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Dallas Museum of Art Adds Bonus Features
by Stephen Becker 28 Jul 2009

If you could hear a painting, what would it sound like? The Dallas Museum of Art and UT Dallas have created a new interactive program to answer that question.


A set of Tiffany Windows

A set of Tiffany Windows

  • Listen to the story:

If you could hear a painting, what would it sound like? The Dallas Museum of Art and UT Dallas have created a new interactive program to answer that question. A sound design class at UT-Dallas has created a series of soundtracks to accompany specific works in the DMA collection.

The students’ interpretations are as diverse as the works in the museum.

Tlaloc, a Mexican rain god

One took a natural approach to a statue of a Mexican rain god. While another felt music captured a set of Tiffany Windows.

Nicole Stutzman from the museum coordinated the project with UTD.

STUTZMAN: “It’s something that I think the Dallas Museum of Art can offer that I’m not aware is being offered anywhere else at any other museum across the country.”

The series is part of a larger program to help museumgoers interact more deeply with the art. In addition to the sound files, visitors can find short videos with curators and other added information.

Consider the program the equivalent of DVD extras for the museum.

Visitors use iPhones and other Internet-enabled devices to access the bonus features. The museum has 20 or so iPhones available to check out.

The videos deliver what you might expect. But the soundscapes explore new territory.

Each clips lasts from 40 seconds to a little over a minute. Frank DuFour, who teaches the sound design class at UTD, says that time frame is comfortable for people to listen to and is ample time for his students to tell a story.

DUFOUR: “I want my students to give a shape to these 40 seconds. I want these soundscapes to have a beginning, a way to evolve to a climax and an ending.”

One of the works that excited his students is Frederic Edwin Church’s The Icebergs. In the painting (above), a sun-lit mass of ice rises out of the sea. At over 9 feet wide, it’s one of the museum’s most recognizable works. And it received a pair of very different interpretations – one ambient, one musical.

Stutzman says that each works in its own way.

STUTZMAN: “One I think is much more literal in terms of the kind of craggy sound of a boat. And the other just being this very calm, pensive … piece.”

The students generally gravitated to art that implies movement – “talkative paintings” as DuFour puts it. There are figures and objects in six of the seven works that received audio treatments.

The one abstract work is Jackson Pollock’s Cathedral. The piece (left) was created in Pollock’s signature way of dripping paint onto the canvas. The soundscape created for Cathedral features multiple layers that marry Pollock’s style with jazz.

DUFOUR: “One layer is the choice of the music reflects something historical. This is the type of music that Jackson Pollock used to listen to while painting. Then you have another layer which is literal. You have the sound of the dripping. And then you have a third level, which is a combination of these two sonic elements.”

At the most high-minded of levels, these soundscapes free viewers to form a deeper bond with the work.

DUFOUR: “It allows the viewer to feel free to interpret the painting themselves. Offering an interpretation shows that it’s possible for anyone else to interpret the painting.”

But if nothing else, they give visitors an excuse to pause.

To unclutter their minds.

And to really look at what they came to the museum to see.

STUZTMAN: “It does. It does sort of trick them into staying there a little bit longer and seeing what’s the next sound going to be and what am I connecting with visually with the work here in front of me when I hear that.”

Laptops and iPhones are the tools that make our lives more efficient. But they also tend to make us more hurried.

Here’s a chance to use those instruments of speed to actually slow down.

  • Listen to the two treatments for The Icebergs:

  • Listen to the soundscape for Cathedral.

  • CJD

    “If you could hear a painting, what would it sound like?”

    —ask Mussorgsky.

  • Stephen Becker

    @CJD – Yeah, I thought about getting an interview with him, but then I remembered he’s been dead like 100 years. You’re right, though – he is the original audio interpreter of the visual.

  • This is fantastic! Bravo to the museum’s team that put this together and to you, Stephen, for combining all of this preview with both audio and visuals for our enjoyment. Imagine how great it really is in person at the DMA! Thanks for your good reporting.

  • The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, loves featuring music in the musuem as an interpretive strategy for its world class art collection. We have offered music on our audio guides for visitors since part of the reinstalled collection opened in 2001. In 2007 we commissioned students from Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory of Music to compose music for selected works in our special exhibition, Deja Vu? Revealing Repetition in French Masterpieces.

  • Bill Jones

    The wonderful music for “the Iceberg” has the same French approach to sound and visual that one of the early Cirque Du Soleil ,”Mystere” had going for it in a overwhellming visual and sound treat. I wonder if there is any conection to the works of Rene Dupere? Both have been a real treat to me in site and sound.

  • Susan Glasser

    It’s exciting to hear what sound adventures other museums are exploring. I particularly like the first audio for the Church painting–evocative and get’s your eye moving through the painting. At the North Carolina Museum of Art, we are currently in the process of developing a sound track to the permanent collection as well, but from a slightly different angle. We are creating sound mash-ups (dialogue and music), one-minute mini dramas, sound collages, sound portraits, and a variety of other approaches each unique to the work being explored. We anticipate launching it in our new building which opens in April 2010. I’d love to hear from other museums that are working on similar projects.

  • This was very good ..I think to reach new boundaries is great

  • What an exciting innovation! This sounds like a really great way to encourage viewers to give art the time it needs and deserves, and enjoy themselves more at the same time.

  • “if you could hear a painting what would it sound like.”
    Certainly a thought provoking statement.
    What about “If you see music what would it look like?”
    Perhaps Pollock and certainly Kandinsky had the gift of Synesthesia.
    Those of us who have that gift see music as colors, shapes and absolutely in layers.
    A commendable venture for The Dallas Museum to bring together those two senses of creativity.

  • Congrats, Nicole, et al on what sounds like an innovative program to deepen visitors’ experience in the presence of the art. We’ve done some similar things in the past–once had an audio tour called “A Few Notes on Modern Art” till the music fell out of license. In any case, the 40 second to 1:20 time frame is a good creative constraint which you can give to a composer/sound designer, and it corresponds to the attention span one might expect of visitors. We’ve been commissioning composers and musicians from time to time for our Artcasts and mobile tours, but haven’t yet dared give them such a draconian constraint! 😉

    Susan’s program at the N. Carolina Museum of Art sounds really interesting, too. Looking forward to hearing more.

    I also like the last line in this text:
    “Laptops and iPhones are the tools that make our lives more efficient. But they also tend to make us more hurried.

    Here’s a chance to use those instruments of speed to actually slow down.”