Live Friday at the Ashmolean – Music in the Museum

Theremin Ashmolean

I attended the Ashmolean’s late night opening event Live Friday and thought I would jot down some impressions. I’m not an expert on music but it got me thinking about what sound can do to a museum space.

When I first entered the atrium I was struck by the sound of Lydia Kavina playing the theremin. You can just see her through the window in the picture. This musical instrument works on the basis of manipulating electrical currents. It’s best known as the staple instrument of sci-fi sound effects department, and was used to create the theme tune to Dr Who. Kavina was originally playing a haunting melody that echoed throughout the space. As she switched to more staccato sound effects I instantly shook myself out of my state of contemplation and began negotiating packed staircases in an agitated state.

In with the Chinese paintings the DJ set ‘Six Bar Gate’ allowed visitors to interact with instruments and contribute to a relaxing soundscape which immediately made me think of water. Looking back through my guide the piece was called ‘Lake Dysmal’ which just goes to show how a skilled composer can summon up certain associations.

In ‘The Ethometric Museum’ by Ray Lee (British Composer of the Year 2012 for Sonic Art), the staircase gallery for European Art was transformed into an uncanny space. This was more of an installation, with the objects the focus of your attention and the dark red gallery working with them to create an almost steampunk vibe.

Down in the Ancient Cyprus Gallery ‘Noise Relay’ by Dr Lisa Busby engaged audience members as DJs on a collaborative soundtrack. Here the effect of music as it sped up and slowed down was noticeable. Whereas we had been quiet in the other spaces, we chatted away in this gallery and seemed to speed up and slow down with the music.

All this reminded me of brilliant lecture by the late Hélène La Rue (formerly Curator of the Bate Collections of Musical Instruments, University of Oxford) in which she played a strange range of sounds in order to get us students thinking about the anthropology of music. In terms of exhibition design, sound is an important way of eliciting an emotional response and can also change the way we move through spaces. However, in museums we always seem to focus on the visual not the aural. I came across this post from a couple of years ago which discusses music in museums It’s clear from the comments that adding music to a gallery is not an endeavour to be entered into lightly. However, these kinds of interactions between musicians, composers and researchers help us to question why we keep galleries quiet, and explore some possible alternatives.