Penn’s Arthur Ross Gallery presents ‘Landscape / Soundscape’

Sight/sound synergy

What a great idea: Gallery art that can be seen and heard. In Landscape / Soundscape, sight and sound combine to intensify, and sometimes change, what visitors might experience from the uncoupled components.

To create his soundscape, Christopher Sean Powell used a custom-built polyrhythm sample player. (Photo courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania)

Contemporary sound artists were invited to respond to photographs chosen from the University of Pennsylvania’s art collection, and the pairings were installed at Penn’s Arthur Ross Gallery. Headsets hang before each photo, playing sound composed for that image. Aural accompaniments include incidental sounds, rhythmic compositions, and traditional instrumentation. In some cases the soundscapes intensify the visual mood, while in others they transform it. Moving through the gallery, visitors experience exuberance, foreboding, urgency, and contemplation.

Sound shapes experience

Some of the images are readily accessible, such as Eliot Porter’s “Clouds Forming over Mount Baker, Washington, July 30, 1975,” a snowy bowl at the top of a sunlit mountain. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith composed for this image, and it’s a view she knows well. Smith grew up on Orcas Island, just off Washington’s northwest coast, and daydreamed of ascending Mt. Baker. She says her soundscape enables viewers to “luxuriate” in the feeling of conquering the peak, and the airy harmonies do feel like a breath of crisp, cold air.

Other landscapes are as vague as a Rorschach print. Christopher Sean Powell scored Minor White’s “Navigation Markers, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, 1970,” a dark, abstract image featuring just-discernable large-gauge pipes curving and flattening into wings. Navigation markers? Not for me, but Powell did fine -- perhaps because he knew the territory, having spent summers in Nova Scotia. Powell used bits of sound and compositions created in his travels to weave a percolating, propulsive track that is much more relatable than White’s photo.

City views

Curated by Heather Gibson Moqtaderi, collections manager of the University Art Collection, and Eugene Lew, director of Sound and Music Technology at Penn, the works range from enhanced realities to utterly fantasies.

Sound intensifies Andrew Moore’s “Imagination Station” (2008) and Karen Riedener’s Brooklyn collages from her Time Pattern series (1982). For Moore’s photo -- a distant view of Detroit’s shuttered Central Station from a scarred city neighborhood -- Michael Roy Barker chose buzzing as the dominant sound, summoning to mind chainsaws dismantling trees, angry wasps, tires rasping along the interstate, and the static of a radio station gone off the air. It is a soundtrack for destruction.

Detail from Clergue's
Detail from Clergue's "Sicilian Botanic Garden, Palermo, Italy, 1988." (Photo courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania)

Riedener’s beautifully kaleidoscopic “Under and Over the Brooklyn Bridge” and “FDR Highway and Bridge” come to life in co-curator Lew’s aural mosaic of everything that would fill the ears on a stroll through lower Manhattan: surging traffic, the ching of a bicycle bell, the thunk of a basketball on concrete, and snatches of conversation.

To dream gardens

Sarah Angliss arranged for Erica Lennard’s pastoral “Villa Lente” (1986), a long exposure of an abandoned garden. Angliss’s accompaniment, “Not imagined, felt” (2016), blends incidental sound and acoustic instruments to produce sound that is soft around the edges, vaguely familiar, with a barely perceptible voice muttering, “Dreams, when I wake not imagined, here still even when I wake.”  The impression is perplexing and a little spooky.

Less ambiguous is La Cosa Preziosa’s “Numphé,” a universe of sound created for Lucien Clergue’s “Sicilian Botanic Garden, Palermo, Italy, 1988.” Preziosa’s soundscape places us at the edge of a lily pond over the course of a night and a day. Water ripples with creatures on the move, frogs squeak, ducks quack, cicadas hum, and in the distance, human voices call to one another. It’s a soothing symphony for a lush image. 

Opening eyes, ears to possibilities

Sound greatly affects perception of what is seen, as any fan of the mute button knows. But as Landscape / Soundscape makes clear, visuals also influence sound. After Fantasia, who doesn’t picture Mickey Mouse when hearing “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice?” It would be interesting to go a step beyond this exhibition: to apply different soundscapes to one landscape to see and hear what happens. 

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