In a culture dominated by the looked-at (and especially the looked-at-on-a-tiny-screen), this represents something of a coup for the often neglected art of the heard. If you think that combining sound and sight in art is something new, think again. Multimedia art forms date back to ancient Greece.
Ancient Greek Multimedia
The fusion of sound and images might appear to be a new phenomenon, but it has a very long history. In 1598, Jacopo Rinuccini and composer Jacopo Peri created a new art form inspired by the fusion of arts in ancient Greek theater. The two combined musical and theatrical practices to make Dafne a performance that is widely regarded as the first real opera.
Pictures at an Exhibition by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky were inspired by the retrospective of paintings by Viktor Hartman that was exhibited soon after Viktor Hartman’s untimely demise in 1873. Wagner, Mussorgsky’s contemporary, was obsessed with the idea of combining all art forms into his operas. Wagner, like Peri before his time, was inspired by ancient Greek multimedia tragedies written by Aeschylus. Scriabin then went one step further and included a “colour-organ” in his orchestral piece Prometheus, 1910. Scriabin’s organ did not produce sound but instead projected colored pools onto a screen.
Prometheus, a 2010 performance.
When a guitarist accompanied their first public screening of a film in 1895, the Lumiere brothers invented film music almost unconsciously. In the mid-1920s, sound recordings were synchronized with moving images, and cinema music was transformed from an improvised accompaniment into a part of the art of film.
The constant development of technology today has made this once unimaginable inter-arts fusion a norm. From film and television music to rock and pop videos to computer games, most of our music has visuals. Is it inevitable, in this fusion, that sound will become a mere background, as the Lumiere guitarist was?
No sight of you
Technology has enabled artists to combine images and music. It also allowed for the creation of pure sound art, where there were no musicians or pictures. Pierre Schaeffer was an engineer working at French Radio under Nazi occupation. He saw that sound recordings could be used to create new art.
Schaeffer was the first to use recorded sounds as art objects and not only as radio effects. He coined “music concrete” and created the first example – Etude aux chemins de fer – in 1948.
Etude aux chemins de fer.
Instead of embracing an integrated approach to music, music concrete distanced itself from visual art and the real world. Schaeffer’s use of sound recording and loudspeakers was not only to create a form of art where there is no visible but also to eliminate the meaning of sounds. He hoped that by listening to sounds and not thinking about the source of them, he could reveal details in sound that are usually obscured by sight or meaning. What is that sound; is it a songbird? Is that a plane or a bird? It’s not a plane. Pure and simple. Pure, simple, beautiful, subtle, and scintillating sounds created for the pure joy of sound. It’s almost like music.
Opportunity and Challenge
The National Gallery carefully selected forms of sound that are in very different environments and have other relationships to the visual: concert hall, cinema club, and gallery. The National Gallery has invited a wide range of artists to contribute, including Oscar-winning soundtrack composer Gabriel Yared and DJ and producer Jamie xx. Soundscape is an inventory of all the different ways we experience artistic sound in our digital age.
The exhibition promises to broaden the audience of sound and painting art and give us new experiences in both. This exhibition may encourage artists to listen more and musicians to pay more attention. It may also reflect a growing unwillingness to listen or look in the midst of today’s all-around culture. We may be losing the ability, or even the patience, to listen to music without anything to keep us entertained. You could also look at a picture. That’s all. Look at it.