Six paintings. Six musicians. The National Gallery is currently holding an exhibition in which paintings are provided with musical scores or sound art, the result of a project in which six musicians were commissioned to create a piece of music in response to an artwork of their own choosing.
The result is not only an enhancement of the pleasure gained from these works of art, but an encouragement to spend more time in front of the canvas, studying every aspect in detail. It would be interesting to ascertain the average amount of time the typical gallery visitor spends in front of a piece of art, although I’m sure this would be an impractical and unreliable activity. Time does not equal pleasure, fulfilment or understanding after all. However, in Soundscapes, people were spending up to 30 minutes, sometimes longer, in front of one painting. The music drew them closer to the image, they moved around, revisited certain sections of the canvas and stood in silence.
Various museums and galleries have already experimented with music in their displays and I have often wondered why it doesn’t happen more often. When I look at a work of art, if i am not already listening to music, I imagine the sounds that might be heard and internally create my own music. For me, it’s a natural response but it adds to the pleasure I get when viewing a painting.
If I had to chose my favourite musical score / artwork from the exhibition, it would be Nico Muhly’s response to The Wilton Diptych (c. 1395–9). A spiritually serene work of art, coupled with an ethereal soundscape.