FOR the National Gallery’s summer exhibition in the basement rooms of the Sainsbury Wing, Dr Minna Moore Ede has brought six contemporary musicians together to reflect on works in the permanent collection.
For the two months of this ex-hibition, visitors to Trafalgar Square will not be able to see famous works such as Hans Holbein’s 1533 The Ambassadors, or Paul Cézanne’s Les Grandes Baigneuses.
No doubt there will be yelps of annoyance; in previous years, I have joined my concern to them when it seemed that the Gallery was simply putting a cash barrier in front of works in public ownership to raise funds.
Here the ticket price has every justification, as it is an invitation to enter a sound-world of musicians as varied as Jamie Smith (aka Jamie xx); Nico Muhly, whose full-length opera Two Boys was one of the highlights of the 2011 ENO season; and the Turner Prizewinner Susan Philipsz.
Each musician has chosen a single painting on which to reflect. Chris Watson, who has worked for years with Sir David Attenborough on sound for his television programmes, has matched the quietly bleak Finnish view of Lake Keitele (1905, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela) with one of Europe’s longest-surviving musical traditions.
The rippling of waters on the silent lake are disturbed by the sound of yoik, the melodic call of the Sami people from the remote north of Sweden. By turn haunting and unsettling, this creates a field of imagination which somehow predates the world conjured up by Norse legends. The match is near perfect, and avoids (what I had feared most) simple grapheme-colour synaesthesia.
The installation and sound artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller conjure up the warm Mediterranean. They have built a 3D model of St Jerome’s study taken from Antonello da Messina’s 1475 picture of the biblical scholar seated at his desk as if in a theatrical set.
This is perhaps the most enjoyable of the displays in their darkened soundproof rooms, but also the most unsatisfactory. It is in part staged against a diorama. The viewer — and it requires patient queuing to look through the arch of the set as if through a peephole — hears a whole day unfold in the golden Tuscan landscape. Horses and people pass by, and a sudden rain shower comes and goes. The light fades and evening comes; all of this in nine minutes.
But of the scholar translator, and of his benign lion, we see nothing; they have been taken off the set, although the voice of Bernhard Landauer moves through the architectural model suggesting that this may be a momentary absence — “Gone Fishing”. Sadly, the crucifix is now missing from the top of Jerome’s study wall.
Muhly, who is currently working on a ballet score for the Paris Opera, has focused on the “Wilton Diptych”. Imagining it as a privately treasured tabernacle that Richard II might have travelled with at all times, rather as we might carry a favourite book or a teddy bear with us in our journey through life, he has used the work to establish the sense of place.
Giving primacy to the work of art, which sits in a carefully lit vitrine, shows the clever way in which Muhly weaves medieval sounds (a viola da gamba) seamlessly. There is no sense of pastiche in this (any more than there is with Philipsz’s “Air on a Broken String”), and the sound-world absorbs the four very different panels of the diptych. The luckless King’s white hart sits cross-legged while his master is presented before the heavenly throne of Mary by John the Baptist, St Edward the Confessor, and St Edmund.
Time has tarnished the King’s armorial crest beneath its ragged cap of maintenance as the gold background, once as bright as a field of mustard, still scintillates in the darkness. Muhly is thrilled that he has been given the life-size model of the shrine, which the NG staff have engineered for the display, and says he is tempted to take it with him wherever he goes.
Jamie xx is also working on a ballet, with Wayne McGregor, and for this exhibition has considered the Coastal Scene by Théo van Rysselberghe, which was bought by the NG in 2000. The style is that of pointillisme, in which, the closer we come to the painted surface, the less we see of its overall figurative shape. Similarly. the music diffuses and falls apart the nearer we approach.
The Lebanese writer of film scores Gabriel Yared takes three instruments and a solo voice (that of the soprano Cecile Tournesac) to enfold the French bathing beauties with the different sounds of cello and clarinet coming from different places, as he accompanies his short four-minute piece on piano.
Muhly, in conversation, suggested that Herbert Howells was possibly the greatest art critic of the 20th century, as he understood place so deeply. “Coll. Reg.”, as his 1944 setting of the morning canticles for King’s College Choir, Cambridge, is affectionately known, envisages no other place in its soundscape than their chapel; and the St Paul’s Service is a love song to Wren’s great dome. Each of these musicians has tried in his or her own way to inhabit the pictorial space. It is a brave and, at times, revealing attempt.
“Soundscapes” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC1, until 6 September. Phone 020 7747 2885.