LACMA Exhibition Soundtracks

August 18, 2020
Madeleine Heppermann, Assistant Editor, Communications
Agnes Stauber, Creative Director for Digital Media

LACMA's exhibition soundtracks explore a wide spectrum of music from around the world, the past, and the present. Organized by the museum's Web and Digital Media team and Mark "Frosty" McNeill of nonprofit radio station dublab, LACMA has created soundtracks for the exhibitions To Rome and Back: Individualism and Authority in Art, 1500–1800; Fiji: Art & Life in the Pacific; and Where the Truth Lies: The Art of Qiu Ying.

We caught up with LACMA's Creative Director for Digital Media Agnes Stauber, dublab co-founder Mark "Frosty" McNeill, and co-curator of Fiji: Art & Life in the Pacific Dr. Katrina Igglesden to learn more about the process of creating these soundtracks.

What was the inspiration for creating these exhibition soundtracks?

Agnes Stauber: Our exhibitions explore the art of specific artists or of communities linked by cultural traditions. This visual culture is a reflection of the times when the artists created the works, but also an extension of cultural heritage that evolves and is relevant to this day. When we reflected on ways to deepen viewers' connection to the art displayed in the galleries, we decided to experiment with soundtracks that would be curated to evoke the places and times reflected in the art in rich layers of sounds and music. Like in films, the soundtracks to our exhibitions have the power to paint a vibrant picture in the minds of our visitors and create an emotional journey through the galleries.

What is the process for selecting the final tracks?

AS: To create the soundtracks, we are working with Mark "Frosty" McNeill, the co-founder of dublab, a non-profit radio station and artist collective in Los Angeles. Each soundtrack is the result of a deep collaborative process between Mark and the curators of each exhibition.

Mark "Frosty" McNeill: I like to begin the brainstorming process by sidestepping an analytical selection of music in favor of a conversation about emotional intentions with the soundtrack. I ask the curators to think about the words, feelings, smells, and tastes that come to their minds when thinking about the artworks in their exhibitions. These immediate associations help shape my understanding of the atmosphere these works are intended to evoke.

The brainstorming for the Fiji exhibition surfaced keywords such as loloma (love/affection), laughter, corrugated metal houses, lush greenery, diversity, dogs barking, lapping lagoon water, and bark cloth beating. In the next step, I translate these evocative prompts into my initial selection of songs.

Dr. Katrina Igglesden: For me, the idea of "life" and "living" was a really important concept to convey about Fiji, especially as Fijian culture in a museum can often be viewed as something that only occurred in the past and no longer exists today. I really hoped to include sounds that reflected the diversity, vitality, and dynamism of Fiji and its people—this included voices and music that would be heard in villages, in urban settings, and also music that shows the vast ethnic mix of Fiji's people, especially as the exhibition only depicts Indigenous Fijian (iTaukei) cultural heritage.

Fiji has long had a rich musical heritage, starting with meke and vucu (dance performances and chants) and which is now also shown today in its many successful recording artists and singers. Thus, intermixing older and more "traditional" tracks with 20th and 21st century music was important to me. Today's artists have a lovely habit of paying homage to previous artists, with many of them reviving older classics. The upbeat melodies and happiness portrayed in their singing, no matter the subject matter, displays the concepts of loloma and veilomani—affection and to show love for one another—that Fiji is so well known for.

AS: These conversations are essential in the process of developing an exhibition soundtrack. From the initial selection of songs by Mark, we identify about 30 of them to populate the soundtrack and discuss the flow of the soundtrack as a team. We consider it a musical narrative to the exhibition and pay a lot of attention to its structure and dramatic arc.

In the final stretch of an exhibition soundtrack project, Mark creates a multi-track mix of the selected tracks layered with sounds evoking the atmosphere identified in the curatorial conversations.

How are these soundtracks ideally experienced? Are they meant to accompany visitors while in the galleries or designed for listening before/after visiting?

AS: We are creating these soundtracks as a layer for the exhibition galleries that creates an emotional journey through the world of the art on display. So we have the visitor in mind and design the dramatic arc in a way that is surprising and hopefully intriguing the listener to learn more about the choices in music and their relationship to the art. We also publish the soundtrack mix on MixCloud and a playlist of the selected tracks on Spotify and Apple Music and have noticed quite a bit of interest amongst the audiophile community. In personal comments we received, listeners said that they like to share these soundtracks with their families and friends while entertaining.

How did you select the streaming platforms these soundtracks are presented on?

MM: I think the more channels through which to experience the soundtracks the better. That being said, each platform is unique. The LACMA Mixcloud channel offers the most immersive listening journey because of the ability to share multi-layered collages that allow me to weave evocative audio ambience with the songs. Spotify and Apple Music are already pretty ubiquitous so these offerings allow many visitors a quick and easy way to access the soundtracks and the ability to share the playlists or save single songs to their libraries. Those last two platforms are a great way for audiences to expand their personal music libraries through each listen.

What do you hope to achieve through these soundtracks?

AS: Music is such an important element of storytelling and has been used in the movie industry systematically for a very long time. A soundtrack's power lies in its ability to emotionally transport the listener right into the middle of an experience. Because exhibitions are a form of storytelling through objects in physical space, we believe that our exhibition soundtracks add a similarly important layer to the viewers as film scores do to movies. We hope that our carefully curated soundtracks engage our visitors deeply and create an emotional connection to the stories the artworks tell.

What upcoming exhibitions are going to have soundtracks?

AS: The next exhibition we are creating soundtracks for is the museum's permanent collection of Modern Art that will be installed in BCAM and on public view on an ongoing basis. For this installation, we are collaborating with LACMA's Senior Curator of Modern Art Stephanie Barron and again with dublab's Mark "Frosty" McNeill. In our initial conversation for this project, we decided that we will create two separate soundtracks, one transporting listeners to the atmosphere before World War II, and a second one immersing listeners into the sounds of the Post-War era. These historical time periods were very distinct in their artistic productions, with World War II being a time of dramatic change for the nations which brought about new art movements that were reflected in the visual arts, as well as music and performing arts. The installation of the Modern Art galleries will follow a chronological narrative, grouping art created from 1900 to 1930 in the east wing of BCAM and works created from the 1930s to the 1960s in the west wing of the building. This exhibition layout allows us to score the presentation with two distinct and thoughtful soundtracks.

Please note: LACMA is temporarily closed to the public. We will announce any news about exhibitions by email, on our website, and through social media (@lacma).

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