Music for Animal Art

You are strolling through the gallery, one earbud tucked snugly in place. As you approach the awesome painting of a cheetah streeking across the canvas, your phone lights up with an “audio available” alert. Keenly focused on that cheetah, lest he tear out the door, you take your stand before the canvas and activate the music. Electric congos and toms are beating fast, incessantly, in the canyon below. Birds are screeching. And then the cheetah emits his wild, high pitched cry. You enjoy this option to experience a composer’s sonic contribution to the artwork, this music for art. A new dimension of art appreciation unfolds.

Music can enhance the experience of visual art in several ways. The ambiant track offers a deeper experience of place. A melody, or a choice of instrument, may establish for us historical or cultural contexts. A track that unfolds dramatically may suggest to the viewer a narrative, a story for the art itself. Explicit sound effects serve to animate the visual image. Music for art contributes to art appreciation by creating deeper connections and richer associations with the visual creation.

What then, might distinguish music composed specifically for animal art? The animal figure is often presented in closeup. The artist may feature the creature’s head, or perhaps even the eye. When the entire animal is presented, the figure generally takes up most of the canvas. Even in the somewhat abstracted animal representation, there is a scientific aspect to animal art. There tends to be a focus on anatomical detail. For our fascination with this genre is largely about wondering at the unique forms that distinguish these beings from ourselves. Secondarily, the artist may present the subject engaged in a typical behavior such as running, foraging, sleeping, or howling at the moon. In many instances, because of the singular focus on the animal subject, we do not enjoy much environmental detail.

Music for animal art, then, can step in to expand on aspects seen and unseen in relation to the animal figure. Consider the portrait presentation of a tiger’s head. We appreciate the clear presentation of physical details. Sharp whiskers extend from the enormous muzzle like so many white wires. Intricate stripe patterns decorate across a wide, sloping brown and cooly focused, wild eyes. But what is this tiger all about? An active audio track may suggest the incredible speed of a slashing paw, or the sudden leap onto prey. An explicit sound effect, a roar, reminds us of the incredible power and ferocity of the beast.

Sometimes the music can heighten for us a mood or condition in the painting which is evident but subtle. Imagine the underwater world of fish. What is our fascination with this environment? Our musical track might offer a suggestion. A slow, reverberation-saturated harp melody can create for us a heightened sensation of floating, of weightlessness. Through the audio, we swim with the fish. Think about a somewhat humorous picture of a sleeping dog. What is it exactly that makes us chuckle at this image? A few slide trombones trudging heavily through a melody in canon paints sonically our visual representation of canine indolence on a hot summer day. Sometimes the music can provide us environmental details. An ambient track, for example, may offer evidence of the subject lion’s position deep in the African jungle.

Most expansively, the musical track may offer an entire narrative not explicit at all in the visual representation. There is a beautiful detailed painting by the artist Zachary Goodson call “Snake Eye.” In the painting, a mosaic of green scales, the snake’s head, embeds a wild and malicious reptile eye, orange and black. But at least part of our fascination with this creepy closeup is what we know or imagine about snakes. The audio feeds the imagination with a presentation which unfolds dramatically. A slightly distorted slide whistle over a single plucked cello is the snake slithering silently through the grass, stopping and starting, as it makes a way gradually to the unsuspecting prey. And then sharp pizzicatos from violins are the subtle but deadly strikes, the poisonous bites of the viper.

Music for animal art responds to the strengths and limitation of the genre. Where the visual work must sacrifice background detail, or information about the animal’s behaviors, the music may fill in the gaps sonically. Where action is presented in the animal painting, music can animate that action dramatically with explicit sound effects. Music can amplify for us the moods and conditions described in the art. The music laughs with us at the humorous aspect of a barnyard pig. The music shivers with us on a cold, Siberian plain as the wolf howls at the moon.


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