Some thoughts on composing for the gallery: writing music for a place, time and idea

Michael Young -

Music creates ambience, a surrounding influence that redefines space. Eno argues that ambient music is an enhancement, not regulation or diminution of a space. Satie’s imagined ‘musique d’ameublement’ embraces - or subtly masks - the sounds of an environment alien to itself. These ideas reject the hallowed quietness of the concert hall or, arguably, the all-obliterating sound pressure of a rock gig. Galleries are neither silent nor can allow ear-splitting levels, so music for such a space has to be both demanding and superficially furnishing. Art Gallery, one of seven electroacoustic soundscapes I composed for the exhibition Loss of Face reintroduces the subtle sonic palette of a gallery ‘at work’ into the same space, re-emphasising its natural resonances, and reminding us of the real presence of noises normally filtered out as ‘silence’ in the absence of any perceived musical intention.

Music in a gallery has another peculiar effect; it presents a continuum of experience at odds with the freedoms of observation enjoyed by a visitor: the freedom to explore a gallery space, and the freedom to explore an atemporal visual image. It inscribes or implies time-based structures that are otherwise created only by personal choice; e.g. by our moving around a space, and through the slow progress of our observing eyes. My music for Capital Arcade presented in 20 minutes a sonic journey of references and moods, a sequence of mini-tableau which evoke the voices and tedious Muzak of shopping malls and particular images (an aeroplane, a ghetto blaster). The music aims towards a compositional drive through the ebb and flow of tension and musical ideas. It offered a potential accompaniment to the gallery but most of all it is a purely musical commentary on Goto’s work, independent from it. Loss of Face asserted the role of musical time in the gallery more consciously: using random CD playback each of the seven parts appear without warning and in any order, marking out a basic experience of musical duration (silence, then sound) for the visitor. As each musical part stands in strong contrast to the others, the random selection of material impacts on the perceived meanings of this work and how these meanings shift in time.

Music for the New World Circus explores and teases the gallery space and a visitor’s experience of it, building on these ideas. For this sonic circus the main act is an amateur travelling band, its music layered and interspersed with sound bites from politicians and other animals. Sounds of mechanistic war, its associated reportage and attendant miseries meet their sonic reflection in the danger and thrill of real circus performances recorded for this show. Here the music seeks to create tension in imaginary spaces between Goto’s satirical images.

Michael Young is a composer with interests in computer music, interactive media and collaborative practice. He lectures in composition at Goldsmiths College, University of London and is cofounder of the Live Algorithms for Music research network ( Recent compositions include Aur(or)a, a generative system for solo instrument and digital piano (2005) Argrophylax (2005) for oboe and live electronics and ebbs- (2006) for violin, 'cello and electronics. He has composed gallery soundscapes for three of Goto’s exhibitions; Capital Arcade (1999), Loss of Face (2002) and New World Circus (2006). These computer-based scores were created through the transformation and re-combination of found sonic/musical materials.