Everybody’s seen The Sound of Music.
Now it’s time to hear the music of sound at the jewel in the crown of Boston’s art world, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
The Gardner has just opened a new exhibition unlike anything in its history. Listen Hear: The Art of Sound involves no medieval sculptures, no grand tapestries, and with the exception of one installation, no visible art at all.
Instead, the exhibition invites attendees to experience sound as never before— to experience sound not as music, but as an art form all its own.
The exhibition, which lasts until September 5, features ten separate installations— three in the museum’s newer building, five in the palazzo Isabella Stewart Gardner built herself more than a century ago, and two in various unexpected locations in the city of Boston.
In one room, a “deconstructed” passage from a work by Claude Debussy plays on an endless loop over 56 speakers mounted on the high walls of the exhibition room, with large numbers of colored lights reminding the listener that Debussy sought to do in music what the impressionists were doing with paint.
That installation is intended to be a shared experience among multiple listeners. In a smaller room are five oversized photos of the faces of stray cats that haunt the backyard of a Luxembourg artist. This installation is meant to be experienced alone. You put on a pair of headphones and you can click and hear each of the five cats’ different forms of purring. The piece is called “Sound for Insomniacs”.
Calderwood Hall, the museum’s extraordinary performance space, houses the third installation, street sounds and interior sounds from Boston spaces including branches of its public libraries and streams in the urban wild, with various musical instruments playing faintly or loudly in the background.
Once inside the palazzo, you can find your way to the “Sentient Veil”, a piece inspired by one of the Gardner’s most famous works, the 15th century Fra Angelico Annunciation of the Virgin.
With this piece, you actually stand underneath it, and motion sensors notice your presence, triggering changes in light and sound.
Of the two outdoor installations, one can be found in the Fens, the neighborhood where the Gardner Museum stands and from which nearby Fenway Park takes its name. You download an app and you can hear various nature and street sounds as you move about the open space.
The other off-site installation involves picking up sound from locations as diverse as the Ruggles public transit station and a famous Roxbury bakery staffed by members of a group home returning to society after stints in prison or other difficult experiences.
Back in the Gardner, perhaps the most striking installation takes place in the room where burglars notorious stole a Vermeer and several other great works several decades ago. Where the Vermeer once appeared, an empty frame now stands, with ultrasound speakers above bouncing sound off the mirror-like glass inside the Vermeer’s frame.
The stolen Vermeer was called “The Concert” and the sound you hear as you perhaps contemplate your own reflection in the empty frame, is that of musicians discussing and rehearsing a piece of early French music that might have been performed in Vermeer’s work. You hear a harp, a harpsichord, a lute, scattered singing, and conversations in French.
The exhibit, clearly, is an enormous departure for the Gardner, and early indications suggest it will be a great success. Patrons attended a private tour the day I visited the exhibit, and they were charmed by the new ways in which sound becomes art.
It’s easy to go to a museum and see paintings or sculpture that you know or don’t know and pronounce yourself happy with the visit. Similarly, it’s easy to go to a concert and hear music, familiar or otherwise, and decide that you spent your evening well.
Listen Hear: The Art of Sound will likely be a more challenging experience for museum goers, because nothing you will experience can easily be put into a category called “art I’m familiar with” and then you go on about your business.
In fact, it may take repeated visits before the strangeness of going to a museum and not “seeing” in usual ways becomes comfortable.
Or maybe art isn’t meant to always be comfortable, and the magic of Listen Hear is that it forces us to confront our expectations about what art “should” be.
Either way, a visit to the Gardner to experience Listen Hear is highly recommended.
The sound of music now becomes the music of sound. You’ve most likely never seen, or heard, anything like this anywhere else.