Synaesthesia; how you perceive it

Held at Hobart's hottest tourist attraction –The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) –Synaesthesia was billed as a “blend of sonic, visual, tactile and olfactory stimuli”, intended to induce in the audience an experience akin to the condition known as synaesthesia. Over two days the award-winning gallery was closed to the public, as 300 paying guests from around the world were treated to a smorgasbord of performances from world class musicians, complemented by extravagant spreads of Tasmanian food and wine.

Synaesthesia at MONA. Photo by Rémi Chauvin
Synaesthesia at MONA. Photo by Rémi Chauvin

Synaesthesia describes the phenomenon where a person experiences idiosyncratic multi-sensory responses to stimuli, most commonly music, or particular letters or words such as the days of the week. Many composers and visual artists are synaesthetic, and what was in the past considered to be a symptom of mental illness is now accepted as a variation of perception that perhaps all of us are born with but lose within the first few years of childhood.

Apparently synaesthetic composers Scriabin and Rimsky-Korsakoff fought constantly over their “definition” of the F sharp chord: one experienced it as violet and the other as orange. This story was one of many told by synaeasthetic musician Andrew Legg who, with a group of artist-technologists, performed three keyboard improvisations while his body and brain were wired up to computers. Projections of real-time digital imaging of Legg's vital signs ranged from interesting but prosaic colourful graphs to a beautiful, trippy, multicoloured lava-lamp-like animation. Legg's work Syn[a]: Clavier a Lumiere, was the closest we came all weekend to experiencing the synaesthete’s inner eye.

The weekend started promisingly, with Creative Director Lyndon Terracini inviting the audience to respond spontaneously to the music: we were free to enter and leave performances at will, or to clap and cheer between movements. Over the two days, performances were to take place in a number of spaces in the gallery, and body-painted nude maidens would act as our guides. From a balcony the haunting strains of a work for solo amplified cello by Peter Sculthorpe filled the red-lit sandstone wall of the Void, as the silhouette of the cellist Micahel Goldschlager was projected onto another wall. The journey had begun.

The program was designed with performances often happening simultaneously, but with repeats over the weekend, so there was opportunity to catch most acts. First day highlights for me were the Tasma

nian Symphony Orchestra chorus in the stairwell, followed by Calvin Bowman playing organ music by Philip Glass in the Organ Room – reached through a secret door, past a wall festooned with a living garden – then the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra playing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in the Nolan Room. I was a bit late to the next event – Brian Ritchie playing Hiroshima Circle on the shakuhachi – but arrived in time to witness a segment of the massive glass sculpture in the Library Gallery come crashing to the ground. That was certainly a surprising and multi-sensory experience!

The day was capped off by shows from Kate Miller-Heidke, then Meow Meow and some jazz from the Tasmanian Improvised Orchestra.

Next day’s standout was a stunning performance by soprano Alison Bell and the TSO of  Mysteries of the Macabre by Ligeti,  one of the synaesthetic composers featured in the program. I also enjoyed Psychosonata, a piece reflecting the disordered thought of the psychotic, composed and performed by piano virtuoso Michael Kieran-Harvey.

The day finished with an exquisite rendering of Messian’s Quartet for the End of Time, played by Susan Collins (violin), Paul Dean (clarinet), Peter Hill (piano) and Sue-Ellen Paulsen (cello).

As a music festival, Synaesthesia was undoubtedly a winner, but the lighting design was disappointing. Spaces were “lit” by numerous LEDs, however the lighting state was generally static, of a limited (and often cold) colour palette, and though changes of colour occurred at intervals they did not reflect changing moods or tonality in the music as much as might be expected. Most people I talked with, many of whom had travelled from interstate to attend, were anticipating something a great deal more imaginative, dynamic and interactive.

What made the weekend worthwhile was the setting and the program. The event was a wonderful a way to experience MONA, for example to lie on the floor of the room which houses Nolan’s multi-hued 45 metre long Snake while immersed in the sounds of an orchestra, or to wander through the gallery to the next performance and chance upon previously unnoticed treasures or remembered favourites whilst in an unusually receptive mode. When feeling somewhat sated by music, I spent some time viewing the current temporary exhibition Theatre of the World, which I can recommend wholeheartedly: see if you can find the gas-candle room, it is so beautiful in its simplicity.

And the concept wasn’t a total failure. With the lighting not providing the desired effect, I often closed my eyes, seeking to imagine what a synaesthete would experience. Much of the program was by synaesthetic composers, and was full of evocative tonal colours and timbres. Synaethesia encouraged me to interact with music in a personal, immediate and sense-filled manner – all in all it was musically rich and very satisfying artistic happening.