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Sound Thoughts on Art

The arts can engage all our senses, but it’s in the crossover between them that things really get interesting. When we listen to music, what do we see in our mind’s eye? When we look at a work of art, what do we hear? Sound Thoughts on Art, a new podcast from the National Gallery of Art, explores the intersection of sight and sound.

Hosted by musician and journalist Celeste Headlee, each episode focuses on a work of art in the National Gallery’s collection. Learn about the work and its context and hear a musician respond to that work through sound, creating a dialogue between visual art and music. Sound Thoughts on Art tells the stories of how we experience art and how it connects us.

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In an improvised musical conversation, jazz bassist Christian McBride introduces himself to David. Connecting over McBride’s walking bass line, they meet David’s friends, splash by the fire hydrant, play stickball. Through David, McBride recalls his own childlike innocence.

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Composer Nathalie Joachim sees her childhood memories in May Flowers. The photograph also evokes the uniquely spiritual experience of recording a church choir in her family’s Haitian village. Joachim has lovingly woven their song into her composition.

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Musician Rafiq Bhatia feels compelled to capture his improvisations—fleeting moments of sound—in recordings. Like sound, light is transient. But James Turrell’s works, which inspired Bhatia’s composition, contain and present light, allowing us to forge a deeper relationship with an ephemeral substance.

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Composer-pianist Vijay Iyer describes the East Building as a work of art that does what music does: invites you in—to inhabit, explore, and be among others. He responds with pieces that balance pattern and structure with leaving room to wander.

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Composer/producer Emily Wells sees us as the buffalo: frozen before downfall, but still alive—which is why she includes so much breath in her song. Wells, whose work deals with the climate crisis, looks to David Wojnarowicz’s AIDS activism for lessons.



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When her sister was dying, composer Kamala Sankaram was drawn to Mark Rothko’s painting: it both captured her grief and calmed her. That experience influenced Sankaram’s approach to creating a musical score, which she shares in this episode.


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 Hip-hop artist Jasiri X looks at Kerry James Marshall’s woodcut almost like he’s looking into a mirror. It captures the experience of a Black man: resilient but restrained from being his authentic self. Jasiri responds to the work through two songs that reflect on his internal struggle. 


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Art meets us where we are. For classical pianist and activist Lara Downes, Romare Bearden’s collage parallels her own life and family story: a puzzle full of questions and unfinished business. On her journey inside Bearden’s work, Downes travels backward to explore Black memory. In response to the collage, she brings together different musical sources, overlaying sounds that sit together comfortably at times and create tension at others, giving them the freedom to coexist.


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Nam June Paik used Ommah, Korean for “mother,” as the title of his final video sculpture. For composer and multi-instrumentalist Bora Yoon, this evokes the mother tongue and the motherland. Through the concept of cultural blood memory, Yoon explores whether we carry the sounds and memories of our people within us. She responds to Paik’s work by bringing together traditional Korean instruments and her own eclectic electronic music.


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Composer Daniel Bernard Roumain sees pain, legacy, and enduring hope in this famous photograph of Ella Watson, one of many by Gordon Parks. Performance poet Lady Caress describes it as “the physical form of stolen expectations.” Together, they respond to the iconic photograph with a combination of music and poetry. In the ebb and flow of his composition, DBR hopes to capture the rhythm of Watson’s life—an elegy for someone he longs to have known.


Find full transcripts and more information about this episode. Subscribe directly to Sound Thoughts on Art from the National Gallery of Art on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app.

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The arts can engage all our senses, but it’s in the crossover between them that things really get interesting. When we listen to music, what do we see in our mind’s eye? When we look at a work of art, what do we hear? Sound Thoughts on Art, a new podcast from the National Gallery of Art, explores the intersection of sight and sound.

Hosted by musician and journalist Celeste Headlee, each episode focuses on a work of art in the National Gallery’s collection. Learn about the work and its context and hear a musician respond to that work through sound, creating a dialogue between visual art and music. Sound Thoughts on Art tells the stories of how we experience art and how it connects us.


Find full transcripts and more information about this episode. Subscribe directly to Sound Thoughts on Art from the National Gallery of Art on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app.