Synaesthesia: reviewing a journey into the unknown

Descending the spiral staircases into the darkened subterranean caverns of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), was like entering the recesses of the subconscious.

The museum was about to host the inaugural coming together of a collision of sensory experiences in the form of Synaesthesia: Music of Colour and Mind, a festival that took its participants on a journey of entertainment, investigation and discovery, over a weekend at the vanguard of unconventional art.

The concept of ‘synaesthesia’ was the central theme of the event – the phenomenon where hearing or thinking about music evokes experiences in another  sensory modality – most commonly visual, but also taste and smell. The phenomenon has been recognised for centuries, but  its subjectivity has made it difficult to quantify and replicate in scientific terms.  Lyndon Terracini has been fascinated by the subject for decades. He joined forces with Brian Ritchie, double-bass and shakuhachi virtuoso, and Simon Rogers, cellist and Artistic Administrator to form the creative team that realised the 2 day festival at the gallery established by philanthropist and art collector David Walsh.

The programme of continuous music illuminated by lighting designer John Rayment was presented amidst art of uncomfortable beauty, which thumbed its nose at convention and which did not even aim to please. The interplay of sound and light intended to simulate the experience of the synaesthete. Defying the conventions of the concert hall participants were invited to moved at will between performances, whether they followed Brian Ritchie playing his shakuhachi to the Hiroshima Room, whether they reclined on lounges in the organ room  listening to Calvin Bowman performing Philip Glass, or stood around the stairwell listening to the Tasmanian Symphony Chorus clad in boiler suits, singing Liszt, Gorecki and Ligeti.

Messiaen’s apocalyptic Quartet for the end of Time was performed with breathtaking beauty in front of Sidney Nolan’s massive 1620 piece mural Snake, by clarinettist Paul Dean with pianist and Messiaen specialist Peter Hill, violinist Susan Collins and cellist Sue-Ellen Paulsen; the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Young owned the same space to present Ligeti with soprano Allison Bell, Mussorgsky and Gorecki. The list continues with Michael Kieran Harvey’s superbly visceral offering of Psychosonata, David Nuttall, Mark Hannaford, Michael Goldschlager, pianists from the Australian National Academy of Music performing Messiaen’s  rarely heard and reverent Vision’s de l’Amen , the Tasmanian Improvised Orchestra and Danny Healy and his jazz ensemble deconstructing the music of synaesthete Duke Ellington.  Cabaret entertainers Meow Meow and Kate Miller-Heidke provided a welcome wind-down in the evenings.


For those wanting a deeper understanding of the phenomenon, there were documentaries and panel discussions exploring synaesthesia with notable synaesthetes and academics delivering their insights. Perhaps most fascinating was the laboratory experiment in which synaesthete, jazz pianist and Head of Music at the Tasmanian Conservatorium of Music , Associate Professor Andrew Legg allowed himself to be hooked up to a formidable contraption that enabled his cortical activity to be translated into visual images via electroencephalography, as he played allowing the audience some sense of what he was seeing in his mind’s eye.

The account of the weekend would not be complete without mention of the sumptuous array of Tasmanian food and wine that was inventively prepared and exquisitely presented to elaborate on the theme.

Whether or not you were interested in the science of synaesthesia, it was a rare opportunity to explore the sounds created by Messiaen, Gorecki, Ligeti. The  holistic approach to the  confluence of light, music and art in a relaxed and flexible format is a welcome development and an idea whose time has come.

Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©

Read our interview with Lyndon Terracini, artitistic director of ‘Synaesthesia: Music of Colour and Mind’ during the lead-up to the festival:

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