Soundscapes

The National Gallery’s Soundscapes received a thorough beating from critics when it opened. Always keen on championing an underdog, I went along buoyed up on the hope that I would experience a revelatory experiment in synaesthesia. Unfortunately, the critics were proved right.

The Wilton Diptych, unknown artist, c. 1395-9, Egg on oak © National Gallery, London

The Wilton Diptych, unkown.. National Gallery, London

Soundscapes opens with a short(ish) film of interviews from the composers (expect for Jamie XX who is evidently deemed it beneath himself to give one). As they talked I began to feel more and more dubious about the enterprise – the film felt like an exercise in soothing artist’s egos, as they rabbited on about their “vision” before you had a chance to judge it for yourself. I can appreciate what the curators were trying to do: it’s interesting to know about the composers’ motivations and thought processes, but it was totally counterproductive to producing an instinctive and purely sensory reaction to the exhibits that such a show warranted. Furthermore for myself, and although this sounds draconian, I felt it revealed how misguided some of the composer’s interpretations of their chosen paintings were, for example, Nico Muhly’s contradictory notion that the Wilton Diptych is both complex and simple, and his interpretation of it as “obsessive” merely because it has repetitive forms, which to my mind represents rhythm and pattern; it only after the third or fourth time that he had also described himself as “obsessive” before I realised that he had just stamped his own agenda onto one of the National Gallery’s most loved and precious art works. The Creative Directors statement that “Soundscapes is just a really fun challenge to a musician” gave me further reason to think, as I finally entered the actual exhibition, that is was at best ill-conceived.

lake keitlele

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Lake Keitele, 1905, Oil on canvas © National Gallery, London

coastal scene

Theo van Rysselberghe, Coastal Scene, c. 1892, Oil on canvas © National Gallery, London

The first room contained Chris Watson’s Lake soundtrack to Lake Keitele. An expert wildlife recorder who has worked with David Attenborough, Watson’s indubitable talents were wasted here on an exceptionally unimaginative work of sounds you would here in the actual scene of the painting: birds, twigs, cracking, bears in the distance….great from an educational perspective for kids but not exactly intriguing. The entrance door which groaned loudly every time a new person entered did nothing to improve my temper in this first taste. I was thus pleasantly surprised by the next room, Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors accompanied by Susan Philipsz’s “Air on a broken G String” (this would in fact turn out to be the only worthwhile composition in the whole lot). With lingering discordant notes, she created the tension, the edgy atmosphere, which underlies the painting itself, and the foreboding represented by the famous warped skull shape at the bottom. The disharmony put me in mind of something teetering over a precipice, of barely kept tempers about to snap, an experience marred only by the gallery assistant loudly chatting to another visitor, who obviously felt that he could illuminate the painting better than the soundscape.


Antonello da Messina, Saint Jerome in his Study, cc. 1475, Oil on lime © National Gallery, London


Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, Oil on oak. © National Gallery, London

Another knowledgeable (and audible) gallery assistant was educating the visitors in the next room by sounds artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, who had built a 3D architectural model of Antonello da Messina’s tiny St Jerome in his Study, which despite being the most interesting (and most prominent) thing in the room, felt oddly like cheating for a sound commission. The poor painting itself has been relegated to a darkened side of the wall by the room exit as though secondary to the project, and, much like Watson’s, the soundscape gives us exactly what we could already imagine – a voice singing some kind of religious choral tune to represent devotion, birdsong (that most clichéd and overused of sound effects), and inexplicably, a hammer knocking (there is no visible hammer or workman in the painting). Moving on, I felt that nothing could be worse than this, but unfortunately the next room contained the offending soundscape to the Wilton Diptych, which I had been dreading ever since the video. For me, the overriding narrative of this painting is the joyful part of Christ’s story – solemn celebration, the birth of a human, that most beautiful of all things, and here amplified by the miraculous nature of his conception. The soundtrack of a viola gamba from a similar historical period as the painting (how original) playing single notes with no melody,  was almost dull, meaningless, and aroused no emotion in me whatsoever. It bore no relation to the painting and in some ways was even worse than the literalist interpretations we received earlier.

The two most famous names were saved for last. Oscar-winning film composer had written a chocolate box score for Cezanne’s sumptuous nude Bathers, and was the first piece to at least be musical and relatively melodious on the ears, but it hardly seemed like a good fit for the painting: the piano, the vocal, and other instruments sounded so solemn in a minor key, which I found unbefitting for a pastoral scene of voluptuous nude women bathed in dappled sunlight. The fragility of the female voice doesn’t reflect the buxom ladies, the evident delight with which Cezanne described their soft voluptuous naked forms with his thickly loaded paintbrush. Jamie XX had a more interesting approach to his chosen work, the pointillist Coastal Scene by Theo van Rysselberghe, the music imitating the artistic technique which created the painting. The bubbling techno was certainly the most dynamic composition of the group, but it still failed to meet with the painting in my mind, going from warm and soothing to suddenly foreboding.


Paul Cézanne, Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses), c. 1894-1905, Oil on canvas © National Gallery, Lonon

What I found most interesting about this exhibition were the problems of interpretation and individual responses to art which is reflected. Was this ever going to work, given that everyone sees, hears and thinks differently? Is it possible to create any kind of a unified response to a work of art? Furthermore, in an exhibition of sound, the physical execution of the space – sound proof rooms, guards on silent feet, is absolutely indispensable, and yet the exhibition fails even on this most basic level. Logistically and organisationally it’s totally slapdash – squeaking doors, being able to hear Jamie XX in Gabriel Yared’s room, irreverent gallery assistants – and I found out after I had visited that a friend who had visited had been directed to watch the film after seeing the exhibition! She heard the soundscapes unencumbered by expectation, but said she would have preferred to see it beforehand because she had no idea what any of it was about – which I think underscores the ultimate failure of the show.

The best that can be said for this show is that you got to see some treasures from the collection in isolation, which was an interesting way to see them, allowing you to meditate solely upon them without visual distraction. It certainly wasn’t worth paying a tenner for the privilege though.

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