Report: Exploring ‘Soundscapes’ at the National Gallery

Audio met art at the recent Soundscapes exhibit in London’s National Gallery. Matt Fellows spoke to curator Minna Moore Ede to get the story behind this intriguing fusion of sight and sound…

A new kind of exhibition was held at the National Gallery in London this summer, combining 3D soundscapes with classic paintings to create immersive experiences.

As part of the ‘Soundscapes’ showcase, the institution commissioned musicians and sound artists to each select an artwork from its vast collection and create a fluid and interactive multi-layered audio track – to be played in the gallery together with the piece.

Curator of the exhibition, Minna Moore Ede, revealed how this kind of combination was a logical step for the gallery: “Sound and music have a long and intertwined history and it is easy to forget that so many of the paintings on display here were originally intended to be viewed in spaces full of sound and music,” she said.

“The intended effect is for the public to be able to experience the paintings, as well as look at them. Sound is a time-based medium that has the effect of guiding you in your looking around the paintings and it encourages the visitor to spend time with the paintings.”

Six sound artists were involved in the project – each selecting a portrait from the gallery and constructing a soundscape inspired by, and set to, that work.

“We invited a diverse group,” Moore Ede explained. “Two from the contemporary art world who use sound as their medium [Turner Prize-winner Susan Philipsz OBE and sound art duo Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller] and two from the classical music world [classical composer Nico Muhly and Oscar-winning film composer Gabriel Yared].

“Then we extended the reach,” she added, “by inviting a natural sound recordist [BAFTA award-winner Chris Watson] and at the other end of the spectrum, a young DJ and remix artist whose sound is very contemporary [Jamie xx].”

Disrupting the Norm

The created soundscapes are delivered in the gallery through speakers provided by B&W. Each artist was able to select the speakers they wanted, resulting in a “fantastically high” level of quality. And the immersive nature of the exhibit is not limited to simplistic methods of delivery: TiMax SoundHub matrix server systems were used to provide playback, scheduling, signal distribution, DSP and spatialisation across the exhibits.

”It varies in each room,” Moore Ede stated. “Susan Philipsz has only three channels/speakers, while Jamie xx has 16! In Gabriel Yared’s room he has speakers embedded within the walls and also arranged in the room, on the floor, at the height of the instruments they represent, which is wonderful because the sound changes according to where you stand.”

Watson (pictured, above), who has worked on TV epics such as The Life of Birds and Frozen Planet, discussed the methodology of his piece at a session held at the gallery. He recalled how he was driven with his chosen work, ‘Lake Keitele’ by Akseli Gallen-Kallela – an affecting depiction of a solitary island on a Finnish lake – to attempt to capture the environment in full 360°; a reproduction, he explained, of ‘the way we hear the world’.

With this firmly in mind, Watson’s exhibit features a four-channel speaker system to enable aural depth perception, enabling the listener to perceive ‘the relative distance between the source of the sound or image and the listening position’.

Watson attempted to capture ‘the sound of the view’ – the sounds Gallen-Kallela would have heard as he painted the piece. Watson could hear birds around him, even though he couldn’t see them. Placing microphones facing behind himself, he captured and created a 360° soundscape, which extended beyond the painting’s frame. This is then reproduced through the exhibit’s immersive audio setup, surrounding the viewer.

‘Like Marmite’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the exhibition, with its controversial combination of traditional visual art with a contemporary aural medium, has divided critical opinion; feedback has been ‘like marmite’, according to Moore Ede: “I think things often go in cycles – there is definitely a trend at the moment towards a more immersive type of viewing experience, whether by combining visual art with music or with other disciplines – dance, film and performance,” she said. “And perhaps that is what makes critics of this type of approach so outraged – they believe a collection like the National Gallery’s is sacred and should not be trespassed on – they like to keep their art forms in their distinct categories.”

But there have been plenty of positive responses, too. “It has been fascinating to see how much easier the younger generation have found the ‘experiential’ aspect to this exhibition,” Moore Ede concluded. “I think that there is a huge move to this across arts culture – many enjoy being surrounded by and immersed in an artistic experience. All of these exhibitions are ephemeral and it is always good to try something new, in my opinion.

Soundscapes ran at London’s National Gallery from 8 July to 6 September 2015.