Case Study: Interpreting Paintings Through Sound

Interpreting Paintings Through Sound | Clyfford Still

Inspired by immersive audio work we’ve done with museums and attractions, and discussions we’ve had with the National Federation of the Blind, we were curious to explore music as a means of interpreting visual art for the sight impaired.

We chose a painting entitled ‘PH-432, 1964’ by Clyfford Still, an American abstract expressionist similar to Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, whose color field paintings are expressed through dramatic strokes of overlapping colors. How might we use sound to convey his work?

We imagined an individual running their hands over the painting, and how each section of color conveys a unique feeling. Melody, instrumentation, pitch, and musical expression were assigned to each section based on color, shape, movement, and intensity — e.g. soft and mellow for cool colors, full and bright for warm colors, gritty and distorted for jagged shapes, and clean for smooth shapes. The painting bursts to life as the sections interplay, and audiences can actually ‘hear’ the many overlaps, brush strokes, negative spaces, and whispy details.

This experiment gets to the heart of how powerfully music expresses emotion, and how it deepens feelings, especially when supporting our other senses. At SAM, we continue to push the boundaries of experiential music and sound..

*Stephen Arnold Music composed this piece of music of its own volition. The company and its music are not affiliated with Clyfford Still.

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