By Joe Ferguson
Complexity is the key to perception. For millennia, scientists and philosophers have embraced the tenets of scientific reductionism and attempted to isolate the senses in order to understand how we perceive our world. The tide is turning as new studies reveal we use multiple perceptual inputs to gain understanding. The process, however, is not the same for everyone.
While listening to Wagner’s Lohengrin, Wassily Kandinsky, the father of abstract painting, famously wrote, “I saw all my colors in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.” Many scientists assert that Kandinsky was describing a form of synesthesia--a neurological phenomenon in which the stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to an automatic and involuntary experience in another. Specifically, Kandinsky was most likely a chromesthete, or someone who experiences color while hearing music and other sounds.
An opportunity to explore this music-to-color connection is available for a little while longer in an exhibit at New Museum Los Gatos. See Music, Hear Art incorporates a mobile application to create an immersive musical experience for the viewer. After downloading the free Eye For Sound app, visitors can use their smartphones or tablets to scan a code next to an artist’s work to access music and interactive content.
Most us don’t have such a vivid, colorful experience when we listen to music--chromesthesia occurs in about 1 in 3,000 people--but emerging evidence shows that many people have music-to-color associations similar to chromesthetes. Research done by Stephen Palmer from the University of California, demonstrated there is a connection between music and emotion. Participants were asked to rate the happiness, sadness, angriness, and calmness of different colors and then the average value of each emotion in the color choices they made was computed for different musical clips. It turned out that non-synesthetes chose the colors whose emotional associations best matched the emotional qualities of the music. The experiments were repeated in Mexico with virtually identical results.
Artist and musicians featured in the exhibit include Serj Tankian of System of a Down, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Scott Hepburn, CANTSTOPGOODBOY, Michael Dee, Daniel P. Carter, Joseph Arthur, Shannon Novak, Colin Frangicetto, Circa Survive, and Leonardo Cuervo.
A wide range of musical and visually artistic styles are represented, all demanding consideration. A few are worth a little more attention.
Consistent with Palmer’s research, Daniel P. Carter’s musical score was a bit melancholy, which perfectly matched his surreal, somewhat macabre paintings.
CANTSTOPGOODBOY’s electric, upbeat score echoed the contemporary and pop-culture sensibilities of his vivid, explosive mixed-media piece Shiny Attractiveness Engages in a Visual Roaring Commentary…
The most impressive piece was Serj Tankian’s Notes in Water. Clock faces, like disembodied note heads, were scattered across a musical staff obscured by swirls of bright, vivid colors. The accompanying music was less evocative and more complementary than the other works exhibited--minor chords and syncopated rhythms reminded the viewer of the sometimes seemingly chaotic, persistent passing of time.
See Music, Hear Art may appeal to a younger art audience that is not content with quiet, passive reflection on the visual arts--a preference shaped by a lifetime of easily-obtainable multimedia. It may also appeal to those who have always experienced art in this fashion and longed for a presentation that takes into account individual perceptual preference.
Critically, the exhibit presents a challenge in that there is no standard template for cross-modal art criticism. Perhaps over time empirically-responsible aesthetic theories will incorporate multiple perceptual inputs into art appreciation. Until then, we must consider each novel, innovative experience for ourselves.
See Music, Hear Art runs through September 27th.