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Mixing Art and Music — An Open Letter to the Corcoran Gallery


Dear Mr. Bollerer:

As someone who writes frequently about the Gilded Age, I’ve long been eager to visit the Corcoran Gallery to study your most iconic painting: Frederick Church’s “Niagara.” I was recently in DC and seized the opportunity, arriving one Sunday in the late morning only to discover a cellist in the atrium playing movements from the Bach cello suites. The atrium is a resonant space and the cello was loudly audible in the galleries.

A painting summons thought and feeling. It can also (in my experience) summon music. Music can equally silence the experience of a painting – Bach’s Bourees, Sarabandes, and Gigues were played (and also practiced) over and over. In between, the instrument was raucously tuned. Only during a brief respite could I discover the seething energy of Church’s rendering of Niagara Falls, unshackled by Bach.

Though neither of your gallery books mention it, Church’s canvases are of course ambitious exercises in metaphor. “Niagara” was painted in 1857 – on the cusp of civil war. The calculated play of sunlight and impending storm can only be symbolic. The broken rainbow reinforces Church’s message of a nation’s ambiguous fate. Church intended that a leisurely examination of his large, painstakingly detailed canvases would provoke conscious analysis.

An adjoining American gallery, in which Bach remained a deafening presence, displayed Thomas Eakins’s “Singing a Pathetic Song.” The parlor music of this painting is, I would say, an explicit soundtrack anathema to Bach.

A museum considers framing, placement, and lighting in displaying its collection. What the ear hears can become as pertinent as what the eye sees. Silence is safest. And yet when visual art is discussed on film or TV, a symphonic soundtrack become inescapable. For any musically sensitive person, Kenneth Clark’s “Civilization” was made unwatchable by the clumsy imposition of chunks of Schubert, Debussy, et. al. I remember giving up quickly, when Delius was applied to French Impressionism.

Many years ago, in a conversation with the late Kirk Varnedoe, I discovered that this distinguished connoisseur of fin-de-siecle Austrian visual art had no ear from Mahler. And yet the profound relationship of Klimt to Mahler is mutually illuminating. As it happens, Tim Barringer – who as you know is a leading authority on Church – is a counter-example: a trained musician fascinated by resonances binding painters and composers. It’s been my pleasure to collaborate with Tim on a variety of museum programs investigating points of alignment linking Dvorak’s New World Symphony and American Suite with the “American sublime” of Church, Bierstadt, and Moran, and also with the genre paintings of Durand and Bingham.

Anyway, I’m writing this letter in Rock Creek Park as a therapeutic exercise, having fled your museum after 45 minutes of enforced listening. The moment I exited my brain began to breathe. Frankly, what I’m trying to say to you seems self-evident to me. Would you consider doing without music? The paintings would appreciate it.

Yours sincerely


  1. I have never found Bach to be “deafening” nor tuning a cello to be raucous. Hmmm. Seems to me the perfect metaphors for the noise of a Niagara Fall. In this case I would remember the saying,, à chacun son goût.

    Here in the Berkshires, in North Adams, we have lots of music in the galleries of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MAss MoCA) – , especially when Bang on a Can is in residence. At those times people enjoy experiencing both worlds.

    Granted, a scholar may require silence to gather their thoughts, but instead of banning all music, wouldn’t it make more sense to plan ahead, and observe favored paintings early in the day, or when attendance is light?

    I would.

  2. I understand both sides of this issue. For me, going to an art museum is like going to a place of worship. I enter the space with excitement and hopefulness, and with the expectation that something spiritually illuminating will happen in the time I’m there.

    I don’t often make use of audio guides in my museum trips, because I want to have as direct an experience with the art as possible, unencumbered by someone else’s version of what I may be seeing.

    Many times a piece of art sings / resonates in me so strongly that I hear music, and I make notes on the spot. The notes often become compositions, inspired by these works of art.

    My compositions are little known, but I’ve made a small career and a joyous life from the experience of composing and performing these pieces.

    The experience of playing music in a museum is the same as playing music for ballet. In the same way that music can support and become an integral part of movement, so also can music respond to and enhance the resonance of a particular work or works of visual art.

    Done properly, music in a museum can add to the experience of viewing art in a profound and integral way. When music a museum space doesn’t work, for what ever reason, the experience becomes the same as off-putting as hearing muzak in a grocery store.

    When music is done as part of a performance, especially if that performance relates to specific pieces of art that can be seen and experienced during that performance, the experience can be evocative, even spiritual.

    When music is performed merely as entertainment (or worse yet, as background), it can interrupt or destroy the very “connection” that presenter and musicians alike hope to engender between art and viewer.

  3. Tom Freudenheim says:

    Fascinating point of view! Having been a museum director (currently an art critics), but also being a music groupie at heart, I appreciate interest in not having the suggestive power of the aural overpower the visual. There’s lots to be said about inappropriate soundtrack use of classical music by those who think Bach is appropriate for anything “old” — so it “sounds right” for views of gothic cathedrals, etc. The most regular (and egregious) misusers of suggestive music are of course the folks who do the music for NPR’s All Things Considered. We’re supposed to think them cultivated in their choices. Next on my list: the folks who think music is important for museum audio tour I like music in museums (e.g., concerts at the Phillips or Frick Collections), but not as background.

  4. Ed McKeon says:

    If we accept the evidence of Cage’s 4’33” – that ‘silence’ doesn’t exist – this article begins to appear slightly churlish. Galleries are full of sounds. The argument that Bach was inappropriate on this occasion may be more reasonable, but not the call for a ban on music.

  5. Interesting… Whether or not you agree with the particulars here, the letter provokes thought. Did the writer carry his desire for compatibility of content too far? Was the Corcoran remiss in their understanding of both the visual art and the music? Were they mistaken in their desire to provide “ambience”? I agree with the writer. When I go to an art museum I don’t want any stimuli other than the art itself. I don’t want my response to the work to be filtered through anything other than my own eyes and thoughts. Maybe you’ll disagree, but it seems there’s something of the genteel here. Both the music and the artwork are more muscular than the way they were presented by the Corcoran. They shouldn’t be backdrops for one another.

  6. Gardenia says:

    You were lucky – at least you got Bach. I’ve stopped going to MoMA’s (NYC) free Thursday nights because that’s when they play the loudest rock n roll known to man. Just as seeing a painting without glass on the surface will not exist too much longer, I’m afraid that the din of so called modern life will enter the musuem.

  7. Dear Joe,
    The reason so much of the 20th Century’s music found its way to museums and galleries is because the concert halls wouldn’t have them. Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, Philip Glass (among others) were all welcomed at places like the Whitney and MoMA in the 1970’s, a time when the concert halls would have rather stick a fork in their eye than present their music. At that time, It had nothing to do with creating a connection between objects and music, rather it had more to do with a commitment to new work and living artists. Often the least interesting connection between objects and time-based art is chronological adjacency, and yet, this is a place where many museums engage with music, attempting after-the-fact synergy between objects and music, which is often unsuccessful. Worse yet is presenting live music in a gallery space without a historical or thematic intention, or, even worse, presenting Bach as background music in a restaurant. Yet, music is often best experienced outside the concert hall (see: Philharmonic 360). I think the trick is to get beyond the obvious adjacencies and create synergies that are meaningful and authentic . For example, inviting Shen Wei to create a piece specifically inspired by, and created for, the Metropolitan Museum’s Englehard Sculpture Court at the Metropolitan Museum was an example of a successful presentation of performance in a gallery. Asphalt Orchestra in that same gallery took a different approach, but still the performance was completely grounded in, and created for, the gallery. It was also tons of fun. And the music resonated with and celebrated the sculpture.

    Another reason I believe music can be so successful in a museum or gallery setting is because of the removal of expectations that are wrapped up in the Concert Hall. The minute you take the music out of its captivity and put it on “neutral ground”, the audience (or as we call them in the Museum world, Visitor) is more receptive and willing to take chances that for some reason they resist in the concert hall. Maybe in a museum setting people are willing to take more risks? Maybe they’re more open because they didn’t pay for a concert ticket? I’m not sure, but I do know that if you go to a Museum and see a show you don’t like you will most likely go back to the Museum to see a different exhibition at another time, but that is not always the case with concert goers.

  8. Music or Art ? Oh my, such a dilemma. Really? …. not for me, more like exceedingly delightful.

    The Corcoran Gallery of Art is so splendid all on its own, flanked by massive stone lions who transition us through these metal gates, sets up the mood. If nothing else existed other than these grand columns and marble staircases, with huge wooden doors hiding a secret staircase down to the lower level, I would not care. No, this space alone is sacred.

    However when your gaze is met with the efficient brush strokes of Sargent’s watercolors, or you turn the corner to find the small niche revealing the “Veiled Nun” whose smile is seen through a transparent veil made of marble, it just takes my breath away.

    Then to be followed by the notes of Bach, well that’s simply magic … how very fortunate for you, especially If we should lose this iconic building, may it be sold or closed due to the exorbitant costs of renovations. Should we not be the stewards of this precious culture of life? What would you give to own this experience; If not the alumni or the patrons and visitors, then who else would have the ability to care? I guess the memories will have to suffice.

  9. As well as the growing exploration of sound art there are lots of historic references between the visual arts and music: Satie & Brancusi, Schoenberg & Kandinsky, Bryars & Munoz are three excellent examples.

    Parallel techniques, perspectives and attitudes can enrich each other. But I am equally sure the indiscriminate application of music in museums advances either art.

    some examples for which I take responsibility:

  10. On my website, which pairs works of art with mostly original compositions, viewers have the option of listening to the music or not. The click on the audio associated with a painting is at the viewer’s discretion. If a museum wants to present music in the viewing galleries, they ought to advise folks in advance about it. The audience really deserves a choice here. With respect to the musical selections, there is always going to be a certain subjectivity here. The musical choices won’t resonate with everyone. But I have discovered that even a little effort to consider elements of the visual work generally guides the musical choices in the right direction. Just randomly going with Bach etudes, and presenting in such an unfocused way (in the atrium) is not an ideal approach.

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