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art review

Sound art at the Gardner: seeing with your ears

Philip Beesley’s “Sentient Veil” hangs from the ceiling at the Gardner. Philip Beesley Architect Inc.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt the ache of Mrs. Gardner’s lost Vermeer.

March 18 marks the 27th anniversary of the museum heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum that snatched away from us several precious works, among them “The Concert,” a painting of a cozy music rehearsal in a parlor. Back in 1990, I’d been in Boston long enough to acquaint myself with the cloistered intimacy of the intent trio, the marvel of Vermeer’s subtle brushwork, the warming light.

The shock hit like the disappearance of a friend, mixed with the intrigue of who took it, and how. But the blow has softened over the years, the memory faded.


Then, on a recent visit to the museum, I stood in front of the empty frame in the Dutch Room where the Vermeer once was, and the quiet strains of a lute wafted around me. Then singing, conversation, a harpsichord. The image of “The Concert” welled up in my imagination — the young woman at the keyboard, the lute resting on a table — and its absence pierced me afresh.

The sound is Moritz Fehr’s “Undertone,” fragmented and stitched-together recordings of a contemporary rehearsal of a 17th-century song, “Shadow of My Lover,” a tune the group in Vermeer’s painting might have been playing. It’s one of the gems of “Listen Hear: The Art of Sound,” the ambitious new contemporary show at the Gardner.

“Listen Hear” was organized by Pieranna Calvachini, the Gardner’s curator of contemporary art, Peggy Burchenal, curator of education, and Charles Waldheim, curator of landscaping. It has three components: site-specific sound art in the palace, which is a 21st-century nod to Mrs. Gardner’s delight in bringing music into her home; works in the new wing; and two pieces off site, designed to connect with the museum’s Fenway and Roxbury neighbors.


I saw the show right before it opened last week, and not every piece was up and running. But those that were captivated me, and those in the palace have an especially magical pull. Like “Undertone,” they imbue familiar places with a soft, affecting new light.

Here’s another one: Lee Mingwei, the playful, soulful installation artist, realized that the courtyard, with all its verdure and blossoms, lacked sounds of wildlife.

I’d never noticed. There is, after all, a fountain, and the music of burbling water. The artist couldn’t very well bring locusts into the museum; but rather than record them, he learned to convincingly mimic their buzz, along with the baritone of a bullfrog, the trilling of a bird, cicadas, and more. In his “Small Conversation,” the natural songs of these creatures generously fill a void I hadn’t known was there. Imagine eating a favorite dish, and finding unanticipated but perfect flavors animating your taste buds.

The most visual work, Philip Beesley’s sculptural “Sentient Veil,” hangs from the ceiling in the dark cave of the Fenway Gallery, part crystalline web, part glowing stalactites.

Lee Mingwei’s “Small Conversation” installation.

Laced with glass, lit with glimmering blues and reds, and nested with ampules of gold and blue liquid, “Sentient Veil” enchants and lures us in. Move beneath it; it breathes, clicks, and groans. The sounds of “Sentient Veil” are subtler than the imagery, but they are what make the work seem sentient – it breathes, it responds – and thus ancient, and wise.


The works in newer parts of the museum don’t resonate as deeply with their environments; they don’t have that long history to harmonize with. They have other strengths, though.

In a museum, where we expect to focus on the visual, sound art can catch us off guard, and sometimes go straight for the emotional jugular. Su-Mei Tse’s “Sound for Insomniacs,” made in collaboration with Jean-Lou Majerus, requires headphones, which sit on benches set before five big, close-cropped photographs of cats.

Cat pictures are a plague. They are cutesy and manipulative. I have a cat, so I’m predisposed, and these are thoughtfully made photos, and still I thought, “Huh, cats?”

Then I put on the headphones. The rhythm of deep purring – a sound I usually experience on a small scale – engulfed me, hummed through my skull, and immediately dismantled my capacity for critical thinking. Inadvertently, I sighed, and let go into it. There are five soundtracks, one for each portrait, each distinct and almost unbearably soothing.

Working with composer Sebastian Rivas, Philippe Rahm breaks down music for his “Sublimated Music” like a pointillist painter works with tiny portions of light. He takes a phrase from Claude Debussy’s “Bells through the Leaves” — just three measures — and divvies it into individual notes, which play independently from 56 speakers lining two walls of the gallery. The notes correspond to colors, which flash on the floor as the notes sound. It sounds more like Philip Glass than Debussy, hypnotic, mournful, and yet vivifying as a fresh spring rain.


The works I missed – because of a Wi-Fi glitch; because a group was meeting where one piece is installed; because one, destined for the Ruggles MBTA station, doesn’t open until April – send tentacles out into Boston, or bring Boston back into the Gardner. That seems an apt counterbalance to those inward-focused pieces in the palace, and good on the curatorial team for that.

But what calls me back like an old love? The Dutch Room, and the musical “Undertone” of Vermeer.


At Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 25 Evans Way, through Sept. 5. 617-566-1401, www.gardnermuseum.org

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.