‘An Interpretive Landscape’ – Oliver Smith

This composition was inspired by 17th century artist Claude Lorrain’s painting, A Pastoral Landscape. To listen to the piece, click the Soundcloud link above, and to locate the work in the Barber Institute gallery, consult the map provided below.


Programme Notes

I was initially drawn to A Pastoral Landscape because of its beauty – the picturesque scene in the foreground, with man and nature living in harmony, is complemented by the distant hills over the river and the warmly coloured sky above. After studying the painting further, however, I found the castle and cliff on the right-hand side of the canvas casts an ominous presence over the work, overshadowing the scenic image with its commanding and authoritative character. My composition, An Interpretive Landscape, aims to sonically represent these contrasting interpretations, placing the dark, sinister, castle in conflict with Lorrain’s Utopian vision. In doing this, I hope to challenge the viewer’s experience of the work, and encourage them to see the painting in an alternative light.

Detailed Compositional Process

I was immediately struck by the idyllic beauty and serenity of this painting upon seeing it in the gallery. As I discovered from archival research, Lorrain’s works are repeatedly celebrated due to the artist’s ability to create such stunning landscapes, masterfully handling colour and composition to produce remarkable representations of his Utopian vision. In this particular painting, however, a large, imposing castle is featured on the right-hand side of the image, sitting atop a cliff which is shrouded in dense foliage. This imposing sensation is amplified when experiencing the painting in person; the 1 x 1.3 metre canvas towers over the viewer, and I found it difficult to draw my gaze away from the authoritative castle. After reading about the artist’s vision for the painting and many art critics’ interpretations of the work, I found that this aspect is rarely mentioned, which I thought was unusual given the huge impact it had on my experience of the piece. I was interested in this conflict of interpretations, and decided it was something I wanted to explore and focus on in my composition. I thought the best way to do this would be by creating two diverse sound worlds 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 to be a remarkably dramatic and commanding structure, is signified by dark drone sounds produced from processed recordings of a Gamelan gong and low vocal notes. This timbre accurately represents the feelings I experience when studying the castle; the way the structure towers over the landscape exhibits notions of superiority and political control, especially when compared to the simpler lifestyle of the shepherds in the pasture below.

In contrast, the artist’s vision of the painting, an idyllic and tranquil scene, is depicted in my composition 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. Sounds used include a chorus of birdsong, a river, and an old brass bell to represent the movement of the cows in the foreground. Throughout the piece, these sounds become increasingly processed, often at points giving off darker sensations to display the threat the castle poses to this pure, natural scene.

As the piece progresses, these two soundworlds are interspersed and combined, creating tension which represents the struggle between the two interpretations of the artwork. To contrast with the existing material, a warm, almost hopeful tone emerges in the final minute, with the aim of representing the beautifully colourful sky in the background of the painting – a feature which is often remarked upon by viewers of the work.

Click here to hear examples of each of these three ideas.

As the artist’s vision is more often focused on, I felt it was right to end the piece with the sound material which depicts this interpretation. However, some of the processed material is also prevalent in this ending, to show how, despite the artist’s vision prevailing, the effects of the castle on the landscape are still audible.


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