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Listen Hear: The Art of Sound

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Through September 5

Sentient Veil, Philip Beesley, 2017. From Listen Hear: The Art of Sound.

Photo: Philip Beesley Architect


How do we look at sound? How do we hear images? In seven onsite and two offsite installations, nine sound artists attempt to represent Mrs. Gardner’s intensely personal vision of a life immersed in the arts. Familiar and yet often overlooked spaces and objects are infused with new energy and reimagined through emotionally intense, sonic tête-à-têtes. We hear echoes of past events and visits, voices from communities next door and around the globe, vibrations created by nature and by artifice, harmonies reconciling the organic and the tech­nological, reverberations from the past pointing toward the future — a multitude of sounds expanding our awareness of the beauty within and around.

Architect Philip Beesley’s Sentient Veil invites us to shelter under the myriad acrylic fronds that make up his delicate three-dimensional textile. As tempting as it is, a touch would shatter the tiny colored lights, the flowerlike miniature speakers, and the vials of colored liquid — some of it Beesley’s blood — to underscore that more than sweat and tears went into making this beautiful homage to fertility and devotion. Movement under the structure sets off sounds reminiscent of the beginning of life, inviting us to explore our own wonderment about the origins of life forms. The sound sculpture references the museum’s glorious Fra Angelico painting The Death and Assumption of the Virgin (1430–34), with its pastel coloring and otherworldly images of adoration, birth, death, and eternity.

The spare, light-filled Renzo Piano–designed Hostetter Gallery is the three-dimensional setting within which architect Philippe Rahm presents Sublimated Music, his existential puzzle of deconstructing and reconstructing sonic and visual experience. Hanging colored lights, which fracture white light, reflect onto the floor as puddles through which we wade as we listen to two phrases of a Debussy piece continuously fragmented via 56 speakers set on the walls. As we traverse the space, we form and re-form connections among the notes and the colors, mimicking our experiences with the many objects in the museum.

Lee Mingwei adds Small Conversations — his personal vocal creations of insect and amphibian calls — to the glass-covered inner courtyard, bringing it to life through the inclusion of nature’s sounds. We sit, listen, linger, and are brought into communion with the soul of the museum.