“The same way as the painters were the leaders in changing the discourse around what painting could be, these artists are changing the discourse around what sound could be.” That’s the view of Jonathan Wilson, program producer for the Masters of Modern Sound, who has assembled the leading edge of Australian and international ambient music to accompany the Masters of Modern Art exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW.
Documenting the radical shifts that occurred around the turn of the twentieth century in visual art, the exhibition’s late-night program of performances and installations places these works in conversation with musicians and dancers who have upended our understanding of their respective forms.
While names such as Matisse, Kandinsky and Monet today seem like established historical figures, during their time their work challenged current standards, and was received cautiously, if not critically. Opening up audiences to the radical potential these works symbolised at their birth is part of the impetus for the audio program.
“We've been interested from a programming perspective to be finding alternative narratives for the visual works in the space,” highlighted Wilson.
Incorporating sound, from the likes of ambient artists Lawrence English and William Basinski, electronic producers Del Lumanata and Caterina Barbieri and dance interventions from Sydney-based company Force Majeure, allows for any number of interactions and experiences with the works, the space and those who are also present.
“It was about transforming the space as well and offering a tiny little window into the possibilities of what other art forms bring to the visual,” noted Wilson.
During the first evening of performances composer and David Lynch collaborator Dean Hurley’s work, which was developed from sounds recorded in the gallery in 2018, welcomed visitors as they entered the vestibule. In the entrance hall, pianist Chris Abrahams performed a durational solo piece.
Reflecting on how these works changed gallery visitors’ relation to the space, Williams said, “music lends itself to getting you to slow down a little bit and not just brush past things so people were looking at works for longer, they fixated on things.”
Entering further into the galleries, audience members were greeted with performances which activated each space, while three performers from Force Majuere engaged with the space, the works and attendees through their dance performances. Drawing on the affinities between sculpture and dance, the performers moved in and out of space and became another presence in the room, adding to the sound itself.
“The sound can be so thick or full and durational that it can feel like you're it's another physical presence in the space,” mused Wilson.
Rather than only seeing works in the digital or virtual format, programs such as Masters of Modern Sound re-centre the sensorial nature of engaging with art, a bodily reaction to the works and their arrangement in space. Inviting conversation and discussion as well, the focus is back on the people who enliven the gallery, as Wilson, who otherwise works in community engagement programs at the gallery, points out.
“People are part of seeing that work, that's what makes it so great when you get to be a part of it.”
The musicians and performers assembled here carry on the tradition began by the modern masters, as Wilson suggested, with both forms taking their time to be accepted.
“I see that early experimentation is now what is being capitalised on for a lot of these performers and musicians.”
Masters of Modern Sound continues on January 12. Book your tickets here: https://www.sydneyfestival.org.au/events/masters-of-modern-sound