Synaesthesia (sin-uhs-THEE-zhee-uh) an automatic involuntary sensation arising from a stimulus to a different sense organ
We all have this to some degree – a soft caress in one spot can tickle somewhere else, scents evoke flavours, and we turn cold on hearing on a blood-curdling screech. These experiences are ordinary ‘wiring’, but some people are ‘wired up’ differently from the rest of us. For example they might see specific shapes picked out in distinctive colours, or see specific colours on hearing distinctive sounds.
A century ago, scientists, musicians and artists alike were fascinated by whether sounds could stimulate colour imagery. They found the waters muddied for various reasons:
* Evidently it is specific sounds that cause the colours, rather than the music as a whole.
* Different synaethetes see quite different colours when listening to the same music.
* A repetitive sound may cause flashing that is disturbing or even temporarily disabling.
* Musicians have always used the language of colour to describe tones, chords, modes and keys.
* To cap it all ( and disappointingly for composers with grand holistic ideas) the vast majority of listeners see, well, nothing really.
Even so, there is still massive scope for artists with this rare neurological condition – let’s call it The Gift – to explore the potential of direct visual inspiration from music.
One such artist is Mark Rowan-Hull whose nifty tagline “Hearing Colour, Seeing Sound” and dramatic technique of “Performance Painting” really caught my imagination when I saw his work at a small local gallery. Mark’s abstract canvases dazzled from the whitewashed walls of a simple Jacobean barn. A video screen showed Mark painting swiftly and confidently. In the video musicians from the Royal Academy of Music improvised ‘live’, but we didn’t hear their tracks. To set the musical scene, the gallery sound-system played a typical CD of abstract atonal music.
I admit not everyone was impressed: ‘completely pretentious crap’, ‘the images are nasty, as is the music’, ‘I have seen better efforts produced in the infant classroom’, but many were enthralled, ‘I really enjoyed the exploration of expressing sensations in physical form!’, ‘I love the energy I feel in response to the vibrant use of colour’ – you get the picture, as it were.
One thing struck me above all else – although the whole Selling Point of the show was Art derived from Sound, the pictures themselves were curiously silent. Not entirely; my favourite had a subtle suggestion of music in rippling horizontal lines akin to a harmony flowing across a stave. That really appealed to me, though I suspect Mark might be appalled if anyone suggested he should deliberately include ‘musical motifs’ in every painting. That little ripple did more than just draw me to the painting. It showed me that I was unconsciously desperate to connect each picture with the music Mark had been hearing while he painted it – music that I could not even imagine.
So I got curious about how – if I could afford the painting – I might display it at home. If you take a look at Mark’s website, you’ll see that a stark white wall with strong uniform lighting would be essential to let the image speak for itself as an abstract painting. If I were buying into the concept (i.e. swopping a huge wad of banknotes for, let’s face it, a brief flurry of panchromatic choreography), I’d want all my guests to pick up on the distinctive Story behind the Picture as well – and whether they liked it or not! But how? A printed Artist Statement is vital for Galleries and maybe public spaces, but pretentious in a home – and still just as silent. If I had the urge to ‘hear the music’, at least once anyway, then it’s likely that my guests would too. I could play a video of its creation alongside the picture, complete with the original soundtrack. That would show how it had been painted and, crucially, how each colour choice synchronised with the sound world. Yet I felt that to be un-domestic and overly school-masterly, “Come along everyone. Can you all see? Hush while I press Play”.
On reflection, I think I’d like a middle way, making just the music available, and for only as long as people were concentrating on the picture. Maybe an MP3 speaker behind the canvas, with a small but insistent Play button for the curious. If I had a big enough stark white wall, that is.
As ever, Wikipedia neatly summarises The Science Bit
Some questions for you:
* Do you think that idea could adapt back to gallery exhibitions?
* If so, should it be the artist or the gallery that solves the problems and provides the equipment?
* And would it be a good idea to offer purchasers the options of a sound kit, pre-loaded with the right music, to go with each picture?