Sunday, 31 March 2013

Synesthetic art & music

In its most basic (and presumably common) form, synesthesia is the association of colours and textures/sensations with words, numbers and sounds. This is something I’ve always been aware of, but it wasn’t until the late 90s when I realised that a) it had a name; and b) not everybody associated colours with words.

For synesthetes with a more severe condition, it can apparently be quite unpleasant and problematic (for example, certain everyday words could induce a feeling on nausea), but for me personally it’s been an interesting addition to my art and more recently, my music.

I can’t hear a song without “seeing” what colour(s) it is, and how the textures/forms change in my mind’s eye, while the song is playing. Back in 2004, I put this to the test and tried illustrating several Peter Gabriel songs, in order to try and capture the shapes, forms, textures and primarily what colours each song was for me. This work, “Talk In Pictures”, can be seen here.

As a passionate music fan, I can’t paint without having some music on. Perhaps without even realising it, my choice of music influences the colours I decide to use in the work. Clearly some albums are better for painting to than others, and often you have to choose the right album to match the mindset you need to create artwork to, or perhaps even something of the right kind of mood to what you’re trying to convey in the work.

Many albums have a consistent colour palette all the way through; others can be quite varied. I would also say that some albums can be quite monochromatic, and more ‘texture’ based; grainy, spikey, glassy, metallic, etc, with very little colour coming through. So for me, a song or album is more than just music – it can be a full-on sensory experience! It’s hard to imagine hearing music and not ‘seeing’ colours. Which sounds absolutely bonkers!

This isn't always the case, but sometimes, the choice of colour in an album's artwork can influence my perception of that album’s colours, so rather than my mind interpreting the colours, it's agreeing with  (or being influenced by) the artist or designer’s choice of colours for the design, as it clearly matches the colour of the music on offer (Depeche Mode’s “Exciter” being one such example, where I always hear the music in greens and black). 

What is perhaps more interesting for me, is the effect of synaesthesia whilst making music, as I’m now in control of what colours and textures I want in the music. In most cases, I’ll come up with a title first and base the song on that, it having set the mood. But before I’ve even laid a note down I have an idea in my mind of what colour I want it to be.

While this is only of real relevance to me, the next step is to find the right sounds – like a any musician would, except mine, also need to be the right colour! Sometimes it takes several attempts; one song I was working on recently had a lead melody that in my mind’s eye, was a kind of yellowy-white colour. But my first choice of sound, while the right colour, wasn’t the right sound; it’s texture too harsh. I eventually found another yellow/white sound that was softer, and absolutely right for the piece.

I have found that in many cases, a song has a consistent backwash of colours, for example a range of greens, with the lead vocal or melody being a lighter streak in say grey or white which cuts right through the middle of the greens. This is the sort of thing I was illustrating with the “Talk In Pictures” pieces.

I’ve said that for me, making music is the same as painting, just using sounds instead of colours – but I’m wrong, because it uses sounds AND colours… you just can’t see them in the end result! But I’ve figured out that my brain works in exactly the same way when painting or composing a song, and for me, synaesthesia is a crucial – if subtle – part of the creative process.

A lot of 'colour' went into crafting my latest album, Future Worlds - I'd certainly be curious to hear what fellow synesthetes think of it...
Future Worlds, by The Light Dreams

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