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'Soundscapes' at the National Gallery: meet the artists

Meet five of the new exhibition's contributors, including Jamie XX and Susan Philipsz

By Elizabeth Darke |
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Move over, Secret Cinema: painting’s about to get in on the immersive act as Jamie XX, Susan Philipsz and others soundtrack six of the National Gallery’s finest canvases at 'Soundscapes'. Giving us an insight into the new exhibition, the show's contributors talk about their work.

Jamie XX

Jamie XX
© Flavien Prioreau

The producer and DJ has chosen ‘Coastal Scene’ (1892) by Théo van Rysselberghe.

Are you a National Gallery fan?

‘Yeah, I first went on a trip when I was in primary school. I think we were studying the impressionists at the time, and that’s the bit that still interests me the most.’

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Did you know immediately which painting you wanted to work with?

‘I had it in my head that I would choose a pointillist painting because I feel like the same methods could be applied musically.’

What’s your favourite thing about the painting?

‘I like how abstract it gets the closer you get to it.’

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How have you interpreted that musically?

‘The idea is that the sonics of the piece change the closer you get to the painting. It’s made up of lots of different tracks that are spread over the room at different points and it becomes more abstract the closer you come to the painting.’

What have been the biggest challenges?

‘It’s been a bit of a challenge not to make something that’s really catchy, which is what I love to do, to make something that’s quite abstract at the same time as occasionally breaking into something that makes sense, that sounds like a piece of music. It’s hard to have the restraint to only allow that to happen a few times.’

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What do you hope people experience in your installation?

‘I hope they feel like the music matches not only the technique used to make the painting but also its mood, that it’s fully immersive.’

Susan Philipsz

Susan Philipsz

The Turner Prize-winning artist has chosen ‘The Ambassadors’ (1533) by Hans Holbein the Younger.
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Did you know immediately which painting you wanted to work with?

‘Yes, I knew straight away that I wanted to work with “The Ambassadors”. In Holbein’s painting there are a number of objects arranged between the subjects. The most affecting of these for me is the lute with a broken string. In art, a musical instrument with a missing or broken string is a commonly accepted symbol of discord and that is something that I found fascinating.’

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What form does your ‘Soundscape’ take?

‘I have removed one string from a violin and made a three-channel sound installation called “Air on a Broken String”. I asked a violinist to record herself dragging the bow across each of the remaining strings. Slow string tones emerge from three speakers installed in the room. The sounds merge and come apart again as shifting tones encircle the viewer. The sound creates a subtle tension in the room that is palpable but undefined.’

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How does it relate to the painting?

‘I think Holbein was trying to talk about the tension that existed between the church and state at that time. There is a reference to division and to Rome as well as allusions to mortality. At the time of the painting, the ambassadors are waiting and the sound also appears to be hovering in the space. There is a sense of foreboding, as if we are waiting for something to happen.’

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Has the project made you think differently about the work? ‘

'Yes, when I starting making the work I was focused on the instruments and the sheet music on the lower shelf. But when I heard the work in the space for the first time my attention began to drift to the upper shelf where there are many astronomical instruments and I began to think about the deeper sense of space that those astronomical instruments represent. Another more popular feature of the painting is the anthropomorphic skull, which can only be apprehended from a specific angle. Moving around the painting to see the skull, I was aware of how the sound is also shifting around the space and how they are both stretched and distorted in similar ways.’

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What do want people to experience in the space?

‘I hope that my work creates a sense of uneasiness in the space; that there is a tension that is suspended. I hope that the viewer feels that tension and becomes more aware of their own body in the space. I also hope they can relate that tension to the painting and begin to look at it in a different way.’

Nico Muhly

Nico Muhly

The classical music composer has chosen ‘The Wilton Diptych’ (1395-99)

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Why ‘The Wilton Diptych’?

‘It is one of my favourite things in the National Gallery, as well as in the world.  I have spent, over the years, many hours in front of it in quiet thought and then in slightly more hysterical tones showing it to friends. When the National Gallery presented the idea of this project to me, I knew instantly that it had to be ‘The Wilton Diptych’ — what else could it be?  I was drawn to this panel painting because of the contrasting energies it presents: the calm white hart just around the corner from the wild whoosh of angels’ wings and the flapping pennant.’

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What form does your ‘Soundscape’ take?

‘My piece is a surround-sound series of long, long drones — infinite in length and iteration. The drones are generated by my friend Liam Byrne, a London-based viola da gamba player.  On top of that, a series of small melodic cells unfold, and other instruments join: a drum, a tuned metal disc, a shimmer of something electronic.  The groups of material then rotate around the diptych very slowly, implying a ritualistic use for the object, which, itself, would have been used for a sort of private devotion.  The music is intimate but loud, which, I hope, reflects the nature of the diptych: personal, political, mythological, and ecstatic all at once.’

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How does the Soundscapes project differ from your day job?

‘In every way but also in no way.  It’s not my usual practice to convince people to move fourteenth-century panels into sonically isolated rooms and surround them with violas da gamba, however appealing such a life might sound. However, the ritualistic nature of the piece is something that pops up in my “normal” work, as well as, of course, the pleasure of working with my friend Liam, as well as the symbolic register operating from top-to-bottom: all of these are constant musical concerns of mine.’

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What have been the biggest challenges?

‘Talking about it is actually the biggest challenge, because it’s difficult to talk about visual art, it’s difficult to talk about music, and it’s difficult to explain how, in this case, the two are working in tandem – or perhaps in counterpoint to one another. It’s difficult to explain the difference between the decorative and the functional (how true this is in all aspects of one’s life), and it’s particularly tricky to articulate how one thing is “about” another without simply saying: haul yourself to the National Gallery and take a second to see and hear it.’

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What do you hope people experience in your installation?

‘My hope is that people will come away with a sense that the music has highlighted not just the beauty of “The Wilton Diptych” but of the potential to let such long music shine light on the details often overlooked by the quickness of the museum-goer’s passing glance.’

Gabriel Yared

Gabriel Yared

The Oscar-winning film composer has chosen ‘Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses)’ (c1894-1905) by Paul Cézanne.
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Did you know immediately which painting you wanted to work with?

‘Yes, I have known and admired “The Bathers” paintings for a very long time, so I had a strong desire to write a musical response.’

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What do you love about the work?

‘I love the composition of the painting. I like the apparent stillness, but with the movement hidden behind it. I like the shapes of the women’s faces, which have no personality and are anonymous. I love the blue and purple colours and chromaticism in the painting, just like you would find in music. All this made the painting speak to me immediately and musically.’

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What form does your ‘Soundscape’ take?

‘I have written this piece for piano, soprano solo, clarinet and cello. My musical response to this painting combines this apparent stillness with movement. It is light and melodic, and very feminine, but also with a hint of strangeness to it, reflecting the blurred faces and subtle abstract ideas and shapes within the painting. I hope it also gives an element of nostalgia for the listener, taking them back to around the time of Cézanne.’

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How does ‘Soundscapes’ differ from your day job? ‘

Usually, I start composing for film by reading scripts, talking with a director or going to the shoot, and this is similar to a still image that has not yet been brought to life. Creating a musical response is not different, but it allows me to be inspired in a different way by the still image, rather than having to relate my music directly to the film to come.’

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What do you hope people will take away from the experience?

‘I feel that a painting already has its own musicality, in the same way a piece of music has its own colours and painting inside. This painting is already a complete piece of work, therefore I’m not hoping my music will “add” to it. I think the real excitement will be for the visitor to experience a single composer’s point of view on a painting. Of course, we already have this in many composers’ works: Debussy wrote a lot of music inspired by paintings, and more recently Henri Dutilleux has based two of his major works on Vincent Van Gogh. There is no doubt that music and painting are intrinsically linked.’ 

Chris Watson

Chris Watson

The sound recordist has chosen ‘Lake Keitele’ (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela.
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Did you know immediately which painting you wanted to work with?

‘Totally. It’s one of my favourites. I love it. I live in Newcastle, but I usually come and see it when I can.’

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What do you love about it?

‘There’s just something about it. I’m a great fan of everything Nordic and Scandinavian, from television dramas to the wildlife and the landscape, so I feel a real affinity for those landscapes. Where I live in Northumberland is near Kielder Forest and Kielder Water, which is not dissimilar and almost on the same latitude as Lake Keitela, so it has very much the same wildlife that would have been around when the painting was made. I’ve tried to mirror that a lot while I was putting the piece together.’

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Were the sounds recorded at the lake?

‘No, if you look at it now it’s a real holiday destination – there’s speedboats, water skiing, handgliding. I bet it would be very disappointing. This is very much what I imagine you would have heard standing at the lakeside, because Gallen-Kallela visited the lake many times.’

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There’s a very haunting vocal. Where does that come from?

‘It’s not really a song. I’ve been recording a lot in Arctic Norway, particularly the Sami. Their ‘Yoiks’ are an attempt to communicate with one’s ancestors who the Sami believe live under the landscape, in the ground. They believe the echo that comes back off the mountainside isn’t an echo as we understand it, it’s the voice of your spirits and ancestors responding. I got the commission from this guy, Ande Somby, who performed this ‘Yoik’ by a mountainside lake, so that’s why I though it appropriate to use it in this piece.’

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How does the sound relate to the painting?

‘It’s just the echoes that I’ve used in the piece, not his direct voice, so it’s the sound that comes from the mountainside and across the lake in a very similar way to if you look out across the painting. The idea is that it fills the space. But then, of course, you have to be careful to strike a balance where you can hear it but it doesn’t become overwhelming. I’d much rather it be too quiet than too loud. We’ve got such power in these systems to just blast people with sound and it just destroys the work, my work anyway. I’ve learned form experience that you need to experience the sounds exactly as you would hear them in the real world and then, miraculously, our ears and brain make the connection, and everything falls into place.’

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Do the recording techniques you’ve used differ your day job?

‘Yes. That’s the reason I like doing installations so much above, because I can work with spatial sounds, surround sound, and for my work, with wildlife sounds, that’s the way we hear the world. It’s perfect, it transcends any broadcast medium in that sense. It works really well.’

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What do you hope people will experience?

Amazingly, there are around 3,000 paintings here and the average time somebody spends in front of any of them is four seconds. So, you’re looking for ways just to get people to hang around, to look at something for longer and engage with it in different ways.’

Janet Cardiff and George Miller

Janet Cardiff and George Miller

The artists have chosen 'St Jerome' by Antonello da Messina (about 1475)

Which painting have you selected and why?

‘St Jerome’ by Antonello da Messina. There were several reasons for us to choose Antonello’s beautiful painting. One was the sense of silence, space and contemplation that comes to you immediately when you look at the work. It allows you so much freedom to imagine intimate sounds within that space. The other reason was the architectural space of the painting. We were intrigued by the strangeness of the St Jerome character sitting in the ‘man cave’ in the middle of this large empty palazzo or monastery. It’s a very strange little painting.

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Did you know immediately which painting you wanted to work with?

No we changed our minds several times.

What form does your ‘soundscape’ take?

Our installation will be a surprise in that it's not only a soundscape but a very large installation with an architectural model and diorama. The sound element itself is a 9-minute collage that moves from possible imagined sounds in the landscape outside the ‘building’ where Saint Jerome sits, to sounds that might happen inside his space. Also, we had the idea that perhaps the man posing as St. Jerome is waiting for Antonello and starts wandering through the space singing, so we recorded a choral element as well. He sings a popular song of the day, 'Virgene Bella' by Dufay. We recorded an amazing counter tenor, Bernhard Landauer for this song.

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How does it relate to the painting?

The sound will be heard from surround sound speakers but also from small speakers inside the architectural model so it's almost a miniature stage set. The sound extends the time of the painting.

Have you discovered new things or started to think differently about your chosen work during the course of making your ‘soundscape’?

We’ve spent so many hours looking at the artwork (or the high res reproduction of it).

We’ve put the dimensions of the architectural structures into Google Sketchup and we have had to analyse the work very thoroughly. The process of looking and reproducing has made us think a lot about the connection of artists through time. We wanted to really get to know the architectural space that Antonello portrayed, even to trying to locate his point of view where he’d have to be sitting whilst painting. We were curious to go around the corner of the walls outside the painting’s frame, not just in our imagination but to see if we could recreate the actual building. So that’s why we built a 3D architectural model of the painting. A result of doing this is that our piece becomes a lot about the process of artistic exploration and about intensely studying a painting.

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How does the Soundscapes project differ from the work you usually make?

We’ve never made an artwork that has referenced another artist’s work like this.

What have been the biggest challenges?

Building a 3D model from a 2D image that uses linear perspective was very challenging, especially with having to line up everything like it should do from the artist’s point of view.

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What do you hope people will take away from the experience?

I think it will help people think about the composition and the construction of the elements in the painting. If people are able to line up their vision with one eye closed in front of our 3D architectural model and see Antonello’s point of view then they may feel closer to the painting and to Antonello as a painter.

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