How Can Sound Change the Way We Experience Visual Art?
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Soundscapes for Paintings

How Can Sound Change the Way We Experience Visual Art?

Visitors listen to Joseph Fraioli's soundscape for Caroline Kent's painting Further and Farther Than One Expects in the exhibition Five Ways In: Themes from the Permanent Collection. Photo: Pierre Ware

Can hearing particular sounds affect the way we see things? Los Angeles–based sound designer Joseph Fraioli worked with creative agency Interesting Development and the Walker Art Center to consider this question, creating sonic backdrops, or soundscapes, for three paintings in the Walker’s exhibition Five Ways In: Themes from the Permanent Collection. Visitors can listen to the soundscapes through headphones installed in front of the artworks in the galleries—as well as here on the Walker Reader (scroll down to listen; headphones recommended).

Fraioli designed two soundscapes for each of the selected paintings—Georgia O’Keeffe’s Lake George Barns, David Hockney’s Hollywood Hills House, and Caroline Kent’s Further and Farther Than One Expects—inviting us to explore how what we hear can change what we see. He spoke with Education Programs Manager Sarah Abare about what it was like to create soundtracks for paintings and how he hopes the soundscapes will allow visitors to engage with art in new ways.


So what inspired you to develop this project?


I remember I was looking at an artwork that my wife and I had on a wall in our house. I had been thinking that I wanted to hear what it sounded like, and I thought, “You know, it would be really cool to experience the sounds of beautiful, amazing artworks in a museum.” I started thinking about how cool it would be to be able to create sound for an artwork in a museum, began developing the idea, and eventually I hooked up with you guys.


And the rest is history.


Yes. It’s awesome. I’m pretty excited that it all worked out!


Before this project, most of the sound design work that you’ve done has been for moving image works, either feature films or shorter advertisements. What was it like to design sound for paintings?


Well, the difference is that there’s no action that I needed to synch sounds to. Other than that, conceptually it’s all the same. I’m creating a world of sound and take cues from the image on what the artwork is communicating and research the artist’s intention, or their inspiration, and create a world of sound based on those things.

What’s fun about sound is that it’s a very subconscious thing, whereas music is very directive. If you put music up against an image, it’s directing you to feel a certain way. With sound, it’s more about playing on your subconscious and your memories and your feelings from a different level.


How did you approach the sound designs for each of these three paintings?


It was super important to me to get as much information as possible about the artworks, because I knew I wanted to create something that added to the world that these artists created. I didn’t want to pull away from their intentions too much. What I found was the more information I had, the better my work was. It just proves that the sound is storytelling.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Lake George Barns, 1926

When you really look at the Georgia O’Keeffe painting [Lake George Barns], you realize it could be a beautiful sunny day or it could be an ominous, sort of scary situation. It really depends on what you draw from the piece. I really wanted to dissect that in an extreme way with the two soundscapes. So in one track, you have these beautiful, peaceful afternoon sounds and it helps you see the painting in that way. Then, as soon as you put on this super dark-sounding track, it brings out those darker moments in the image. All of a sudden, the window in the barn looks really scary, the sky looks like its raining, and it just changes your overall perception.

David Hockney's painting Hollywood Hills House, 1981-1982
David Hockney, Hollywood Hills House, 1981–1982
David Hockney Soundscape #1: 

David Hockney Soundscape #2: 

Then, with the David Hockney piece [Hollywood Hills House], I wanted to think about what his perception of living in Los Angeles might have been like before he moved there, and then what it actually was like once he was living there. So in the first track, you hear this happy full house of people having a good time. And then on the second, you have a more lonely piece that’s based on the reality that Los Angeles can often be a very lonely place, especially for an artist.

Painting by Caroline Kent titled Further and Farther Than One Expects, 2015
Caroline Kent, Further and Farther Than One Expects, 2015
Caroline Kent Soundscape #1: 

Caroline Kent Soundscape #2: 

I think that Caroline Kent’s piece [Further and Farther Than One Expects] was the most challenging to work on because it is so abstract. When I first approached it, I interpreted it in a certain way and I thought to myself, this is really cool, but I don’t know if I’m interpreting this correctly. What was interesting is that I then connected with Caroline over the phone and we were talking for a while about what inspired her and I was actually dead on. She was inspired by communications that we’re not aware of, so it could be an alien communication or a communication coming from somewhere else that we have no way of deciphering. It was really fun to make a track that is really complex and alien-sounding and then a second one that is very simple, as if there’s a code within it that is this image, and that wouldn’t have happened without that information from Caroline.  


Yeah, the sounds in the Caroline Kent tracks feel really unique. Do you record new sounds for each Soundscape or do you try to use sounds that you’ve already recorded for another project?


It’s kind of both. I have a huge database of sounds that’s too big to be categorized in my own brain, but I know where the sounds that I use for a particular situation or context are within the database. So as an idea or inspiration comes up, I’m like, “You know what? I recorded this sound in Mexico that would be perfect for this.”

But then a lot of times there are sounds that are the main driving character of the soundscapes have to be original sounds so that they belong solely to that artwork or a particular film and can’t be reused somewhere else. It’s almost like the lightsaber sound: if you could download it and put it in 800 other movies, it would totally lose its power in Star Wars. It’s the same kind of thing.


You were able to visit the Walker the weekend that the exhibition opened. What was it like to see the artworks in person and hear the soundscapes in the galleries?


It was so mind-blowingly different seeing these artworks in person. I can’t stress that enough. There’s so much texture that reveals itself in certain pieces. It was more dramatic, and it made my sounds seem even more dramatic too, which is really, really great.


What are you hoping that these soundscapes contribute to a visitor’s experience at the Walker?


I hope that the soundscapes help visitors understand the artworks and have a more enjoyable experience with them. Sound designs can immerse you into the world that you’re looking at in a painting and change your perception of that painting. I hope this project will open visitors’ minds and maybe inspire some people. And I want people to have fun and enjoy themselves—this is a fun thing to do in a museum!


As we’re talking, I keep thinking about how various studies have shown that visitors typically spend between 15 to 30 seconds looking at an artwork before moving on (and some studies say it’s actually more like two seconds). It’s been exciting to see how these soundscapes have helped bring about more extended interactions with the artworks in the galleries.


That is super cool to hear. I’m so happy about that. You know, it’s like you see something that you don’t understand completely, so you move on. Maybe this project will help visitors stay longer and perhaps absorb something from the paintings that they weren’t expecting.

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