How Japan Supernatural’s eerie soundscape was brought to life

Almost 40,000 visitors to the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ blockbuster show Japan Supernatural have enjoyed a “cinematic experience for the ears” created by Art Processors.

Japan Supernatural explores the role of ghosts, spirits and demons in Japanese art, and features over 180 wildly imaginative works by Japanese artists, past and present, including contemporary superstar Takashi Murakami.

The audio experience Art Processors has produced plays a key role in guiding visitors through the exhibition. It features an original musical score with haunting melodies, festive revelry, driving percussion and a ghostly lullaby that support narration delivered by exhibition curator Melanie Eastburn together with history and folklore experts Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt.

The score was created in collaboration with Japanese vocalist and virtuoso master of the Japanese shamisen, Noriko Tadano, and Toshi Sakamoto of renowned Japanese Taiko drumming ensemble Wadaiko Rindo. Melbourne-based Natural Progression Studios provided additional composition and arrangement.

Art Processors Creative Producer Becky Sui Zhen oversaw musical direction for the show and assembled the impressive line-up of Japanese and Australian musicians. Working across Sydney, Melbourne and Tokyo, the team composed several tracks in response to the exhibition’s themes.

Ms Sui Zhen said the score blended traditional Japanese vocals and instrumentation—including taiko drumming, shamisen (a three-string musical instrument), and kokyu (a string instrument played with a bow)—with ambient sound for a contemporary setting.

“It was an unusual project for the musicians in that it wasn’t scored in the traditional sense. It involved quite a lot of improvisation on their part because we wanted their musical responses to the themes of the artworks,” Ms Sui Zhen said.

“We also worked very closely with the curatorial team, identifying in an early content workshop what curator Melanie Eastburn was hoping for the audio experience; her ideas and the tone of the exhibition. During recording, we were able to come back to that, the curatorial intent, and work out what we wanted to say through the music.

“The Gallery was very involved in the process, providing feedback. But there was also a lot of trust and that comes from having worked together on a few projects now.”

The Japan Supernatural audio experience is the third mobile application and original score Art Processors has produced in partnership with the Gallery. Art Processors previously created the Masters Audio Guide for the Masters of modern art from the Hermitage show and the John Russell Audio Experience for the Gallery’s John Russell exhibition.

Brooke Carson-Ewart, Head of Digital Engagement at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, said Art Processors had not only provided the audio delivery platform that enabled location-aware visitor experiences at the Gallery, but was able to work closely with institutions to create immersive content.

“We’re not just working with Art Processors as a technical solution. It’s about collaborating around creating original content. That’s how we like to work,” Ms Carson-Ewart said.

“We don’t just call up and say, ‘This is what we want. Go away and create it.’ We are there every step of the way. Art Processors understands how we work and we’re able to create experiences for our visitors that get better each time.

“For Japan Supernatural, Art Processors, and Becky in particular, worked very closely with the musicians to come up with something very beautiful, unique, and tailored to our product.”

To date, visitors have listened to the audio experience more than 39,000 times, with 1,295 sessions recorded during opening weekend. On average, visitors spend 62 minutes listening to the experience’s tracks as they walk through the exhibition.

Available in both English and Japanese, the Japan Supernatural audio experience is accessible, intuitive and location-aware, seamlessly delivering audio content as visitors explore each room within the exhibition.

The audio experience is free, and available via audio devices at the exhibition entry and for download on your own phone at

Japan Supernatural is on show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until March 8, 2020.

About the performers:

  • Melanie Eastburn is senior curator of Asian art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. She has worked as a curator at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh and the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.
  • Noriko Tadano is an award-winning, virtuoso master of the Japanese shamisen (a three-string, banjo-like instrument) and a traditional Japanese vocalist, who has performed all over the world.
  • Toshi Sakamoto shares the beauty of Japanese music through performances at music, arts and cultural festivals, educational forums all over Australia, and overseas tours to Fiji, New Caledonia, China and Japan.
  • Natural Progression Studios is the collaborative studio project of Becky Sui Zhen (Sui Zhen), Corin Ileto (CORIN) and Casey Hartnett (Sleep Decade).
  • Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt have co-authored numerous books on Japanese pop culture, history and folklore including Yokai attack! The Japanese monster survival guide, Yurei attack! The Japanese ghost survival guide, and Japandemonium illustrated: the yokai encyclopaedias of Toriyama Sekien.