Seeing the Music and Hearing the Image: Some Expeditionary Art with Solo-bassist Steve Lawson

Seeing the Music and Hearing the Image: Some Expeditionary Art with Solo-bassist Steve Lawson

The bass guitar is a wonderful instrument, if it were not for my learning to play it none of this would ever have happened. I am synaesthetic, I have a visual reaction to sound both musical and non-musical. This inspires my artworks be they jewellery you can hang on yourself or paintings you can hang on a wall. I could have spent my creative time listening to recorded music drawing what I saw and making my art from those initial sketches. These are finished objects that remain in stasis once complete and are admired, bought and enjoyed as objects by my clients. This is a good thing, they get an object they respond to and desire and I get to move on to the next project. Therein lies the essential nature of my creativity. It likes to move, to have the next idea and solve the next problem, to create the next piece of artwork.

My synaesthesia has not always inspired my creativity, it is only over the last five or so years that I have come to realise that this does not happen to everyone and have had the confidence to use my own very subjective inner life to inform my art. I refer to this change in emphasis my Strange Attractors Project. I usually use recorded music and barely considered doing a live art version.

This is where my learning bass guitar comes in. I met the intriguing solo bassist and lateral thinker Steve Lawson via his tutorials at scottsbasslessons.com and then in person at the London Bass Guitar Show. What started as his suggestion of a blog post topic spiralled into a realisation that we needed to get together and see what would happen if I tried to draw what he played live.

We did and this is one of the results (on Soundcloud)

Steve Lawson/Poppy Porter Synaesthetic Journey pt1

There’s only one image up with the first Soundcloud track here are a couple more done on the day.

The experience was a totally new one for me. I am a results driven artist and I was suddenly plunged into working in a totally process driven art form. This really was jumping in with both feet, the synaesthesia bit is the easy part, it’s just there. The translation of those fleeting images into something concrete that you can hold up and show to someone and relate to a specific sound on the fly is hard. Luckily it is pretty immersive so I lost my nerves and just got on with it. As we went I was aware of Steve trying to provoke me, surprise me and question me through the music he was playing.

So what was happening here? How had this music/visual feedback loop set itself up so naturally and easily? What is my mind doing during synaesthesia, what is Steve’s mind doing? How is he essentially doing the reverse of what I am doing and translating visuals into sound.

I can’t speak for Steve but this is roughly what I see when I hear sounds, music, birdsong and F1 engines are a favourite noise too. It is like having eyes in another dimension, I often think of what I see as a space-scape and will often paint it against a background of stars. The “place” is three dimensional a sort of infinite but very personal box which often has a central vanishing point that sounds either start from or go to. The visuals are animated and colourful coming and going with each sound. The colours are usually light colours for high notes and dark colours for low notes, the exact colours vary and I can never find exactly the right one amongst my pencils. The pitch often determines the position too, low notes at the bottom, high at the top. The shapes I see are three dimensional, they have edges and if I am really immersed I can “fly” with them and see them from different angles the sense of movement being very strong. Sometimes I am not sure whether I am drawing an object or a movement the images are so fleeting.

I have no control over whether it happens or not, it is always there. I either tune it in or tune it out so it does not affect what I am doing. If my eyes are engaged in another task they override the synaesthesia, so does concentrating on, say, playing my bass. I’m so taken up with where my fingers are going and keeping rhythm that any synaesthesia is ignored. Having said that I have discovered myself using it if I’m trying to work out a drum pattern or where to come in on a drum pattern. Snare drums, toms, bass drum cymbals and hi-hats all look very different. In fact drums get everywhere if I let them, percussive things are very synaesthetically productive.

Distorted sounds are also excellent which is why Steve’s playing works so well for me. His extensive use of looping also helps me see a sound repeatedly which means I am more likely to be able to draw it. The hard part of the process is the catching, remembering and drawing on the fly. There is no rewind button as with recorded music. I can’t go back and look, I have to go with the strongest images.

There are two parts of my brain at work here the synaesthetic brain which is concerned with the image precisely as it sees it and my artistic brain which has the job of translating this on the fly into something that looks about right. Whatever my artistic brain puts down on the page my synaesthetic brain considers it to be very wrong. Wrong shape, wrong colour, wrong position, just wrong. There is a point at which I have to ignore my pedantic synaesthetic brain and make artistic decisions about what makes a good picture.

I’ve often wondered what all this abstraction actually means, to me it holds enormous importance. Synaesthesia comes with a sense of euphoria and certainty that what is happening holds real meaning but is this just a function of my odd neurology? Art has to connect with other human beings in one way or another. When I put all these images down on paper does it mean anything to anyone else? Are they just pretty patterns peculiar to my brain with no particular relevance? Do all synaesthetes see the same thing? Why are people so intrigued by it? Music is of course the ultimate abstract art form, it communicates in a direct way with our emotions. How does it do that? Can my visual representations of music tap into that same emotional pathway?

In reading round the subject of synaesthesia recently I came across an excellent book “Wednesday is Indigo Blue” by Richard E. Cytowic and in that book is a page on generic forms. These are shapes that always occur during synaesthesia and for people in other altered states of mind such as during a migraine or induced by drugs. These generic forms are certainly variations on what I see. Why would they be the same in all people and people who are not synaesthetic if there was not some similar function going on? There was also discussion of how both synaesthetes and non-synaesthetes associate high notes with light colours and low notes with dark colours. So what is that about? Interestingly the book goes on to argue that perhaps synaesthesia is a normal function of the brain that is merely conscious in synaesthetes and unconscious in everyone else.

For me an artwork in any discipline has to connect as without that emotional reaction an artwork has failed. That human connection and desire to move and be moved can work across centuries and formats otherwise how can I stand in front of a portrait and feel like I am sharing a joke with a long dead Belgian painted by a long dead artist or feel the wordless communication from over a century ago through an abstract painting. Why does a video recording of a live performance of Muse’s “Hysteria” make me feel excited or the writing of Hunter S. Thompson in a second hand paperback weird me out? The artwork can be anything you like but the communal, human experience of it, that is the important thing.

Steve Lawson is a solo bassist who makes beautiful music and thinks a lot about life the universe and everything – read his blog post on our collaboration

Go and immerse yourself in his music at www.stevelawson.net

3 Replies to “Seeing the Music and Hearing the Image: Some Expeditionary Art with Solo-bassist Steve Lawson”

  1. Hi Poppy, I’m Carol, just followed your link from the SBL academy. Just wanted to say this post is so very interesting! Didn’t know people experienced this. It sounds wonderful! I see gorgeous shapes and colors when I am happy, though it’s not as constant as your gift. But fleeting and hard to recreate, as you pointed out.

    Cool that you are a jeweller too. I play around with wire and gems. So many lovely things to experiment with, never enough time.

    Nice to meet you.
    Carol

  2. This is very interesting, never new I had this, thinking doesn’t this happen to everybody? I’m my world loud steady music is fuel for my sea of colors, loud side sounds create flashes of un explainable colors, I have heard to control these by painting tight and keeping color organized, I have applied one of my websites to see my work, I don’t however see letters in color, but dream in color. weird I know-Pete

    1. It’s funny how we have to “learn” what it is and as an artist learning how to use and translating what I “see” when I hear music is the hard part as yes often the colours have other elements mixed in with them perhaps visuals of emotions that makes them hard to describe as they are so complex.

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