The National Gallery is now offering art lovers the opportunity to listen to (yes, too) some famous paintings. For the new exhibit Soundscapes, six composers and sound artists were asked to create proper installations or music inspired by their favorite paintings from the collection of the gallery. Only the original art will be heard in their work. We are told that we will “see the sound” and “hear the picture.”

The National Gallery has a long history of combining its paintings with other forms of art. You can find some great examples on the Inspired by the Collection site. The addition of sound to the normally quiet presence of paintings is an innovation.

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, composer Jacopo Peri and librettist Ottavio Rinuccini 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 pools of colour light onto a monitor.

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 synchronised 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

The technology has enabled artists to combine image and music. It also allowed for the creation of pure sound art, where there were no musicians or images. Pierre Schaeffer was an engineer working at French Radio under Nazi occupation. He saw that sound recordings could be used to create a 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 a multi-arts approach to music, musique 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 visual, but also to eliminate the meanings behind 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 different relationships to the visual: concert hall, cinema club, 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. Soundscapes 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 distract our eyes. You could also look at a picture. That’s all. Look at it.