Sounding Out ‘Love: Art of Emotion’

Image: Master of the Stories of Helen, Antonio Vivarini (studio of), The Garden of Love (c.1465-1470), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1948, 1827-4.
Image: Master of the Stories of Helen, Antonio Vivarini (studio of), The Garden of Love (c.1465-1470), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1948, 1827-4.

by Dr Anthony Lyons, The University of Melbourne

A number of students from The University of Melbourne’s Interactive Composition program have recently been engaged with the exhibition ‘Love: Art of Emotion 1400–1800’, held at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). This involvement has spanned a three-week period and resulted in over 30 new sound compositions directly inspired by the diverse array of artworks so wonderfully curated by Dr Angela Hesson and supported by key personnel working at The University of Melbourne, the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE) and the NGV.

The Interactive Composition sound pieces have taken the form of new audio works of approximately four minutes duration, and they range from instrumental acoustic pieces to a number of song-based works, to the electronic. They are also stylistically diverse ranging from new-folk to club beats to the more experimental. Some were performed live as part of Interactive Composition’s recent ‘Love Remixed’ project, and a number have been presented and discussed in internal seminar sessions. However, this blog serves partly to introduce a collection of 17 compositions that now form an online gallery comprised of artwork thumbnail image, creative statement and audio

The Interactive Composition program has as its focus the creation of sound with other media. This includes composing and collaborating with a rich array of art forms from dance, theatre, film and animation, to art, installation, game audio and various online digital mediums. While creating new work responses to visual artworks is certainly something the students have done previously, the historical dimension to the ‘Love Exhibition’ was a new experience for many. There was no living artist to collaborate with, no one to ask what their artistic intentions had been. This puts the onus on the composer to make their own interpretations and explore their own emotional responses to the artworks that most resonate with them.

An introductory overview to the exhibition by curator Dr Angela Hesson highlighted one of its main themes – that portrayals of love and emotion in art are complex, varied and challenge the sometimes popular conception of love as pertaining to romantic love. From this departure point the students visited the exhibition. They were free to select and respond to any artwork, and they needed to eventually demonstrate a connection to this artwork through the creation of a new sound composition.

Many seemed to have made connections by personalising their response, by putting themselves into a narrative, or empathising with a depicted character or situation portrayed in an artwork. In Jessie Warren’s The Wedding Party she responded to Jan Steen’s painting of the same name with a powerful song-based piece that mirrors the sense of dejection and oppressiveness felt by a new bride. Jessie writes,

This composition explores the seemingly festive depiction of a wedding party from the perspective of the young bride as she sits and digests the reality of her new life. An oblivious crowd moves around her in celebration, as she remains motionless, drink untouched. The piece of music I created aims to slowly creep in from the outer edges of the room within the painting, slowly suffocating and surrounding the young bride…’

The slow drone and dirge-like music Jessie creates is indeed more in keeping with the feel of a funeral than a wedding celebration. The sung lyrics are buried, blurred and barely audible until a moment in the middle of the song where we hear the fragile and emotionally charged vocal (Jessie’s own) clear the sound rubble to deliver the repeating cry ‘Father, Mother’s child….you erase my youth in just one night’. And then a more abstracted sound world closes back in and the voice is lost again under the weight of other sounds including off-kilter percussion, sounding like the ticking hands of a clock winding down. Through sound, and particularly the content and expression of the sung lyric, Jessie has given the bride in Steen’s painting a voice. In fact this shared voice is an emotionally strong and direct repudiation of the idea of arranged, forced or directed marriage.

A contrasting song-based work is Georgia Smith’s response to Henry Fuseli’s Midsummer Night’s Dream: Act IV, scene 1. Georgia has tried to convey a sense of emotional excitement and possibility from the entanglements of light and dark depicted in the forest scene of the artwork. Georgia writes in her creative statement,

I wanted to capture the magic and mystery, through light, glittering sounds and ethereal vocals, and dark, brooding synths. I wanted to create a magical dreamscape to play off the themes of the work as well as the tale of lovers eloping and magical beings congregating in the forest at night.


Indeed Georgia’s lyrics open with the line ‘Meet me in the garden, whispers your name’ and the song proceeds towards the poignant chorus line hook of ‘I wait for you’.

Moving away from some of the song-based responses to Hamish Keen’s The Virgin Annunciate, we hear a focus on the layered weight of sound as Hamish uses the rough timbrel densities of pulsating and distorted synthesisers to evoke the sense of emotional heaviness he felt portrayed in Bernardo Cavallino’s painting. Hamish writes that,

Cavallino’s subtle depiction of a lost, broken and powerfully human Mary conceiving Jesus contributes powerfully to the ever evolving perspective on conception, motherly love and love more generally. Throughout history depictions of this moment vary incredibly broadly, and so I felt my work had to offer a new way of seeing this moment.’


Part of Hamish’s compositional approach was to layer sounds from different historical eras, drawing on and attempting to trigger emotional associations in the listener. Synthesiser melodies become reminiscent of church organ music and sampled fragments from Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem bubble up through the texture, yet this remains very much music of our time and very much a personal exploration of ideas and emotions through sound.

Stylistically contrasting in approach again is the piece Stalker, by Noah Reynolds. In responding to Anthony van Dyck’s Self-portrait, Noah has tried to make connections between parts of contemporary club culture and the emotional narcissism he sees depicted in Van Dyck’s painting. Noah’s puts this more clearly in his creative statement;

For me, Van Dyck’s self-portrait reflects themes of narcissism, self-love and materialistic ideals. I have presented these ideas in a modern context by borrowing sound palettes from club scenes associated with extravagance and hedonism in order to draw parallels between commercial club culture and Van Dyck’s own privileged lifestyle.

These four snapshots are representative of the highly individual approaches taken by each participant in this project, and of the thought and feeling garnered and then reinvested in the creation of new work. It is also a testament to the depth and diversity of emotional states conveyed through this exhibition that nearly all participants seemed to have been drawn to different artworks.

While the collected audio works vary stylistically, they are unified not just by their connection to the content and themes of the ‘Love’ exhibition, but particularly by the strong emotional responses present in the sound worlds. The responses speak as much, if not more, about the inner feelings, thoughts and ideas of the composers, with the exhibition artworks perhaps acting more as provocations to ignite and focus aspects of individual emotional exploration. Taken as a contemporary snapshot of young makers, these audio works map a unique sense of time and place based around creative and emotional engagement with the exhibition ‘Love: Art of Emotion 1400–1800’. We invite you to listen and read the linked statements of this collection of Interactive Composition sound works:


On behalf of the Interactive Composition students I would like to acknowledge and sincerely thank Professor Jane W. Davidson, Dr Angela Hesson and Penelope Lee for all of their encouragement and support of this project.

Dr Anthony Lyons is a composer, academic and lecturer in Interactive Composition at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, Faculty of the VCA & MCM at The University of Melbourne.

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