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LIVE REPORT: Soundscapes
Suzie McCracken , July 27th, 2015 10:28

Suzie McCracken reports on the recent series of painting soundtracks commissioned by the National Gallery

Photo by Ken Aldard

Soundscapes – an exhibition where contemporary musicians and artists compose a piece to be played in situ with a painting from the National Gallery's collection – is one of two current pushes by the institution to be somewhat intentionally contrary. Frames In Focus curates a room full of empty picture frames, while the lower portion of the Sainsbury Wing is devoted to disrupting the number one quality of all paintings (i.e, bloody silence).

You may have guessed already that I entered this exhibition with one eyebrow firmly settled above its normal resting place. I am suspicious of the National Gallery sticking Jamie xx's name on a poster in some lame attempt to fulfill any social debt to the youth, while their staff are still striking due to the threat of privatisation. This general suspicion is only heightened when I am asked, upon entrance into the exhibition, to watch a twenty minute film about each of the musicians and their processes in creating the music.

The short films are okay – Nico Muhly is earnest with flashes of cheekiness when he describes his chosen piece, 'The Wilton Diptych', as "a single image replicated with subtle differences.... I think that describes most music."

Gabriel Yared is hilariously French, Susan Phillipsz beautifully tactile in her linguistic imagery, Cardiff and Miller are childishly excited about the project and Chris Watson is intrepid and equipment-laden. Then Jamie xx gets exhibition curator Minna Moore Ede to talk for him – discussing how the young producer tried to mimic the process of pointillists for his composition. She says she thinks it's a very similar process: that of the pointillist compared to how a "remix artist" works. I openly laugh in the screening room.

Perhaps that's a good summary of the whole exhibition: some great insights into the temperaments of the commissioned musicians and artists, vague insights into the paintings, and a lot of painfully tenuous attempts to be contemporary.

But no matter how cringe-inducing much of Soundscapes is, the placing of these six works in sound-proofed, well-lit, black rooms, is incredible. Seeing these stand-out paintings of the National Gallery's collection isolated like this, whether with or without the soundtrack provided, is quite an overwhelming experience. I'd pay considerable money to see every work in the National Gallery displayed in dark rooms, on rotation.

Because it's so beautifully staged, my eyebrow unhinges itself for a moment. And then, when I'm vulnerable, the musical pieces come in, colouring my viewing of the paintings and my emotional responses to them.

Susan Phillipsz' work is the most valuable attempt. She talks in the film about wanting to ensure you can hear the violinist as much as the violin in her minimal, discordant soundtrack to Holbein's The Ambassadors. It gives this painting, that has been so caricatured and academised, a true sadness. The size of the portrait helps, as does the fact that this room is most akin to a church of any of the six. It's quite amazing that her music – which should be the ultimate means by which to colour the meaning of a painting – does the opposite. It strips The Ambassadors of all the school-time symbolist lessons I've received about it, finally leaving me to see it fresh.

At the opposite end of the scale, I find Chris Watson's work that accompanies Akseli Gallen-Kallela's Lake Keitele too obvious. He explains that he tried to imagine the sounds sneaking around behind the pictured island, and the guttural screams are a surprising addition to what I expected to be a naturalistic sound recording. It's obviously highly-considered, but for me it does nothing. I think this painting wants to take off and explore spaces beyond the feasible, natural world, while Watson's work grounds it in an undeniably exotic, but still earthly space.

Similarly I'm not easy with Gabriel Yared's accompaniment to Cezanne's Les Grandes Baigneuses. It's unsurprisingly cinematic with a squeaky clean timbre: his use of the soprano is too obvious, too utopian. His piece feels the most emotionally manipulative of all, and I fail to hear the knowing wink that others have identified in his score.

I demand more discordance, which is afforded by Nico Muhly's accompaniment to 'The Wilton Diptych' – it consists of viola da gamba layered in an infinite loop. It's certainly the most beautiful piece of music in the exhibition, and therefore I find the devotional a distraction from my preferred piece of art in the room. I would like to hear its Reich-esque repetitiveness in a concert hall.

The most different room comes courtesy of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, who not only created a sound piece but also an installation that explodes the painting 'Saint Jerome In His Study' by Antonello da Messina through the use of a 3D model. You're invited to pop your chin on a platform that allows you to gaze around the building in which Saint Jerome is sitting from the painting's perspective, but also to walk around it and peer at the detailed dioramas in the distance. It's very cool, but the audio is boringly pastoral.

Finally, Jamie xx's room. I love 'Coastal Scene' by Theo van Rysselberghe. And although I've been told Jamie xx's piece is designed to mimic dots of pure pigment, in the end I'm just reminded of his album that I listened to the day before. I quite fancy a dance, which is probably telling of how little the music synced with the painting.

It's all very confusing. I'm glad someone at the National Gallery is trying to be less than a hundred years old, and yet cautious of how self-aware the exhibition is. I never want to see paintings displayed in this way again, but it's an experience nonetheless. It's good to see the National Gallery commissioning people from varying disciplines, but I also can't shirk the feeling that they are attempting to throw the net as wide as possible to draw as many differing kinds of culturally-aware potential donors through the doors. The only time I forget all these things? When I'm in front of The Ambassadors, moments away from lying prostrate on the ground, being orally hugged by Phillipsz's recording.