March 22, 2012 1:46 PM   Subscribe

What's it like to play Bach with synaesthesia?
posted by fearfulsymmetry (16 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
What's it like to watch that video with epilepsy?
posted by Sys Rq at 1:53 PM on March 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

...seems hard to believe that he has carefully specified which colors he is seeing when.

I expected slower shifts, accompanying and combining different parts with more subtlety.
It seems rather like the colors are random here.
posted by herbplarfegan at 1:53 PM on March 22, 2012

Mmm. salty.
posted by schmod at 2:02 PM on March 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you shake the vial, and you get little blue flashes, 300 mics, guaranteed!
posted by lalochezia at 2:20 PM on March 22, 2012

Each may have his/her own consistent perceptions

That was kinda the problem here. I wouldn't expect it to match up with what I would be experiencing, but I would at least expect it to be consistent within itself. (similar chords displaying similar colors, recognizable color patterns corresponding to recognizable music patterns, etc.) but like herbplarfegan mentioned, it all just seemed random.

Granted, that may simply be a limitation of whatever method he was using to demonstrate the overall effect. Likely he was just attempting to show a simplified "this is kinda what it's like" demonstration, as opposed to a literal frame-by-frame 100% accurate representation.

The kaleidoscope stuff just seemed like something out of "Fantasia" or Laser Floyd though. I mean, certainly anyone can close their eyes and imagine trippy colors and patterns when they listen to music.
posted by ShutterBun at 2:47 PM on March 22, 2012

The colors didn't seem entirely random to me, at least when they're changing slowly enough that I can follow them (but I may be mistaken). I'm with herbplarfegan in that I didn't expect them to change so frequently and abruptly. He probably could have chosen a better piece for demonstration.
I saw this story somewhere else a couple days ago and listened to samples of the guy's live album...I can't decide if I like it or not. I appreciate that he's trying to make Bach "fresh" by playing a little fast and loose and unconventionally, but I wasn't sure it worked for me.
posted by uosuaq at 4:18 PM on March 22, 2012

I have his form of synesthesia, and having watched the video I was impressed by how effectively he conveyed the experience. In listening to a piece of music (or playing one) the colors sometimes cycle through very quickly, and sometimes cycle very slowly. I don't "see" them with my eyes, the way the video changes color. Instead, I "see" the colors with my mind's eye.

I have different synesthetic responses to different sounds. My mind responds to both timbre and pitch, usually simultaneously. In short: violins playing one thing would "appear" different from an entire string orchestra playing the same thing, and again would be perceived differently if performed by a solo piccolo or a flute choir or a synthesizer.

There was a test online that purported to decipher if you experienced synesthesia based upon the consistency with which you chose colors associated with sounds. It tested timbre and pitch for how often you could choose the same color to match the same note. I was pretty amused by the whole thing because it completely fails to take other tonal issues into consideration. For example, synesthetically experiencing pitch almost never happens in a vacuum. Rather, pitches are heard by the brain sequentially - which is to say that the brain not only listens to the pitch it is currently hearing, but is also trying to identify the interval between the current pitch and the previous pitch, as well as anticipating the next pitch in what it hopes might be a familiar sequence. Therefore, I don't respond to Bb by thinking "kelly green" every time a Bb is played. Instead, I think of a color based on its context. Is the Bb appearing in a major triad or a tritone? Is it in a tonal cluster? Ultimately, the "inconsistency" in his representations may well be accounted for by the counterpoint that is so characteristic of Bach.

I do think that synesthesia "colors" (sorry!) my preferences in music. Classical music just has more to offer me. Which is not to say I dislike other music - but other genres tend to be less dynamic, less dramatic, and ultimately just less coherent to my brain. I love Bach because it is so orderly and elegant looking. It is a classic still life, painted in exquisite detail. But I love Eric Whitacre's tone clusters, which appear to me more like impressionist landscapes. They are great swirls of color, undulating and folding over on themselves, growing and changing in one enormous amorphous experience.

Weirdly, one of my sisters has a related disorder(?), which causes her to hear music playing at all times. When iPods first came out, she swore she didn't want one because "it would interfere with the iPod in her head." We laughed and thought she was just being quirky, until years later she was asking a friend what they were hearing in their head, and the friend finally explained to her that for most of us, our minds are more like libraries, characterized by the quiet shuffle of thoughts across that great internal abyss. She was shocked to learn that other people don't always hear music. When she finally described it to us, we realized that when she said "music" she meant it in a more general sense. It isn't always a tune or a song, although that is common. Sometimes she just hears random noises or a slow hum. But it is always there.

When I watch something like the above video, I understand what my sister meant by not wanting something to compete with the iPod in her head. It is jarring to see all those flashing colors because they aren't what I'm experiencing internally. It is an uncomfortable, possibly literal, sort of cognitive dissonance.

Anyway, that's my experience. Thanks for the link! Was fun to get a look inside someone else's head for a bit, even if it was a little jarring!
posted by jph at 4:32 PM on March 22, 2012 [15 favorites]

Are we seeing the colors of Bach, the colors of the excitement of playing that piece rreally fast and angry, or the results of the fact that (among others) g1 and d2 are out of tune?
(btw, it's the fast part of the Prelude from the sixth English suite, in case anyone is curious about alternatives).
posted by Namlit at 5:46 PM on March 22, 2012

For one year all Bach performances shall end with a "RAAAAHH" shout
posted by yoHighness at 6:04 PM on March 22, 2012

What's it like to play Bach with synaesthesia?

Duh, that's easy. Wendy Carlos did that years ago (ya dope).

Oh, wait, ... you said synaesthesia, not a synthesizer.

That's different then ... sorry.

Carry on.
posted by Relay at 6:27 PM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

The first time Aldous Huxley took LSD he was listening to Bach's B minor suite to enhance the experience. (cite) Huxley's letters describe some amazing synesthetic effects from that experience.
posted by jonp72 at 6:44 PM on March 22, 2012

I see a professional white background.
posted by davejay at 7:26 PM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I asked the pianist for specifics in the YouTube comments. His answer was terse, but consistent with jph's (excellent!) description above. His colors come from the "vibe" of what he's playing. Which sounds a little woo, admittedly, but as a synesthete myself, I would wager that the "vibe" he's talking about is a very real type of qualia that corresponds directly and consistently with the colors he chose for his video.

There's nothing more irritating to a synesthete than seeing the wrong colors. I really doubt he'd have gone to all this trouble without getting the colors exactly right.
posted by otherthings_ at 1:35 AM on March 23, 2012

" What's it like to play Bach with synaesthesia?"

No more or less challenging than any other dramatic role.
posted by Eideteker at 6:27 AM on March 23, 2012

Metafilter: I'm with herbplarfegan.
posted by herbplarfegan at 5:27 PM on March 23, 2012

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