Thinking back to your last visit to an art museum, it’s unlikely that sound played much of a role in your experience at all. Most big city museums serve as an urban oasis, a place to disappear and detach from the bustle of city life—including the cacophony of sounds that do their damndest to overwhelm us on a daily basis.
But what if there was a way that sound could be used to enhance the museum experience and somehow make us feel more connected not only to our own thoughts but to the art around us? That’s exactly what the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has done with Listen Hear: The Art of Sound, a cutting-edge and altogether fascinating new sound installation that will continue through Sept 5.
The exhibition consists of nine sound works altogether, four of which are in the palace and three that are in the museum’s New Wing. One of them, Helen Mirra and Ernst Karel’s Municipals, is only operational on Fridays. There are also two off-site works: Fens, by Teri Rueb and Ernst Karel, which can be experienced by anyone walking through the Fens by downloading an app, and Harmonic Conduit by Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger, on view both at Ruggles station and the Haley House Bakery Café in Roxbury.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has always, since its creation over a century ago, been more immersive than your typical art museum. A work of art in totality with each pillar, swath of fabric, imported tile, and placement of artwork chosen and painstakingly curated by Gardner herself, it is a museum that feels less like a museum and more like an escape into another world.
Sound, though, has always played a role within the ecosystem of the memory palace. Gardner herself hung a birdcage containing a finch from the fourth floor window of the courtyard and installed trickling fountains amid the foliage below.
This is expanded upon in Small Conversation, a soundscape by Lee Mingwei installed in the courtyard. Lee used his own voice to record the sounds of certain wildlife-like insects and frogs. Four speakers with 15 tracks each play on a loop, upping the ante on the already serene courtyard. Inspired in part by climate change and rapid deforestation, Lee wanted visitors to slow down and consider the sounds of nature that are frequently all around us but are only seldom ever truly heard.
In the Fenway Gallery at the end of the Spanish Cloister, opposite John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo, is perhaps the exhibition’s most visual and modern work, Philip Beesley’s Sentient Veil. In part a response to Fra Angelico’s The Death and Assumption of the Virgin (also a part of the Gardner’s collection), the concepts of fertility and virginity got Beesley thinking about the origins of life.
The cave-like structure, made out of fabric, lights, and glass, is suspended from the ceiling and is completely silent until visitors interact with it, setting off different sensors that correspond with different primordial sounds. Small glass ampules dangle like stalactites and are filled with a variety of liquids, oils, metals, and even blood. Sentient Veil is sure to be the highlight for younger visitors, but for the adults, it raises some compelling questions about the boundless connections that can be made between art as seemingly disparate as a 15th-century Italian painting and a 21st-century sculptural sound piece.
On the second floor of the palace are the two installations that will, perhaps, resonate most deeply with Gardner Museum buffs. In the long, dark Tapestry Room is David Grubbs’ Your Shadow on a Cloud, an original composition that plays in fragments at different times within each hour.
Just as Lee’s insectscape was inspired in part by Gardner’s own incorporation of sound into the courtyard, Grubbs, too, took his cues from Gardner’s love for and appreciation of music. When the museum first opened in 1903, the site of the current Tapestry Room was a two-story music room that was used for concerts. About 10 years later, the space was divided between two floors into what is now the Tapestry Room on the second floor and, below, the Spanish Cloister and Spanish Chapel. Music, however, continued to be performed in the Tapestry Room until the opening of the new wing in 2012.
Grubbs’ music draws from the kind of chamber music that was once performed in the room, as well as from flamenco records that Gardner owned and loved. His composition is less a complete piece of music than it is a series of fragmented, sometimes dreamlike sounds of the past that enriches the Tapestry Room experience in a thrilling new way. The ghostly plunking of a piano, the stomps of the flamenco dancer’s feet, and the crackle of an old record player giving way to a modern electronic ambiance seem to span the ages and connect the past and the present in a totally original, meaningful way.
Around the corner in the Dutch Room is perhaps the exhibition’s most moving installation, Moritz Fehr’s Undertone. The sense of loss created by the infamous 1990 theft is most palpable in the Dutch Room due in no small part to the now iconic empty frames, placeholders until the stolen art is returned. But with Undertone, the loss seems to smart anew.
Vermeer’s The Concert, missing since that March morning almost 20 years ago, shows a young woman sitting at a harpsichord, a man sitting with his back to us, and a woman standing and singing. A sonic evocation of the painting, Undertone frames its absence with its ethereal rendering of what may have been happening in the picture. Recorded as a rehearsal complete with starts and stops, a gentle harpsichord, a soprano, and a male voice seeming to coach the singer, it’s the closest I’ve come in my lifetime to actually experiencing the Vermeer itself. One thing to pay attention to when you’re there: Where does the sound seem to be coming from? You’ll probably guess wrong.
Su-Mei Tse’s Sound for Insomniacs and Philippe Rahm’s arresting Sublimated Music, both located in the new wing, hit that provocative sweet spot that the Gardner is so good at stoking, the meeting place of Gardner’s vision and the significance of art in an ever-changing contemporary world.
What you get out of Listen Hear is likely to depend on your familiarity with Gardner and her museum itself. But it provides all visitors with a new way to think about how the relationship between art and the viewer is a symbiotic one, one that will continually evolve. Its greatest gifts, however, are probably most heartily absorbed by those with a few visits under their belt.
LISTEN HEAR: THE ART OF SOUND. THROUGH 9.5 AT ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM, 25 EVANS WAY, BOSTON. GARDNERMUSEUM.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.