The Sounding Images 2018 exhibition is running at the Barber Institute from 27 April to 17 June. You can stream the audio from soundcloud, pick up a map from the gallery, explore the artworks and listen to the compositions. Alternatively collect an MP3 player from the gallery or download the tracks here.
The first thing that struck me about ‘A Portrait of Bartolomeo Savona’ by André Derain was his use of colour. It stands out and contrasts the other paintings around it. I was immediately drawn to it.
Looking into the historical background of the piece, I was intrigued to find out that André Derain painted it in three 20-minute sittings, and gave it to Savona as a gift for acting as his translator while Derain was in London. Derain seems to have harboured great affection for Savona, and obviously considered him a close friend. When compared to an actual photograph of Savona, the painting is really quite difference, and as a result I think the painting more exemplifies Derain’s emotional connection to Savona, as opposed to acting as a physical snapshot of him.
With Henri Matisse, Derain was one of the forefathers of Fauvism, and this painting definitely exemplifies the ‘wild beast’ connotations which were associated with Fauvism. Like I said, it stands out; it’s brash, loud and unapologetic. I think this is really effective and it’s certainly a part of its appeal. Within my final composition I’ve explored lots of colourful sounds and sounds which move and sound exciting – there’s an example from the last section of my finished piece below!
Having now finished my composition, I can say that I have found the experience of writing a piece or programmatic music to be fulfilling and rewarding, and it’s definitely something which I feel I’ll want to undertake again in the future.
William James 4th year
The first time I visited the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Landscape in Corsica was placed next to a series of Post-impressionist landscapes. I must confess that in the beginning I did not pay much attention to it: this painting seemed to be unfinished, and therefore, it was completely eclipsed by its neighbours. My perception changed drastically once I learned that Henri Matisse was the author of this artwork: until that moment, I have always associated him with Fauvism, and this painting could not be classified as part of this movement.
As the title states, it was in Corsica where Matisse painted around 60 landscapes of the Mediterranean Island, just like Russell and van Gogh before him. In words of Matisse himself, it was during his stay in Corsica that “(…) he felt the first shock of what would become Fauvism”. Is in this context that he created Landscape in Corsica (1898), one of his early oil paintings. Even if this post-impressionist approach is not the most known facet of Matisse, in this piece it can be appreciated his strong fascination with the power of colour.
Post-impressionist artworks are characterized by a mixture of different developments derived from Impressionism: an almost scientific analysis of colour, a structured way to inspect the landscape, the use of expressive brushes and flat colours. All of these features are present in Landscape in Corsica. These qualities are the sustain of my personal approach to my composition.
Until now, I am trying to establish some analogies between the perception of colour (and more importantly, their combinations) with certain harmonies, based in the researches involving synesthetic experiences of colour and colour emotion published in the Handbook of Color Psychology (Cambridge University Press). The position, distribution and proportion of the different elements present in this painting is also fundamental: on one hand, I am making correlations between the visual stimuli and the perception of aural space; on the other hand, I created a timeline within the painting to help me to organise the different sections of my composition. I am also making associations between different types of brushes and specific kinds of timbre, working almost exclusively with the recordings of a guitar.
The Crucifixion by Odilon Redon is a diminutive yet extraordinarily striking painting. It is believed to have been painted in 1904, and is just one of a number of paintings that were produced by the artist during the early part of the twentieth century. The painting is based on a much earlier, and far more gruesome work by the German artist Matthias Grünewald.
The painting consists of just three images, the main central figure of Christ on the cross, then just visible on the left-hand side of the painting is the shadowy, grieving figure of Mary. Whilst on the right-hand side is the barely discernible, wraith-like figure of St John. No other figures or buildings were to be seen. The desolate and vividly coloured background is just an abstract layered patchwork of blurred red, orange, brown and yellow oil paint and pastel.
I was immediately struck when viewing the painting for the first time by the colours, and by the hugely strong emotional content that has been captured by the artist. A comment that I read whilst researching in the Barber Institute’s archives for the painting mentioned how ‘the Redon still glows in my mind’s eye’.
A piece of music that I have listened to a lot recently is Arvo Pärt’s minimalist composition ‘Passio’. This is a piece that was composed as a meditation on the text of St John that tells the story surrounding Christ’s trial and subsequent death. A piece very fitting for the painting that I have chosen to compose for.
My composition starts very quietly and sparsely, gradually building in layers of swirling vocalesque sounds. I love working with sound in a way that it imitates the human voice. My piece is very minimal, echoing the minimal character of the painting. I am also attempting to capture the emotion portrayed, though in a symbolic and meditative manner.
The Sounding Images 2017 exhibition is running at the Barber Institute from 27 April to 18 June. You can pick up an MP3 player and a map from the gallery, explore the artworks and listen to the compositions. Alternatively stream the audio here
If you would like to find out more about the works you can visit the composers’ pages here
A Pastoral Landscape – Claude Lorrain
As idyllic and peaceful as it first seems?
A Pastoral Landscape, painted by Claude Lorrain, is a beautiful work depicting the artist’s vision of utopia: rolling hills, idyllic scenery, and man living in harmony with nature. After studying the painting however, I was instead transfixed by the large, imposing castle featured on the right-hand side of the image, an aspect which is surprisingly rarely mentioned in many writings and interpretations of the work – including the artist’s. I was interested in this conflict of interpretations, and wanted to explore this idea in my composition. I thought the best way to do this would be by creating two diverse soundworlds to represent each interpretation of the work, then gradually intersperse and blend them to portray how they both coexist with each other in the painting. The castle, which I find imposing and authoritative to look at, is signified by dark, drone sounds produced from processed recordings of a gamelan gong and low vocal notes, an example of which can be heard here:
In contrast, the artist’s vision of the painting, an idyllic and tranquil scene, is depicted in a more literal sense, with field recordings being layered to create a soundscape of what the viewer might hear if they were stood inside the painting. An example of this soundscape can be listened to here, and to learn more about the recording process for obtaining these sounds, feel free to watch my vlog from last week!
My aim for the piece is to gradually combine these two soundworlds, not only creating tension in regards to the conflict of interpretations, but also to portray how I envision the castle slowly spreading its authority over the landscape. Here’s an example of how I’ve been exploring this:
I haven’t yet decided on an ending for my piece, but in the meantime, I intend to carry on merging these soundworlds in a similar manner and seeing where this takes me.
Vesuvius in Eruption – Joseph Wright of Derby
One of the most wonderful sights in nature…
Wright describes the volcanic eruption as ‘one of the most wonderful sights in nature’ and I am inclined to agree with him. I was instantly drawn into this painting by the grandeur of the volcano and the chaos surrounding it. However, as I spent more time with the painting, the contrast and serenity of the moon became more of a focus.
My composition is based upon memories of the eruption as Wright returned to England to produce the painting. As listeners we are taken on a journey through the serene landscape before witnessing (or hearing) the overwhelming chaos and beauty of the volcanic eruption and are finally left with a sonic representation the aftermath; a warped, distorted depiction of what was pure beauty at the beginning of the journey.
This week I have been focusing on this concept of distortion and warping the opening material to create my final section of music. As much of my first section is pitch-based, harmony has become an important device in my composition process and in my desire to create a more tense, dissonant soundworld. As inspiration for this I have looked towards one of my favourite composers: Alfred Schnittke. In particular, I have been listening to his Requiem as his setting of the “Recordare” text creates a harmonically dissonant yet hauntingly beautiful soundworld – not dissimilar to what I am trying to create in my own work. The final three statements of the word “Recordare” are particularly haunting. Schnittke uses an incredibly dissonant cluster of C#, D, D#, E but spreads the notes across the choir in a way which makes the harmony sound much less dissonant than expected just looking at the pitches. Here is a video where you can follow the score and explore the soundworld of Schnittke:
The Crucifixion – Odilon Redon
I have always harboured a deep interest in religious imagery and symbolism, specifically artistic depictions which illustrate the macabre and human elements of religious texts. In a mildly depressing vein I was not truly drawn into a painting in the Barber Gallery until I was presented with a symbolist interpretation of the torturous death known as crucifixion. Completed around 1904, Redon’s Crucifixion took inspiration from Grunewald’s depiction (1523) which was recognisable for its bloody realism (an overtly human vision of Christ) and bending crucifix. Redon retained the image of the cross bending from the metaphorical weight of the world’s sins but substituted the inherently grim visual aspects in favour of powerful and evocative colours. A choice which I initially viewed as an ethereal departure from the human depiction of Christ before reading over the curatorial files and discovering that Redon was representing the visceral pain and anguish through colour. Retaining the human elements from Grunewald’s work.
I was delighted to discover this as I often feel that the image of Christ on the cross is seen by many as a mere symbol of the faith, a piece of religious iconography or jewellery that whilst containing significant meaning, refrains from discussing the fact that this was a common form of punishment. An amalgamation of a death sentence and torture which involved impalement, broken dislocated limbs and suffocation. In my opinion, to truly understand the religious and non-religious significance of these depictions, one must confront the horrific reality of crucifixion in all its bloody realism.
I am attempting to demonstrate this within my piece, using recordings of percussion which gradually warp and distort into a homogenous wall of noise, signifying Christ’s death. To create an aesthetically pleasing piece based on this painting would not effectively convey the emotional power found within this work in my mind.
I have created certain sounds to reflect visual elements within the painting, such as the use of edited ratchet noises to represent the wood in the cross breaking and using panning and pitch in an attempt to construct an aural crucifix out of bowed cymbals. I will hopefully be able to record two voices, humming the chant Crux Fidelis to represent the fading figures of Mary and St John.
A Beach near Trouville – Eugene Boudin
Following my time researching in the Barber Institute, I have gained a greater understanding of both the piece and the context in which it was painted. The transformation Trouville took between 1850 and 1870, due to the construction of railways as well as the publicity gained through writers and artists such as Monet and Boudin himself, is now something I want to focus on sonically.
I aim to create two contrasting worlds, one highlighting the natural beauty of the beach, the other focusing on the changing aesthetic of Trouville. These two worlds will be juxtaposed firstly through harsh jump cuts, and will eventually mould into one.
The lone fisherwoman is an important aspect of the piece. Boudin previously relied on figures to create movement and interest in his paintings, but here, combined with the vast sky, and the unusually large canvas, the lone fisherwoman reinforces the solitary nature of the coast. I have therefore been thinking about her journey and how I could represent that in my piece. I’ve decided to record a simple looping melody on the viol that will develop over time.
I have also been thinking about the overall aesthetic I would like to create. The following piece by Jónsi and Alex illustrates the use of subtly changing loops, something I would like to utilise in my piece, as well as an overall feeling of ebbing and flowing, an obvious property of the sea.
Primrose Hill – Winter.
Eye-catching, no? Sounding Images contributor Dicko seemed to think so, read his blog here.
I was instantly drawn to the paining’s shear size and abstract nature in its gallery context; the immediate neighbours are painted in a more classical style (find out more about one of the neighbours here)
During my research on this painting, I discovered that Auerbach painted Primrose Hill, the famous London park, at different times of day in different seasons. I have included some of the other painting’s as well as working sketches below.
In the first linked post above, the conflict between natural landscape and cityscape is discussed. With Primrose Hill being the primary subject of the works, the city is always in the background. This will carry over in my composition as my ‘city’ field recordings will be ever present in the background – listen to one those field recordings:
This recording has the sound of busy London, but also birds and trees too.
The winter edition is very dark and gloomy – research collected from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts suggest the painting indicates dawn, not dusk as commonly suggested. From top to bottom, the painting starts light with yellows and greens, perhaps the sun breaking through the cities skyline. As we head to the southern hemisphere of the painting it becomes denser and denser. This is consistent in the working sketches too, and with the use of panning, volume and working with space and perspective, I aim to recreate this effect in my composition.
With my own ‘working sketches’ – I have tried to start thinking about how I will recreate this.