spectrum: the colour of music; precision and impression
Welcome to Spectrum!
"Spectrum is a unique marriage of art and science, a stunning audio-visual spectacle, giving the audience a true and personal insight into the creative mind of the synesthete." Dr. Julia Simner, Professor of Neuropsychology, University of Sussex
"Shirley Elias has maintained an exceptional and respected career as a pianist, visual artist and educator who makes cross disciplinary connections. Her paintings take their inspiration from music, but this project integrates a unique approach to visual and sonic connections." Angela Birdsell, Executive Director, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra
A Multi-Media Experience
Anna and I designed Spectrum with the goal of sparking audiences' imaginations as they are introduced to a globally rare connection between the time honored traditions of symphonic music and an art exhibition - the world of synesthesia.
This project is in essence a Rosetta
Stone, as audiences will discover a brand new language that literally interprets the sound of music through colour. A language that starts with
familiar systems in music and color, and then melds them to create a brand-new
language that is unique to one individual in the world (every synesthete has
their own palette of harmonies). And what better soundscape to make this discovery than the magical journey of Scheherezade. The music and colour simultaneously flow by in real time.
We are delighted that the project is resonating with all walks of life.
I've never listened to music with the same attention, and intention, than when I was looking at the art in real time to the music. Definitely a unique experience. - Geraldine De Braune, Integrative Coach
What is Synesthesia?
Synesthesia is a blending of the senses. It's a phenomenon experienced by approximately 4% of the world's population. There are many versions (combinations of different senses) of synesthesia, and Spectrum focuses on chromesthesia, where the 2 blended senses are sound and colour. Simply put, hearing music triggers specific colors.
Every synesthete has their own core colour palette, based on tonalities, all the major and minor keys are a specific colour. However the hues and scope of that palette can expand depending on instrumentation, volume, the range of the pitch, etc.
Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade, is a fairy tale adventure. A fantasy soundscape filled with incredible orchestral colours.
The composer is renowned for his orchestration, a "maverick" as Maestro Raiskin describes him. So it might be not a coincidence that Rimsky-Korsakov himself was a synesthete, a surprising and pleasant discovery we made during the research process.
It was important for us that the music for this project was symphonic. Why? Because the orchestra's vast sound palette of textures, timbres, range of pitches, dynamic possibilities, etc, augments Anna's synesthesia experience. For example, if a certain pitch produces a yellow when played by the oboe, the same pitch played by another instrument will probably elicit a different shade of yellow, and change the "texture" of the colour.
As much of the music is influenced by stories of the sea, it's probably also not a coincidence that Rimsky-Korsakov wrote the piece in the key of E. What's the connection? For him, the pitch "E" was the colour blue, the colour of the ocean. For Anna "E" is yellow. But Anna's huge palette of textures, the music elicited a world of waves. Big waves. Small waves. Jagged waves. Fascinating!
Four movements, approx. 42 minutes in total
About the Art
There are 8 paintings in the Spectrum Exhibition. Four for Anna. Four for Shirley. "Anna's" are the Precision component of the exhibition. "Shirley's" paintings are the Impression component. All were created by Shirley. Keep reading on how the 2 sets of paintings are connected to each other, and to the music.
PRECISION ("Anna's" paintings - the stripes)
The Precision paintings ("Anna's") are the core of the exhibition. Together they span almost 17 feet, and are mesmerizing to look at. They are a literal representation, in a primal language, of her brain's "language" when she hears Scheherezade. They represent a "freeze frame" image of her brain in action. A "score" of her brain listening to music.
There are 4 large canvasses, one for each movement of music. Each canvas has been custom built to size in relationship to the timing of the music. For example, the total length of all 4 canvases is 16 feet and 7 inches, which represents 40 minutes and 55 seconds (for the recording we used). The length of each single canvas was then determined by keeping the same relationship of size to time.
These paintings are filled with stripes - 537 to be exact. With 269 unique colours (based on the Benjamin Moore palettes). The stripe represents the colours Anna experiences, in sequence as they appear. On average, the colours change every 3-5 seconds. Those changes are of course based on the music, but I find the "average" numbers interesting, as it is similar to the average number of seconds that a person's thoughts change. So keep in mind, that Anna's brain is processing this music in addition to her own thoughts.
To document all this information, Anna and Shirley shared a large excel spreadsheet, which contained columns for each colour, the time stamp they occur, the number of seconds each colour stayed, the texture of each colour, whether there were multiple colours at one time, the mathematical calculations for the size of the stripes on the canvas, etc... a lot of information!
Anna identified the colours using the Benjamin Moore palettes, so that I had access to the exact hue and intensity. In addition to the colours, almost every stripe also has a texture. Anna's descriptions, which we had to keep short, included jagged, swirling, pastorale, barklike, prickly, shimmering, misty, cloudy, waves, bold palette knife strokes, raindrops, and on and on. I had no idea these existed! Fortunately I work in a lot of gel mediums in my art practice. So I developed a consistent language to represent these, using different tools with the gels.
How does an artist get over 100 stripes on each canvas perfectly parallel, when many of them measure 2 mm? This was a definite challenge. When I sketched out the first canvas stripes, I was out 4 mm at the end...... the artist in me said, who is ever going to know?! The musician in me (as we strive for perfection), said I needed to start all over. In the end, I ended up using a music technique to make the process easier. All orchestra music has Rehearsal Letters/Numbers imbedded in each musician's score. This allows the conductor and orchestra to each quickly identify specific starting points for rehearsing.
I used that same premise to organize the stripes. I calculated the time/length measurements of each rehearsal letter, marked them on the top and bottom of each canvas onto a piece of green painter's tape. Once those lines were in place, I then had a much more manageable width to make sure I didn't miss a single colour. Very time intensive. But it worked!
IMPRESSION (Shirley's paintings)
My 4 paintings, each 40x40, is where I had the creative space to give my Impressions, using the Anna's palette colours for each of her movements.
My goal here was to bring a bigger voice to Anna's experience in combination with the inspiration of the music. This is where I simultaneously resourced both the musician and artist in me.
See below for a complete overview of the connections and representations of each movement that I've used in an abstract manner. (This is also explained on the documentary)
Big Screen on Stage - Documentary
Audiences follow along to high definition still images of insets from the Precision (striped) paintings, projected on a big screen over the orchestra. There are 27 images during the performance, each representing 1 to 3 minutes of music. A piano score with time changes is available to facilitate ease of presentation.