When I tune in I’m using my synaesthesia to see music as shapes and colour, then draw it …live.

I’m standing at the edge of a stage, to my left is Steve Lawson one of the most renown solo-bassists in the UK if not the world. He is in his self-described “Happy Place” he is a musician, a performer. He is calmly making a few pre-flight checks on his equipment. I am not a performer. I am a maker, a jewellery designer. What am I doing here? I am also synaesthetic and am about to use my ability to see sound to create drawings, live.

Poppy standing on stage about to get started drawing. Photo: Mandy Millyard
Getting started. Photo: Mandy Millyard

The audience has finished their chatter and has settled expectantly looking at the stage. We are at that pregnant moment just before a performance starts, a pause where there is no turning back. Steve starts to play, a long purple-lilac chord, he’s beginning to work out what he wants to play, where his sonic thought process will take him. I need to relax, tune in and start to perform live what usually happens alone, with my sketchbook. I close my eyes, breathe and let the music take over.

Seeing Sound, wait, you what? How does that even happen?

Synaesthesia is a pretty odd thing, but a normal neurological phenomenon and I get asked about how it works and what I see regularly. The best way to describe it now is to step away from how I use it to design my jewellery and look at the source. My version is hearing/sound to sight/shape, colour, movement and texture. It is a natural neurological phenomenon. There are as many types of synaesthesia as there are ways to mix different senses; hearing to sight, touch to taste, taste to sight, hearing to touch etc. There is also another kind of synaesthesia that associates graphemes (letters and numbers) to colours; I don’t understand that kind of synaesthesia it is as odd to me as seeing sound must be to you!

Usually, when I put on my headphones and choose some music, I am bathed in the euphoria of the experience. It is like “seeing” in another dimension it does not obliterate what I am seeing but overlays it in an ephemeral way, one in that I can feel the shapes and movement around me as if they are real. More often I close my eyes to intensify the experience, and the visual impression is like being in the infinity of space with the shapes and colours moving in and out of a vanishing point or appearing at specific places in front of me in what feels like infinite space.

It’s a perfectly logical system (yes it is, trust me and read on…)

My synaesthesia has its logic, one that seems obvious and follows rules that you might recognise as familiar. The shapes of audio-visual synaesthesia have been found to be common between synaesthetes and to cultures and understanding generally. For example, high notes have light colours, and low notes have dark colours. The precise nature of those colours is up for debate, but that’s roughly it. Hard high sounds like an electric guitar have sharp angular shapes. Low, fat sounds like a bass guitar or a large drum like a floor tom have bulbous and rounded shapes.

Different guitarists make different shapes and colours

The shape of sound dominates my synaesthetic experience with colour coming second. Each instrument has a different moving and continually morphing shape. How a musician plays the note is what sets off my synaesthesia although the pitch does as well. The timbre of a note can be affected by many things not least by who plays it and how. My synaesthesia is very susceptible if they use pedals and electronic effects as Steve does. There are lots of guitar players but they all differ wildly in how they play even within a genre.

Take rock guitarists as an example, amongst the most famous Jimmi Hendrix is all gold and swirling with pink edges. Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour plays with a dark fan shape made up of an incredible mix of colours not quite purple and not quite nut brown surrounded by washes of white-grey like smoke or sea surf and pale blue flashes. This colour all appears at the heart of the guitar solo in Comfortably Numb, full of reverb effects and string bends. Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits has a much smoother and less distorted sound but is often quite staccato and plucks the strings, so his playing looks like “C” shapes, red on the outside white in the middle or fanning up in lines from the bottom of my visual field. The guitarist whose playing sets off my synaesthesia most vividly is Matt Bellamy of Muse (there is a whole blog post dedicated to the live experience of that here if you want to know more). His playing is white-hot and chaotic, fracturing and breaking up moving fast in silver and searing white irregular explosions. It is on these shapes that all my Guitar Distortion jewellery is based.

Impossible colours

The colours are quite specific and often hard to describe accurately and a challenge to draw realistically. The colour complexity of what I see is often similar to peacock feather, petrol spilt on wet ground or light on water. It is not one colour block, and it moves and changes spilling and merging as the sound changes. When I draw what I see, I am trying to capture the essence of the experience, and it will only ever be an approximation that includes the shape, energy colour and depth. The gestural nature of drawing helps to take care of the movement.

Where will this trance state take me…?

So back to standing on the edge of the stage with Steve, I have my eyes closed, and he has just played something that is purple-lilac, and he is setting the scene of his soundscape. I have to let my subconscious guide me here; my conscious is too busy being nervous and not wanting to mess up. I need to enter an almost trance-like state and let the music take me where it will. He starts to add effects and loop sounds, repeating them over and over as he builds the music. There are some intense pink and gold C shapes with tails. Barely thinking about it I select some colours from the rainbow trays of oil pastels to my right and start to draw. I draw on to a long roll of paper so the drawings can spill out into the audience.

Poppy Porter and Steve Lawson Perform Illuminated Loops: Photo: Thomas Lisle Brooker
Poppy Porter and Steve Lawson Perform Illuminated Loops: Photo: Thomas Lisle Brooker

I keep drawing for as long as he plays I am only vaguely aware of my surroundings as I focus on the swirling and layered visuals playing out before me. Much of what he plays could form a lifetime of study for the detail and complexity of it. At one point he includes some incredible metallic sounds that arch in greys and greens and blacks and have crystalline hearts that scintillate and flash with cubes and lines.

All this time Steve is looking at what I draw, and because everything he does is improvised, he absorbs what he sees on the page and releases it into what he is playing, feeding my synaesthesia back into me in a new sound. This level of intensity and state of synaesthetic trance will last as long as there is music. At the end of two 45 minute sets, I am exhausted and will be pretty much a waste of space for two days afterwards. It leaves a very odd state of mind as I recover and come back into the world.

40 meters of art
40 meters of art at the Boileroom in Guildford. Photo: Mandy Millyard

Back in the real world.

The experience is not usually so exhausting and intense, the heightened sense of expectation created by performance and the focus I need to sustain in that environment and for that length of time amplified the effect on me. Usually, my headphones, my sketchbook and I are a happy world of colour and absorption. I enjoy the ephemeral visuals and gentle, often bittersweet feeling of euphoria that the music and the synaesthetic experience both give me. Performace of this process takes it to a whole new level of unexpected places.

Any burning questions about synaesthesia and how it works? Give me a shout in the comments :)

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro…” – Raoul Duke to Hunter S. Thompson in The Great Shark Hunt