Interview | National Gallery’s Soundscapes curator

Celine Vignes, CORD London.

Hear the paintings. See the sound.

The National Gallery houses one of the greatest collections of classical paintings in the world. The institution has recently commissioned leading musicians and sound artists to create an immersive experience called Soundscapes, that encourages visitors to “hear the paintings and see the sound. We had a discussion with the exhibition’s curator Minna Moore Ede about the project that she initiated. We wanted to know more about the ideas behind Soundscapes, the role of music in a museum, and how music can interact with art.

soundscape curator national gallery cord interview

Could you please explain your role at the National Gallery, and how you initiated the Soundscape project ?

I have worked for the National Gallery for about fourteen years. My background is actually in Renaissance painting, but I have developed a passion for the way living artists from every artistic disciplines respond and interact with the National Gallery’s extraordinary collection. Although I’ve worked on a number of Renaissance exhibitions – Leonardi Da Vinci, Raphael for instance – I curated in 2010 a big collaborative project with the Royal Ballet in which we invited living artists to participate. So this project is in many ways built on this experience on working with contemporary artists from the sound and music world.

What are the affinities between Music and Art ? 

Music and paintings have a long and very intertwined history. I was interested to read recently that new research on the earliest cave paintings suggests we were never meant to look at these very early drawings of buffalos and animals alone. In fact, they were probably illuminated by firelight which would have encouraged the sense of movement, and they were probably also animated by sound effects. So even some of the very earliest examples of visual arts that we know about were seen with sound for a fully immersive effect. And of course 95% of all the religious paintings in the National Gallery’s collections were originally intended for churches and sacred spaces, where they would always have been heard with sound. So, connection between art and music has always existed.




It is the first initiative of this kind for the National Gallery. What was at the origin of this project ?

Sound is now a very important part of the contemporary art world, where a number of successful sound artists are involved. However, it’s very new to the National Gallery because we tend to be a quite conservative institution, focused on visual art and exhibitions only.


” The goal was to open up

the National Gallery’s paintings

and offer the public a different experience

from what we traditionally present.”


So rather than a traditional art historical presentation, this was intended to be the kind of exhibition where you can have an experience with the painting. We wanted to encourage people to spend some time with the paintings. And it was also of course an opportunity to hear new commissions from six leading musicians and sound artists, that they have created especially for the project.

How did you select the artists ?

We went for diversity. Because the National Gallery is not a contemporary art gallery, we didn’t feel right having all the sound artists coming from the contemporary art world. That is the kind of show that you would expect to see at MOMA in New York for example. So we decided to invite two sound artists (who are contemporary artists) working with sound, and two classical composers. Then we tried to extend the spectrum at both ends, by opening the show with a natural sound recordist, and closing the show with the most urban sound – the young, very imaginative British DJ Jamie XX. It was intended to be a diverse group, but what they have in common is a shared interest in visual sources. They all have shown an interest of working with paintings.


Jamie xx soundscapes

British electronic music composer Jamie XX, composed Ultramarine in response to Théo van Rysselberghe’s Coastal Scene

What was your original music brief ?

We gave them a very open brief, which was to choose a painting within three ranges of the National Gallery’s collection – which I think was a wonderful treat for all of them! They all came in at night time without the public present, and made their choice of  painting to interpret in terms of music and sound. The only thing I’ve asked them is for them not to feature earphones in their final interpretation. I wanted each room to be a shared experience for the visiting public.

I acted as an intermediary between the paintings and the artists. I talked with them individually about the paintings. We discussed the art historical presentation of those paintings, we talked about what was particularly key about it.

soundscapes cezanne national gallery

Paul Cézanne, Bathers © The National Gallery, London

How would you envisage the future in terms of music at the National Gallery ?

Music is a time-based medium. It has really encouraged and helped people to spend time with the paintings. It is something that so many people have commented on, have left messages and sent emails about that. It was one of the aims of the exhibition: people are often overwhelmed because they feel they don’t understand these paintings. They feel they still need to know something to get it.


” Music acts like a guide

in the way people look at the paintings. “


So for me, what would be wonderful is to have the odd musical intervention in the main gallery of the National Gallery. One of the other things that I would absolutely love to see happen is for the National Gallery to have a composer in residence. I think it could be absolutely glorious (but at the moment there are no plans to do this). I just think that all living artists – if they are artists of quality – can come to any discipline and there is such richness to be gained from looking through their eyes. For me it has been the case with all the artists involved in Soundscapes. What’s fascinating is how differently they have all responded to the paintings; it has highlighted something important for our visitors who come to view – and for me that’s tremendously worthwhile.


Many thanks to Minna Moore Ede, Curator of Soundscapes exhibition.


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