Music for Monster Art

As you turn in to the gallery of horrors, the sound of an old school theramin, reminiscent of monster movies from the 1940’s, wafts from speakers. The eerie, mellifluous sine wave stirs fear and foreboding. Perhaps all these scary creatures, apparently well secured on canvas, could leap out of the frames at any moment and attack. Along one wall of our gallery you are greeted by ominous portraits of Erique Claudin (Phantom of the Opera) and the Vampire Nosferatu. Fateful organ tones from Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor evoke images of holy cathedrals inhabited and held hostage by desperate evil.

Just as music informs the horror film, so can music make a scary painting scarier. Generally speaking, music can deepen the experience of visual art by setting the mood, suggesting a narrative, or defining the space in which the artwork resides. In the monster art genre, our understanding of the story behind the image can contribute a lot to our connection and response to the work. Behold our sonic gallery’s image of a ferocious Wolfman with his massive clawed hands slashing out at us. The portrait is terrifying. When we understand the tragic story behind the image, that of a man helplessly transformed into a monster at the waxing of the full moon, feelings of pity mingle with those of repugnance and fear. Our response to the painting is all the more complex and troubling. A musical cue, such as a wolf howl, can trigger the background associations which deepen our experience of the visual piece.

Monster art is essentially portrait art, and as such the singular subject is central to the presentation. Even as we appreciate the richly detailed subject, we may feel some deficit of contextual information. You are standing now before one of our gallery’s presentations of the Vampire Nosferatu. You are repelled by the pale white alien head covered in bloody wounds. An oval hole bisected by a jail bar of fleshy bone stands for a nose. A gaping mouth reveals two long fangs. But what is Nosferatu’s story? What is he up to? Music steps up to fill informational gaps. With murmurs and whispers, like incantations, the composer’s dark score draws us in to the monster’s blood ritual. For a moment, a clear soprano voice alludes to the former holiness of the creature’s abode, with it’s cathedral windows and vaulted ceilings. But the horned devil, with tendrils extending downward, is now master here. The musical score alludes to the monster’s evil transformation of a holy space. But what of his horrifying intention? We hear a baby’s cry and shudder with understanding.

The horror genre sometimes relies on paradigm shifts to achieve terror. Step up to our gallery’s deeply troubling presentation of a clown with a wicked smile. An evil clown is creepy because we associate clowns with laughter and love of children. We are drawn to this clown, despite his monstrous intent, because of deeply rooted expectations. The music accompanying this painting also plays to the theme of paradigms turned upside down. A familiar carnival melody and the laughter of children give way to low, brooding tones and evil chuckles. A girl’s laughter turns to nervous screams as she recognizes this clown means her some harm.

In our sonic walk through the gallery of horrors, we discovered that allusions to horror film sound tracks establish mood and a sense of place for images of the Phantom of the Opera and the Vampire Nosferatu. During our visit with the Wolfman, a howling wolf cry reminded us of the beast’s tragic story. Drawn back to Nosferatu by his spell-binding glance, we shuddered as the music revealed to us that he held a baby for his bloody ritual. Our hopeful escape to the clown portrait was of no avail. The audio’s wicked laughter and terrified screams left no question about the meaning of a wicked grin.


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