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Sunday, 12 July 2015

Grappling with the differences between what we hear and what we see

It is interesting to compare the response to Soundscapes at the National Gallery with reviews of the Richter/Pärt collaboration at the Manchester international festival.

Laura Cumming thinks that, in Soundscapes, 'sound ... is working against art' and Jonathan Jones says that 'great paintings do not need the emotional prompt of music and sounds to make them come alive' but, by contrast, Stephen Pritchard thinks that Richter's paintings 'don’t truly come into their own until you hear Pärt’s response to them.'

Cumming writes: 'Soundscapes is the worst idea the National Gallery has come up with in almost 200 years. It is feeble, pusillanimous, apologetic and, even in its resolute wrong-headedness, lacks all ambition. Invite a sound artist to compose a work in response to a masterpiece from the collection and you might expect something original, given all the precedents in music alone, from Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition to Philip Glass’s piano portrait of Chuck Close. But instead this show feels more like the ambient soundtrack on a pair of National Trust headphones ...

Anyone can (many people do) walk around the National Gallery listening to their own private music. I can imagine how it might focus the mind or block out the buzz of other lives. But paintings create their own soundscapes, which may arrive in the form of wordless thoughts.

Sound here is working against art. Instead of seducing people into staying longer with a painting, concentrating harder, noticing more, it is limiting our free response by filling the gallery with sounds that one has to make an effort to ignore. And this does no favours to the living or the dead.'

By contrast Pritchard writes that Richter's paintings 'are wonderful creations; the deeply subtle Double Grey reflecting the streaked reds, greys, greens and blues of the Birkenau set. And yet they don’t truly come into their own until you hear Pärt’s response to them.

His piece, entitled Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fatima, is sung at intervals throughout the day. On preview afternoon last week there was no warning of its start; the singers of the Estonian choir Vox Clamantis mingled with the crowd and simply sang where they stood – an electrifying moment. It’s vintage Pärt; at first it could be a gentle, lilting folk-song as old as time but it unfolds into a multi-layered, densely harmonised acclamation of alleluia, which both triumphs over the horrors of Birkenau and bestows a profound nobility on the victims of that terrible place.'

Why is one art/music collaboration perceived to succeed when another does not? Adrian Searle suggests that the difference lies in the grappling, which goes on in the Richter/Pärt collaboration, between the differences between what we hear and what we see, what we are told and what we experience with our senses, what is mediated and what hits us directly':

'Pärt’s singers repeat the same song, seven times in succession. Every time it sounds different. Richter’s four grey diptychs, hanging opposite the Birkenau panels, play a further formal game of similarity and difference (the paint hidden from us on the reverse of glass sheets). The grey, paired panels are alike one another, but no two greys are the same, though each pair of panels has one lighter, one darker sheet. Comparisons between the different pairs are difficult to make, and shift according to where we stand, the ambient lighting and time of day. They are filled with murky reflections. Similarly, listening to Pärt’s music, we sense differences in the rendition, even though exact comparisons are difficult.'


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