I am often asked about how my synaesthesia works, and what I experience during it, and often talk about it in the context of my creative works. I have written a little about it before but am not sure why I have fought shy of writing about its more extreme form in detail until now but I recently went to see one of my favourite bands live and what I experienced means I probably should. I went to see Muse play at the SSE Hydro in Glasgow with a friend who lives in the Scottish Borders. I say one of my favourite bands they probably are my favourite band or at least the one I spend most time listening to. Their particular sound, a sort of baroque-gothic, psychedelic space prog gives me a very vivid synaesthetic reaction. I say one of my favourite bands as my official “Favourite Band” are The Manic Street Preachers, they got there first in my teens and not even the mighty Muse can knock them off that spot.
The way I experience synaesthesia is very vivid, pleasurable and memorable. I can pay attention to it and fully focus on it or ignore it at will. The shapes, colours and movement change with the music and last only as long as the sound lasts. It is easier to see if I close my eyes but still there if they are open. It occupies a sort of infinite cube headspace and is three dimensional often going into or coming out of a vanishing point. Mostly I use recorded music to listen, watch and then do a sketch of what I have experienced in my primary sketchbook. This sketch will then be used as a direct source for my jewellery or paintings. Recently I have been increasingly turning to live music as a source of inspiration too. Both in my live art project with solo-bassist Steve Lawson and recordings of live shows as they offer something different from a studio version. Sometimes it’s the little unscripted surprises that offer up the most interesting visuals and working with a musician who does nothing but improvise there are certainly plenty of those.
I have always been rather circumspect about “tuning in” to my synaesthesia at live events (particularly loud ones) as, when I was in my early 20s I had an unpleasant experience after being at the front at a gig that I can only put down to sensory overload and not realising that the extreme noise of a rock gig mixed with the peculiar state of mind synaesthesia induces is too much if you don’t understand what is happening. Since then I have kept my attention strictly to the show in front of me and have ignored the sensory stimulus of my synaesthesia, and stood to the back. ( I should probably explain sensory overload or at least how I understand it. Not a pleasant thing it is where, the executive function in my brain gets so confused by too much input that it basically shuts down and I find it hard to organise any sort of train of thought or speech, it doesn’t last long, all I need is a cup of tea and a quiet five minutes but it pretty unpleasant loss of control)
Things are different now, I have embarked on a live art project with Steve Lawson and have performed with him in a synaesthetic drawing and improvised playing feedback loop which has proved very successful. I use my synaesthesia daily in my artistic practice, I’ve even caught myself trying to use it while attempting to transcribe basslines. I know what it is and where it comes from and what effect it has on me. So about five songs in watching Muse I decided to see what would happen if I “tuned in” and paid proper attention to my synaesthesia.
So, the drummer was was quite possibly using the roof as a kick drum, you could feel the bass vibrating in your heart and the guitar was loud and distorted. The light show is complex and broad. It is already a very physical experience. I closed my eyes to focus more easily amongst the flashing lights. It was all there moving fast with the music but I didn’t want to spend the whole concert with my eyes shut and miss the show so I opened them and let the synaesthetic shapes and movement merge with the real lighting and movement. Bass is always more like a distortion in the space-time continuum and dark so actually quite tricky to see, as a bassist myself I am always hunting for the bassline, drums get every where, a sharp silver slash in the centre of the stage, a mass of red blood cell like shapes but it was Matt Bellamy’s guitar I fell back in love with. The golden and white hot shapes, curling and flashing, filling the bowl of the auditorium weaving in and out of the lights flashing and changing as quick as they did. I found my self so mesmerised I could hardly dared breathe. Then they played “Stockholm Syndrome” a song I have always found to be especially synaestheically productive. The world turned upside-down in the most fantastical way. It is a heavy song, and fast. I’ve learned it on bass, it is tiring to play and frenetic, distorted, relentless and soaring. The music, shapes, colours and lights filled my entire consciousness and the sound was trying to fragment it, momentarily there was nothing else. This was sailing dangerously close to the edge of sensory overload. Muse finished the song but kept jamming, once I thought they were going to end, but unbearably, fantastically they continued, I almost couldn’t bear it. Then they crashed their ending and moved on to the next song, the change in rhythm broke the spell and I rode with it, I realised I was trembling. After that intense experience I enjoyed my some what odd take on the show but was surprised at that intensity. Once Knights of Cydonia (the most preposterous rock song ever written and one that always makes me smile) had finished and the last white hot sound of guitar feedback had faded I felt drained, a bit shocked at the effect it had had on me. It took me until we got outside to be able to speak coherently about the show.
For me synaesthesia has its extremes it can be gentle and ephemeral but also has a totally immersive side to the experience if I let it. I can feel my interest in using live music over recorded growing. I like the unpredictability and it reflects my love of the distorted edge of the sound. The boundary between the sound and the breakdown of that sound is where the fascinating detail both in shape and colour lies.