How Japan Supernatural’s eerie soundscape was brought to life

AGNSW Japan Supernatural

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

Japan Supernatural explores the world 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.

More than your ordinary audio guide, the immersive sound experience Art Processors produced played a key role in guiding visitors through the exhibition and features original music alongside narration by exhibition curator Melanie Eastburn and history and folklore experts Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt.

L to R: Becky Sui Zhen Freeman, Corin Ileto, Noriko Tadano, Toshi Sakamoto & Nao Anzai

Spooky strategies

Rather than settle for a traditional audio guide, Eastburn was keen to explore new territory. The Art Processors team was up for the challenge.

“We could think about the creepiness and the spookiness of the subject matter and how to make that come alive,” says Art Processors Sound and Music Supervisor Becky Sui Zhen.

“We also worked very closely with the curatorial team, identifying what curator Melanie Eastburn was hoping for the audio experience.”

Brooke Carson-Ewart, Head of Digital Engagement at AGNSW, said the partnership was about more than devising a technical solution—it was about creating original content.

“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.”

Eyes up

It was important to keep the user experience clean, uncluttered and straightforward, allowing audiences to lose themselves in the art without fussing over intrusive or distracting devices.

Art Processors created an immersive and intuitive audio experience where everything was readily on hand in the app and your ears, meaning eyes could stay on the art.

Our proprietary platform and location-aware technology enabled the soundtrack to update seamlessly as the visitor moved throughout the space.

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Spirited collaboration

The score for the audio guide 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 Sound & Music Supervisor, Becky Sui Zhen, worked with the creative team across Sydney, Melbourne and Tokyo to compose several tracks blending ambient sound, traditional Japanese vocals and instrumentation—taiko drumming, shamisen (a three-string musical instrument) and kokyu (a string instrument played with a bow).

“It was an unusual project for the musicians. 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.

Tadano’s interpretation of a lullaby for one of the exhibition’s yurei (ghost story) artworks is both heart-aching and eerie.

“When I saw the artwork, the feeling came into my heart, and I tried pulling at the feeling,” Ms Tadano says.

The performances of the musicians and the work of the sound design team elevated the audio experience above mere background music to a place where it could evoke the spirit of the artworks and render it in sonic form.

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.

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.

Acknowledgement of Country

In the spirit of reconciliation, we acknowledge the many Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and honour Elders past, present and emerging. We respect their deep, enduring connection to their lands, waterways and surrounding clan groups since time immemorial. We cherish the richness of First Nations Peoples’ artistic and cultural expressions.