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Culture Vulture

Playlists for looking at art

Looking at art to a curated selection of songs can be as profound and moving as contemplating the works quietly

Of the things I have heard in museums and art galleries, this came as a surprise - music performed live by a pianist to an exhibition of stone sculptures.

Until recently, the soundtrack for my visits to museums and galleries has been made up of syncopated footsteps, too loud whispers, anonymous voices from audio guides and silence.

The crescendo of piano tinkles as I approached the gallery at the far end of the Noguchi Museum was slightly disorienting.

Founded by Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi (1904 - 1988), the museum in Long Island City, New York, is home to works by the critically acclaimed sculptor who studied for a time with the influential modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi.

My visit coincided with the residence of pianist Sarah Cahill, who was performing post-minimalist classical pieces from Mamoru Fujieda's Patterns Of Plants in the museum. The gentle, tonal compositions by Fujieda are based on electrical impulses measured from the leaves of plants.

The musician and piano sat in a corner of the gallery, facing large windows that looked out to the museum's sculpture garden.

Indeed, the tide seems to be turning on art exhibition playlists as museums and galleries leverage the social-cultural tool of the moment to expand the appeal of visual art.

Should I pause and watch the performance or regard it as ancillary to the exhibition? My feet led the decision and I listened to the music as I circled Noguchi's majestic sculptures of marble, granite and basalt.

It was a while before I recognised what was actually happening in the space: I had walked in on a live, streaming playlist for looking at art in a museum.

Between Noguchi's abstract sculptures that evoke movement and meditation and the rhythmic piano music, a wordless, enigmatic bond had formed over the relationship of man and nature, which is present in both works of art.

From songs for working out at the gym to music for studying and surviving morning commutes, playlists have become a pervasive presence of contemporary life, ordering our existence and experience of reality. They psych us up, get us into the mood and equally, offer a bubble of retreat.

Restaurants do it, retail stores do it and even weddings do it.

Yet playlists have been all but absent, until recently, from the experience of art in museums and galleries.

Music, however, is not foreign to visual art. Video and sound installations have aural components and artists such as the 19th-century Russian painter Vasily Kandinsky have long explored the relation between music and colours.

Still, hushed awe has ruled in museums and galleries for the most part, codifying behaviour in these public spaces. Ringing mobile phones draw disdainful stares and conversations that can be heard without eavesdropping provoke frowns; they should. Art that demands careful looking and thinking could do with quiet.

My encounter with an unwitting playlist at the Noguchi Museum, however, persuaded me that the immersive experience of looking at art to a curated selection of songs can be equally profound and moving, and I am not alone in thinking this.

A 2013 exhibition at the Queen's Gallery in Buckingham Palace on British court fashion in the 16th and 17th centuries, for example, had an exhibition playlist that visitors could tune in to from their multimedia guides.

The list of 12 contemporary songs, each paired with a painting in the show, was picked by British DJ and radio presenter Eddy Temple-Morris.

The beats-heavy song Shutdown by bass music artist Suspicious Stench, for example, was matched to a stately portrait of King Henry VIII, who during his reign cut off ties between England and the Roman Catholic Church. The coupling was anachronistic, but the song title and lyrics were a playful riff on the history of the royal sitter.

The pairing also narrowed the distance between the centuries-old painting and today's pop culture, casting the portrait in a new light while extending the relevance of the gritty urban song backwards in time.

Indeed, the tide seems to be turning on art exhibition playlists as museums and galleries leverage the social-cultural tool of the moment to expand the appeal of visual art.

Britain's Tate museum, for example, has in recent years launched playlists on the music streaming service Spotify for its exhibitions that feature artists such as Andy Warhol and Piet Mondrian, artists whose lives and work were influenced by the music culture of their time.

Rapper and producer Drake, on the other hand, was tapped by art auction house Sotheby's last year to curate a playlist for an exhibition of contemporary art held by its gallery arm.

And just last month, the Philadelphia Museum of Art put out its first playlist for a new exhibition on international pop art.

I am not about to give up on silence when looking at art - I still think it's golden - but playlists for looking at art? Bring them on.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2016, with the headline 'Playlists for looking at art'. Print Edition | Subscribe