The New, Musical Audio Guide at the Blanton
by Natalie Zeldin
Many art museums have concert series, but they are often held in a separate performance hall— segregated from the rest of the museum space. What a shame! The environment of the gallery provides such a rich opportunity for the art and music to interact.
Last year, the Blanton Museum of Art hosted my fellowship, specifically created to explore the interpretive role of music in the museum. The gallery concerts that we organized throughout the year brought a palpable energy to the museum space. It quickly became clear that the music facilitated a more abstract way of interpreting the visual art, and that this openness encouraged visitors to develop their own perspectives. In the post-concert discussions, visitors excitedly shared novel perspectives about the art that were directly shaped by their listening experience.
As a result of this positive response to the gallery concerts, we were eager to find ways to integrate music into the experience of visiting the Blanton on any day—not just on the day of a concert. Many museums offer audio guides as a tool to provide background information to visitors about what they’re viewing. Thus the question arose: What if the context for viewing the objects was fortified by music instead?
In response to this idea, Gallery Tracks, a musical audio guide for museums, was developed and opened this March at the Blanton. The tour walks the visitor through nine works in the Blanton’s permanent collection. At each stop, the visitor is introduced to the art object and how it relates to a particular musical selection. The connections between the art and music are based on a shared historical context, a similar theme or formal characteristic, or even the same evocative mood. The objects on this tour range from an ancient Greek vase all the way to a contemporary wall painting, and the music spans a similar range: from a work written in ancient Greece over 2,000 years ago all the way to a piece composed in Alaska as recently as 2001.
What is the best way to match music to art, so that it resonates with audiences? Some of the connections are straightforward. Giovanni Battista Passeri’s joyful painting Musical Party in a Garden (c. 1640), is presented with a flirtatious Venetian song by Francesca Caccini. In another example, a Greek vase depicting a musical procession dated from 420 BCE corresponds to a historically informed rendering of what ancient Greek music may have sounded like. The musical selection that was reconstructed was the Second Delphic Hymn of Apollo, a fragment of musical notation dated from 128 BCE, which is considered to be the most extensive specimen of ancient Greek music preserved to this day. Here, the music offers a rich layer to what the world of ancient Greece may have been like.
But there are more oblique links, too. By contrast, one of the less likely juxtapositions is a painting of the Holy Family by Mattia Preti from 1653 and a work by John Luther Adams called The Farthest Place, written in 2001. Clearly, the painting and score were produced in wildly different contexts— one is inspired by Italian Christianity and the other by the Alaskan wilderness; they are separated by hundreds of years, and were composed an ocean apart. But in both cases, the artists seemed to be composing in search of a peaceful and sublime serenity. As unlikely as it seems at first appearance, the softness of the baby’s face in the painting resonates with the glimmering sounds of Adams’s score. The artistic impulse to create an intimate yet ineffable mood is just as pervasive now as it was in seventeenth-century Italy.
The open-ended quality of this interpretive project will serve as a point of departure for visitors’ imaginations. These pairings reflect my own sensibilities and interpretations of both the art and the music, but this project will encourage participants to forge their own singular perspectives, and deepen their emotional response to the art.