People often ask me “…what is it like to be synaesthetic, what do you see?”. I talk about it all the time in the context of my art but am not sure why I have fought shy of writing about its more extreme form until now. I went to see one of my favourite bands live and what I experienced means I probably should. I went to see Muse play. Their particular sound, a sort of baroque-gothic, psychedelic space prog lights up my synaesthesia, unlike any other band.
My synaesthesia is very vivid, pleasurable and memorable. I can pay attention to it and entirely focus on it or ignore it at will, but it is always there. I see shapes, colours and movement that change with the music and last only as long as the sound continues. 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.
I am circumspect about “tuning in” to my synaesthesia at live events, particularly loud ones. I was in my early 20s when I had an unpleasant experience at the front of a gig. I did not realise what effect the extreme noise of a rock gig and the peculiar state of mind synaesthesia brings would induce in me. I put it down to sensory overload, cue panic attack. Since then I have kept my attention strictly to the show in front of me and have ignored the visual stimulus of my synaesthesia, and stood to the back.
Sensory overload is not pleasant, the brain’s executive function gets confused by too much input and shuts down and indiscriminately admits all sensory stimuli without filtering its relevance. When this happens I find it hard to organise a 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 is a pretty unpleasant loss of control and one fellow dyslexics amongst you may recognise.
Things are different now, I have embarked on a live art project with improv. Solo bassist Steve Lawson and have worked with him on a synaesthetic drawing and music performance. I use my synaesthesia daily in my artistic practice. I know what it is and where it comes from and what effect it has on me. Or so I thought…
So, about five songs into Muse’s set I decided to see what would happen if I “tuned in” and paid proper attention to my synaesthesia. The drummer 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 sophisticated 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 always looks like a distortion in the space-time continuum and dark, so really it is quite tricky to see, as a bassist myself I am always hunting for the bassline. Drums get everywhere, a sharp silver slash in the centre of the stage or a mass of red blood cell-like shapes from the toms. But it was Matt Bellamy’s guitar I fell 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 quickly as they did. I found my self so mesmerised I hardly dared breathe.
Then they played “Stockholm Syndrome” a song which has always lit up my synaesthesia. 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, to pull it apart, momentarily there was nothing else. I felt ecstatic and desperate and 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 somewhat 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 sparks of guitar feedback had faded I felt drained, a bit shocked at the effect it had had on me. I couldn’t speak to my companion until we had walked outside the venue.
Synaesthesia has its extremes; it can be gentle and ephemeral but also immersive if I let it. It had been an intense experience and once I had committed myself to it an involuntary one. Afterwards I returned to my studio and spent three days drawing the fantastical images I had seen that night.