Six musicians or ‘sound artists’ were given their choice of any of the thousands of paintings in London’s National Gallery. They all chose their favourite and began to compose.
The final product lies in a warren of black sound-proof rooms in the basement of the museum’s Sainsbury Wing, just off Trafalgar Square.
Susan Philipsz, a Scottish artist based in Berlin, chose ‘The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger.’ It’s a rich, sumptuous painting of two ambassadors wearing fur at the court of Henry VII. The picture was painted in 1533, a tense time as the powerful English king sought to break with the Catholic Church.
A lute lies in the middle of the picture with a broken string, and the sound installation created by Philipsz – Air on a Broken String – picks up on that.
The sound was made by a violin with only three strings. It’s discordant and tense with the notes from each string emerging from a separate, dedicated speaker.
‘’I wanted to create an uneasiness and a tension within the space and I think it’s palpable and defined,” Philipsz, told me as we looked at the large painting.
“There’s this constant shifting and hovering of the sound. It’s a feeling I was after. Sound is very visceral.”
The London DJ and electronic music producer Jamie XX chose a calm, cool painting of light blues and greys by the Belgian artist Theo van Rysselberghe.
From a distance Coastal Scene is a unified form, but as one nears the canvas the tiny dots and daubs that form the pointillist style are clear. The music does the same – as one moves further into the space the music diffuses.
The US composer Nico Muhly chose ‘The Wilton Diptych,’ two wooden panels painted on both sides with plenty of gold.
It’s a portable altarpiece made in the 14th century for the English King Richard II, who brought it along to various churches and chapels where he prayed.
Muhly loves the painting’s details: the saint’s pointed red shoe, the tiny circle of mushrooms, the white hearts on the angels’ lapels.
He wrote the 35-minute piece for a viola da gamba (an older version of a cello), an organ and the bells and drums which he plays.
‘”I am trying to create an atmosphere to look at the details of this piece,” he tells me.
“So it’s an atmosphere – the agitation of the right-hand panel with the angels’ wings is present, but also there’s this drone of a simplicity of a devotional object which this was.”
Soundscapes is curated by Minna Moore Ede, who hopes the show will give museum visitors a new experience of looking at pictures and appreciating them.
‘”People don’t stop for long enough to enjoy paintings. They find it hard to sit still,” Moore Ede explained. “It’s amazing the sound and the music – they force you to feel something.”
The show runs until September 6.