The Soundscapes Exhibition – How Paintings Remind Us of Food

A couple of weeks ago, together with another Saucy Dressings researcher, I visited the National Gallery’s latest exhibition, Soundscapes.

A multisensory approach

The exhibition is based on a fascinating concept – the idea that the two senses of seeing and hearing can intertwine to achieve an enhanced effect for both. Following the idea through, and bearing in mind the experiences I’d had at the synaesthesia evening conceived of by chef Jozef Youssef, I didn’t see why it wouldn’t be possible to extend the approach to all five senses. (See NOTE at the bottom of this post).

There’s a definite connection between what this exhibition is aiming to achieve and synaesthesia (‘stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leading to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.’) The National Gallery has asked six musicians to each choose a painting from its collection and compose a soundtrack for it thus creating an ‘immersive’ experience in which visitors ‘hear’ the painting and ‘see’ the sound.

Was it effective?

The obvious question for the food writer then is could that combined sensory experience evoke tastes, scents, and textures too?

We approached the exercise with a sense of doubt. Unfortunately the exhibition has had mixed reviews and the idea of a real mingling of the senses is still commonly viewed as being a bit flighty, or worse – Jonathan Jones in The Guardian, for example, describes it is ‘painfully pretentious’.

Only slightly less damning is Rachel Cambell-Johnston’s assessment (The Times) that “the sonic accompaniment merely limits perceptions” providing an “interpretive straitjacket”.

It turned out not to be our experience at all… In fact, I began to wonder whether a refusal to experiment with this new approach might not itself be ‘painfully pretentious’. After all what is ballet and dance if not a fusion of sound and vision? Does Jones object to those also? Perhaps it’s the critics’ minds that are in the straitjackets?

It’s true that not all the soundtracks worked as well as others – and this was an individual assessment – some soundtracks working better or worse for one of us than the other. But in fact, rather than acting as a straitjacket, our shared experience was that the music offered additional avenues by which to read the painting. We lingered longer, thought more deeply. And our additional self-imposed debate regarding the other three senses evoked by the art and music only augmented the process.

Each painting is hung in its own separate space, reached through a sound-isolating corridor.

No 1 painting is Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Lake Keitele

I thought of sitting on a bench, watching, with a flask of hot coffee beside me.

A gorgeous northern scene of peace and tranquillity. The accompanying sound was created by Chris Watson, a specialist wildlife recorder who has worked with David Attenborough, so you contemplate the painting to the sounds of the forest and the call of the ravens.

What did it call to mind in terms of food and drink? For me it was a flask of hot coffee with which to enjoy the cool solitude – the combination of the dark lake with its snow capped mountains beyond, and the sporadic bird twitters and chirps definitely gave the feeling of being outside, of a drop in temperature. My co-researcher also picked up on the birdsong – she thought of game birds – duck or grouse. But she also internalised the northern feel of the painting (Lake Keitele is in Finland) and thought of woodland fruits – rowan berries. It sounded delicious and it inspired me to create Braised Duck Breasts with Rowanberries and Ginger.

No 2 is Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’

We thought of roast beef and oysters.

This is a complex, full-to-bursting painting of the French ambassador and his bishop friend at the court of Henry VIII. The political tension of the time is evident in most of symbolic items depicted in particular in the cleverly drafted scull (not immediately apparent when viewed head-on, but clearly seen from the side) and in the lute with the broken string. The sound specialist Susan Philpsz understandably latched onto this and produced a disharmonious, three-stringed violin accompaniment.

Neither of us felt this did this extraordinarily rich painting justice. Our taste thoughts related to the abundance, indulgence and lushness we saw – in my case I thought cold roast beef (cold because neither the ambassador, nor his pal looked too friendly) while my co-researcher thought of oysters.

No 3 painting is Antonello da Messina’s Saint Jerome in his study

The distant, dislocated sounds help convey how wrapped up St Jerome is in his intellectual thoughts

Here the sound specialists had really gone to town and recreated in impressive detail a 3D model of the building containing the study and the surrounding countryside. Visitors could walk around the model and look out through windows and arches from different points of view. The supplied sounds were of dogs barking, distant running echoing footsteps, horses, someone singing … all very clearly from a reality entirely separate from the Dalmatian scholar’s ivory tower. Silence (as in the first painting) was as important as noise.

I found this soundtrack really supported the image of St Jerome, coddled within his own thoughts, but wasn’t inspired by any food or drink ideas. My co-researcher however was struck by the silence, the echoes, the monastic simplicity of the architecture, and the exterior scenes of peasants working the fields. She thought of minestrone – a clear Italian soup with fresh, chopped vegetables.

No 4 is the wonderful Wilton Diptych

We both thought of venison…..

This is an exquisite and sophisticated work deserving of a gorgeous harmony which evokes the spirit of the age in which it was painted – the end of the fourteenth century. Something sublimely uplifting by Hildegarde of Bingen would have done it for me even though I know she’s a couple of centuries too early. The front of the three panels (see featured image at the top of the post) depicts the young King Richard II (to whom it belonged) being presented to the Virgin and Child. It’s a riot of the deep, bright blue only attainable from crushed and precious lapis lazuli, blanketed  gold, and the light feathery froth of the angels’ wings. The detail throughout is exquisite, but I was especially drawn to a tiny clump of mushrooms in the flower-pricked grass.

So in terms of food I first thought of a frothed cappuccino soup of enokitake mushrooms or maybe Velvet Pioppini. My co-researcher however was taken by the repetition of wings, profiles, and other themes in the panels, as well as the sheer richness of all the colour… she thought complex…rich… indulgent… layered, and somewhat paradoxically considering the subject matter came up with …. devil’s food cake!

No 5 is Les Grande Baigneuses by Paul Cézanne

All those round shapes…. I thought of plums.

Gabriel Yared, the Lebanese composer supplying the music for this painting comments that Cézanne “is inventing sounds through colours”. He uses a viola which mirrors the velvety depth of the painting well, and there’s a ‘globule’ rhythm which echoes the bobbing, bubble-like heads of the swimmers, but both us researchers thought the emotion of happiness communicated by the painting did not come out in the melancholy tone of the music.

The billowing forms of the clouds and the full, rounded bottoms and breasts of the women brought plums to my mind at least whilst my co-researcher though slow… bubbles…individuals melting into one another…. cheese fondue!

No 6 is a Coastal Scene by Théo van Rysselberghe

Brings to mind, for some people, a squid salad with nasturtiums

We agreed that the final painting was the most effectively accompanied from a sound point of view even though we both completely missed the genius of it. The technique employed by the artist is pointillism, pure pigment is applied, unmixed, in countless dots and daubs. It’s only when you stand back that the subject of the painting becomes apparent. Jamie xx is a creator of modern dance music (he’s also remixed music for Radiohead and Florence and the Machine) and the electronic spiky, staccato music supports the pointillist technique perfectly. What we didn’t realise was that, as the catalogue explains:

“When you stand furthest away from the painting, you will hear the music as it’s intended to sound, just as the painting’s brushwork appears to give it a unified form. As you move closer, the music diffuses and breaks up in the same way that van Rysselberghe’s dots dissipate and dissolve.”

What did the combined painting and music conjure up in terms of food? I thought visually of ‘chopped things’, egg… black garlic… or ‘culinary dots’, caviar or cranberries. In terms of touch I thought of the prickly sensation you get from amchoor or Sichuan pepper…  or The Salt House’s electric Oshima Island Ara Shio Dry salt…. perhaps popping candy, and then I mentally relived the delight of chomping on a raspberry and the fruity explosions of the individual drupelets in my mouth. In spite of the almost perfectly appropriate music, my co-researcher was more affected by the complementary colours of the painting – she saw the juxtaposed ultramarine and orange and thought of a squid salad with nasturtiums.

My congratulations to Dr Minna Moore Ede, the curator of this exhibition. It’s radical and courageous…and she’s pulled it off.

For more information go to the Soundscapes page on the National Gallery’s website, and look at the video clip below. Better still, visit the exhibition with an open mind, ensuring that you see the briefing film first. It’s only on until 6 September 2015.

For a recipe for duck with rowan berries, follow this link.

NOTE: It turned out that I was (unusually) prescient on this point. Shortly afterwards Tate Britain put on Sensorium, where in addition to the visual artworks and accompanying sound there were also the senses of taste and smell evoked as well. No explanations are given for the four paintings, each in their own room, and visitors are given wristbands which measure heartrate, to enable them to become aware of an emotional response. Francis Bacon’s Figure In A Landscape is displayed as you savour salted chocolate while a sort of horsey scent drifts across the room. This time some critics embraced the concept, whilst others remained closed to it.

Soundscapes exhibition teaser – at The National Gallery

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