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What Hans Holbein sounds like

For its new show, the National Gallery in London has set art to music

Charlie McCann | July 8th 2015

There is more than meets the eye at a new exhibition at the National Gallery in London. Walk into any one of its six rooms and you’ll see a painting hanging on a wall. So far, so normal. But close your eyes and listen: there’s piano and viola, crickets and birds, the susurrus of a far-off wind. For “Soundscapes”, which opens today, seven people who work with sound – the composers Nico Muhly and Gabriel Yared, the artists Susan Philipsz, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, the wildlife-sound recordist Chris Watson and the DJ Jamie xx – each composed a response to a painting they had picked from the gallery’s permanent collection. These are played in the room with the corresponding picture. “Hear the painting,” the programme instructs. “See the sound.”

The most engaging is the installation by Susan Philipsz, who in 2010 became the first sound artist to win the Turner prize. As you walk into her room, the eye is immediately drawn to the painting, Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” (1533, detail above). This room, like the others, is shrouded in black. Aside from the title of the piece, there is no information on the walls to read and the only lights are the ones illuminating the canvas. People come close to inspect its intricately reproduced gadgets, to delight in the rich texture of the oriental carpet and the liquid pink of a silk sleeve. They back up to examine the foreground’s experiment in perspective, a warped skull that becomes proportional when viewed from the right. Holbein was an ocular magician – a show-off, in other words.

Philipsz is anything but. As you drink in the painting, you hear the tentative scrape of bow against string. One note scuttles past, then two, then three; they merge for one harmonious second, then warily pull away. At first, “Air on a Broken String” seems hesitant and plain, at odds with the splendour of “The Ambassadors”. But this restraint is well judged. It’s as if Philipsz has zoomed in on the painting, putting an aural magnifying glass up to the lute resting on a low table. One of its strings, as fine as a strand of hair, is broken – a symbol of discord. Is this a diplomatic stand-off between the two figures, the Bishop of Lavaur and the French ambassador to England? Are the secular and religious worlds fracturing? Distracted by Holbein’s magnificent artistry, this discordant note is easy to miss. With her strings, delicately tip-toeing around each other, Philipsz makes it palpable. She made me look at “The Ambassadors” in a way I might not have.

If the other responses never quite managed that, some made me look closer and stay longer. The Wilton Diptych (c.1395-1399), for instance, is a jewel of a piece – it’s hard to tear your gaze away from it. Its panels, which depict Richard II being presented to the Virgin and Child and a host of angels, are inlaid with gold leaf and decorated with vermilion and lapis lazuli. Nico Muhly’s piece, with viola, crystalline bells and a quiet electronic crackle, heightened its sense of occasion and mystery. “We don’t know what the sound of angels’ wings might be,” Muhly said, “but I would hope it’s electronic, like Aphex Twin.” I lingered in the celestial atmosphere – something which was out of the question in the room containing Théo van Rysselberghe’s “Coastal Scene” (1892). The percussive pitter-patter of Jamie xx’s techno-whirl attempts to evoke the myriad dots and dabs of van Rysselberghe’s pointillist scene. But its electronic blips seemed facile. I moved on.

Even so, “Soundscapes” is worth a visit just for those moments when the music draws the meaning out of a painting – when you hear a broken lute or an electronic flutter.

Soundscapes National Gallery, London, to September 6th

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