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DON’T YOU WONDER SOMETIMES, ‘BOUT SOUND AND VISION


There are worse jobs in the world than mine. Yes, being a music writer and critic does involve having to listen to, talk to or watch some unappealing - or worse, some very ordinary and forgettable - humans do awful things to otherwise defenceless people in the name of their art. But mostly it's got many great moments, and great people, and some offers which seem nothing like work and everything like the happiest indulgence.

This is one of them.

You've no doubt had the experience of looking at a painting, sculpture or installation and hearing a soundtrack to it in your head. Well, as part of the Spectrum Now festival the Art Gallery of NSW asked musician Bertie Blackman, the gallery's director Michael Brand and me to choose four art works from a small cross-section of their permanent collection and then select some music to accompany people's experience of looking at the work. It could be something that seemed appropriate as a companion piece, something that it evoked in us while we experienced the art or something in response even.

Called Sonic Canvases and run only through the two weeks of the festival, what would happen then was gallery visitors could dial up the music on their smartphones as they stood before the work and listen. And on the - perhaps surprisingly - relatively rare occasion where we all chose music for the same painting, people could compare and contrast.

So, yes, bloody hard, scary and also really exciting. (And on the day I took in the program also very difficult to resist the temptation to ask people experiencing it what they thought of my choices. Apologies to that couple who probably wondered why I was staring at them in different rooms of the gallery for a couple of hours.)

These were my selections and my brief reasoning. As for the music, turn it up or down as you need but I'd recommend keeping PJ Harvey up loud.

Artist: Lord Frederic Leighton (1830)

Title: Cymon and Iphigenia

Song: Scott Walker – If You Go Away, from the album Scott 3

Is it gentle and romantic or threatening and disturbing? Is the Victorian fondness for lushness – elaborate folds of the sheet and rich red cloak as much as florid words – concealing something dark and bitter? Jacques Brel understood base desire and Scott Walker has that sense of luxuriating in darkness within romance.

Artist: Claude Lorrain (1636-37)

Title: Pastoral landscape

Song: Souad Massi - Le Bien et La Mal from the album Deb

Pastoral and gentle but wistful. A man in repose but alone. It’s European but this scene feels separated by more than the water from the life on the other side. Souad Massi’s folk music is somewhere between North Africa and Europe, this song is somewhere between calm and touching on sadness.

Artist: Pablo Picasso (1956)

Title: Nude in a rocking chair

Song: PJ Harvey – Rid Of Me, from the album 4 Track Demos

Alongside sexual attraction there is such a streak of violence at and distaste for women in Picasso’s work that feels like fear. I heard a woman in defiance, taunting with strength, refusing to be conventionally compliant/beautiful and defying the savagery. I heard PJ Harvey. “I’ll make you lick my injuries.”

Artist: Akira Yamaguchi (2005)

Title: Department store: Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi

Song: Orbital – Straight Sun, from the album Wonky

The music I heard immediately had movement and momentum and was decidedly electronic. There was a pulse flowing through without pause but not at a frantic tempo or locked into day or night. Orbital gave me a crowded city but one with energy rather than claustrophobia, and a sense of optimism.

What did you think? More importantly, where did your mind go instead? I'd love to hear where other brains landed or ventured.

#SpectrumNowfestival #ArtGalleryofNSW #SonicCanvases

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