The study of scientific journals, textbooks, and magazines has had a profound effect on both my sound work and the writings that invariably accompany it. For many years, anything relating to the human brain and its neurological underpinnings held me captive; a few of my interests in this area included—and in some cases still include—epilepsy, schizophrenia, autism, migraines, electric shock therapy, hallucinations, and physical injury to the brain and its aftermath (as in the case of Phineas Gage, for example, where a dramatic transformation of personality took place after an accident).
One of the major influences on my music of the past five years has been synesthesia, a condition that affects approximately one in 25,000 people. It is experienced as a sensation produced in one modality when a stimulus is applied to that of another, as when the mating call of an elk induces the visualization of a translucent latticework of electric blue lines before the viewer’s eyes.
My work sets out to integrate the personal experience of both musician and audience with the scientific process of interpretation, fusing performance and perception. With this in mind, I have in several compositions used the phenomenon of synesthesia as a conceptual framework upon which to generate musical material. In Synaesthetic Improvisation II, for example, I have done this by providing a linguistic score for the musicians to follow, which consists of sentences that are highly charged with sensory information.
The musicians are asked to translate these linguistic stimuli into what is, for them, the appropriate sounds on their respective instruments, based on a number of factors: What would the scene in question (as described in the score) look like? Smell like? Taste like? Feel like? And finally, sound like? Further, they are asked to give some thought to the physical qualities that each linguistic description presents to them: could these be described as soft? Rough? Soothing? Confusing? Ugly? Beautiful? If a sentence evokes a specific smell or texture, how would they describe its odor, or the play of light upon its surface? Following closely on these impressions, I suggested musical parameters be determined based on the perceived “rhythm,” “timbre,” or “dynamics” of a paragraph, or on the “pitch” of a memory evoked by any of these factors. Each paragraph, of course, could be comprised of several different qualities, some being contradictory or wholly irrational; any of these could be utilized to create their score, which, based on the musician’s preference, could consist of drawings, notes, or specific musical notations pertaining to what they will play during the piece.
LISTEN to an excerpt of
Foment in the Brailles of Zoopsia took this idea further still by presenting these and many other ideas in a short story entitled Diorama, which the musicians were asked to read in preparation for the concert. Before the concert, the audience was given the short story to read, along with a program that delineated the concert’s conceptual themes. Aside from acting as a source of entertainment and inspiration, the true purpose of Diorama is to enable each reader/musician to evolve an imaginary biological organism—separate from themselves—that will then be used during the concert to act out (physiologically and sonically) their thoughts and feelings pertaining to the story. It is in part because of this virtual odyssey through the short story that the concert can be thought of as a scientific experiment, in which the respective behaviors of the “subjects” (musicians) are being evaluated in response to various stimuli.
The intended goal of this sensorial investigation is twofold: to examine how a musician might interpret the same basic ideas expressed in different ways (i.e., as experienced through the senses), and how a group of musicians’ interpretations of the same stimulus, presented in exactly the same manner, might differ. Additionally, I am interested in the members of the audience’s experiences of the concert; specifically, their perceptions of the narrative basis of the piece, and how the musicians have chosen to interpret it sonically.
LISTEN to an excerpt of
Another piece of mine inspired by synesthesia is Spatio-sensory, which, unlike the above-mentioned works, is a site-specific installation comprising an eight-channel sound system and a fifty minute piece of pre-recorded electro-acoustic music. For this, the creative burden rests on the audience, for here there are no performers. In a darkened room, the audience is told that the speakers through which the piece will be heard are arranged in such a way that they form the outline of an elongated human head, with four eyes, two ears, one nose and one mouth. The implication being that each speaker represents one of these four sense organs, the audience is informed that it is up to them to ascribe spatio-sensory meaning to the piece; that is, to decide which sensory modality is currently being expressed through which speaker at any given time. It is also suggested that by altering one’s spatio-sensory perspective throughout the piece, an entertaining and potentially mind-expanding form of “animation” could ensue, during which the visualization of the room as a living and flexible head (the audience representing its brain) could become palpable. As is the case with the other pieces I’ve described, I am and will continue to be as interested in an individual’s subjective emotional, sensory, and intellectual reactions to the minutiae of this piece as I am in its sonic aspects.
I am presently developing a space that will function as a synaesthetic recording studio, art gallery, and theater where work on multimedia projects with composers and other professionals will be coordinated and then presented to the public. In the space, painters, writers, chefs, acupuncturists, geologists, or aromatherapists might find themselves collaborating on a multisensory production with people working in a field not normally associated with their own. The studio’s projects will explore the effects of sensory fusion in collaborative artworks and how both the architects of such works and the members of the audience process the experience.
While I don’t believe it necessary for an individual to be an expert in a given field or discipline to fully appreciate the musical and sensory effects that I set out to achieve in pieces such as Foment in the Brailles of Zoopsia and Synaesthetic Improvisation II, I do feel that an acquaintance with the basic tenets of zoology, psychology, linguistics, and neurology may increase one’s understanding of the conceptual architecture of these works. That said, there are many ways to become engaged in these pieces; those familiar with the above topics may become more intellectually involved, while others may focus on the emotional and sensory aspects. These are equally valid perspectives; I don’t see one as being intrinsically better than the other.