Synaesthesia and classical music

Stephanie SingerWed 13th July 2016

Exploring the multi-sensory concert experience of BitterSuite

I don't have synaesthesia and it is important to qualify that, despite its popular and often jealousy-inducing status in modern life, it is a unique condition, and occasionally a frustrating one.

Synaesthesia is the idiosyncratic experience of two or more senses being triggered at once to create a 'crossing of the senses'. For instance, a synaesthete may associate specific colours and shapes for each musical note, eg red circles for D#'s.

Scientists shudder when the opinion that 'everyone's a little synaesthetic' is introduced, because, well it's simply not true. Instead, shared sensory crossovers can be discussed by the term 'cross modality' (a mode being a sense). 

Many artists throughout history have experimented with altering the sensorial experience of audiences to conjure a new experience - the Greeks, Scriabin, the Futurists. But the leaders in sensorial experiences are the practitioners working with participants with special needs and sensory impairments.

Inspired by synaesthesia and crossmodality, BitterSuite choreograph sensory experiences to develop alongside the classical concert. We immerse audiences within the sound and their imaginations, to induce an active listening state where the senses are unified by the experience of listening to music.

We know instinctively to use more than one sense at any one time to reinforce the experience of learning - for instance teaching someone to count to 10. We use fingers to physically count out the numbers and our voices to count out alongside. Why can't we deepen the experience of listening then, through an evocative and appropriate sensorial experience?

BitterSuite have created two fully sensory concerts: our first was for Debussy. This is particularly appropriate, as not only does he take an extremely expressive and emotive approach to composition, but he was rumoured to have synaesthesia.

Sensorial work extends concerts to a wide and diverse audience, including those who have no existing relationship to classical music or MSI audiences.

In 1893, Debussy's String Quartet was described as bewilderingly colourful. The sense of deep yearning in the melody in movement three is the inspiration for choreography centred around stimulating sensitive parts of the body - lips, fingertips and heads - with heat created by the performers’ hands hovering an inch off the skin. The piece is cyclical and centred around one single theme. We create a touch-based experience for the theme that can return in various states of evolution, as and when the theme returns within the music. This is the sensorial and evocative language we work with.

Audiences have strong emotional reactions to the piece; having toured it for 2.5 years, we have seen a huge amount of tears and laughter. But the most striking part of it is that at the end of the concert people don't leave, they stay, they talk about the music, discuss what they heard, felt. Audiences hug their guides and talk openly about the journey they went on with the music. That's the pay off. Even if the pairings aren't quite 'right' for every person, it undeniably builds a connection to the music and means that for 40 minutes no audience member is nodding off - they are part of the concert!

Upcoming performances: July 23 – The Other Art Fair, The Arnolfini Bristol; August 4-7 – Wilderness Festival; October 6-9 – The Other Art Fair, Old Truman Brewery London; December 9 –  Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York City; 2017 – Open Senses, London. For more information, visit: bittersuite.org.uk

Stephanie Singer

Stephanie Singer is a composer, artist and Creative Director of BitterSuite

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