Hear the Painting; See the Music

Ever wondered what a Van Gogh sounds like? Wouldn’t it be different from a Vermeer? What about a Picasso? Or a Raphael? When I wrote my bestselling art-historical novel, Oil and Marble, I certainly wondered what masterpieces sounded like to the artists who created them.

A new exhibition at the The National Gallery in London attempts to answer this question — and the resulting exhibit is one of the coolest things I can imagine.

“Soundscapes” (on now through September 6th) commissioned musicians to write music or sound art based on a painting in the National Gallery collection — as their website says, “the experience encourages visitors to ‘hear’ the paintings and ‘see’ the sound.”

I love it.

Because I believe art feeds music, and music feeds art.

Art and music, it seems to me, both live in the gut — not in the head. They’re all imagery, sound, emotion. No language necessary. And in that way, they are eternally bound.

When I listen to a piece of music, I don’t hear words (unless there are already lyrics); I see images in my head: colors, people, scenes, memories, dreams… And when I look at a painting, I hear music — a driving rhythm or violins or maybe even a piano solo. Personally, my favorite paintings are the ones that bring up the cry of a saxophone…

But when I stand in front of a painting, I can only hear the music in my own head. No matter how close I am to my husband, my mom, or my best friend, I can’t hear the music a painting brings up for THEM (unless, of course, they write and play that piece of music for me).

I only get my impression of the painting. I only get MY view of the world.

They can TELL me what they see in the painting — they can try to explain how it makes them feel. But language doesn’t quite cut it. Does it?

To hear someone else’s musical interpretation of a painting seems to me the ultimate way of not only getting inside of someone else’s HEAD, but getting inside their GUTS.

And when you get inside the guts of someone else,
that’s when you can truly understand them.
That’s when you can see the world as THEY do;
not just as YOU do.
That’s when your perspective broadens.

If you could hear the music I hear when I look at a Michelangelo, you would know me so well, it would probably embarrass me. If I heard the music you heard when you look at a Van Gogh… I would understand you better, wouldn’t I?

Leonardo da Vinci played the lute and wrote his own music. Some even say he hid the notes of a musical composition in the rolls of bread on the table in his Last Supper fresco. What if YOU could hear the music Leonardo heard when he painted the Mona Lisa? What if you could hear the tune in his head when he first saw Michelangelo’s David?

I want to hear the music someone else hears when they look at a Cezanne or a Holbein… Not because I need that music in order to experience the painting for myself, but because, by hearing it, I might just understand someone else — and therefore humanity as a whole — a little bit better.

And isn’t that the ultimate purpose of art?

 

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