Following the inaugural Synaesthesia in 2012 , Hobart’s MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) was again closed to the general public as 400 paying guests embarked on what curator Brian Ritchie calls a “journey of play, exploration and private emotion”.

Robin Fox. Colour Organ
Robin Fox. Colour Organ

With a similar name, but eminently more realisable promise, Synaesthesia+ sought more than to simply recreate a synaesthete’s experience of associating particular colours with musical notes, and devoted itself to the broader premise of exploring how music, text and lighting affect the senses and the brain.

Music, old – primarily Bach – and new – ranging from Schoenberg and other 20thcentury composers to the present day and including a World Premier orchestral piece by Matthew Hindson and Cross Genre Experimental Improvisation – resonated in counterpoint throughout MONA’s galleries.

The music was performed by a wish-list of international soloists, special guest soloist violinist Richard Tognetti, the best of local musicians, students from the National Academy of Music (ANAM), the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and the TSO Chorus.

Custom-designed interactive lighting installations included works by multimedia artist Robin Fox, one of which was a key-board (played by in turn by audience members) that generated a 3D trippy coloured light for each note played. The imaginative, dramatic use of space added to the usual heightened theatrical MONA aesthetic; the synergy of elements leading to a unique experience of the physical impact of music.

Up till now in Australia, dance-theatre has led the way in successfully combining multi-media, music, theatre and movement; other performing art forms have been frustratingly slow to catch up. While the use of projections and film to accompany classical music is not new, it has mostly been a novel addition, rather than integral component, to the concert experience. In addition, concert hall audiences are essentially trapped in a single seat for the duration of the performance and sitting on the floor, arriving late, or (god-forbid!) walking out is considered the height of rudeness.

Just as MONA leads by example in a new way to view art in our post-postmodern multimedia age, Synaesthesia+ offered a new model of high-end music presentation.

TSO, Hindson. Resonance
TSO, Hindson. Resonance

Over a weekend of two x eight-hour sessions, 33 musical happenings were staged across the vast labyrinth of MONA’s galleries. With many pieces overlapping in time or occurring simultaneously, the audience were encouraged to (politely) come and go as they pleased, and seating ranged from rows of chairs, beanbags or none. Some performances led the audience through galleries and stairwells, and personal impressions of the music and lights were considerably altered by a change of vantage point.

A few attendees chose simply to wander the gallery and view the artworks, with the music as an ever-changing soundtrack, others seemed to be sampling as much as possible of the program, staying with a piece if it grabbed them or moving on if they were eager to see another work occurring at the same time.

Some, like myself, preferred the other extreme of attending individual performances from beginning to end. This approach meant missing out on much. But I was more than amply compensated through experiencing intimate immersion in many deeply moving works, all played by world-class musicians. A number of the most powerful pieces I saw are so rarely performed I will possibly never again see them played live.

I am curious to know how the musicians – who are used to the continuous undivided attention of an audience – felt about the comings-and-goings and whether this truly is the new trend for classical music performance. The irony is that the trapped silent audience is a relatively new development. During the Baroque period, and beyond, composers had to work hard to capture the attention of punters who routinely engaged in lively conversation and wandered in and out of venues at will.

Credit must be paid to the artistic directors: Orchestra Manager Simon Rogers, TSO Chief Conductor Marko Letojna and MONA Music Curator Brian Ritchie. The superb musical program and the extraordinary meld of artistic elements left me in a transported state for long after the event.

The sole criticism I have is the density of the programming. It left inadequate time between intense items to think, breathe and share thoughts with some of the diversely culturally literate people I met, many of whom were not from Tasmania. The invaluable cultural exchange that springs from these sorts of events is not only contained in the program, and we Tassies are a bit starved!

$450 a ticket ($250 for one day) may sound like a lot; however, I don’t think anyone left feeling they hadn’t received more than value for their money. The attendance figures – 49% interstate, 51% local – demonstrate there is a substantial, culturally curious, audience eager to pay good money to participate in Tasmanian events that set the bar high both in terms of excellence and aesthetic. Let’s hope, like Hobart Baroque, that MONA and Synaesthesia are here to stay.

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