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CHICAGO — Synesthesia, Chambers dictionary tells us, is the “subjective sensation or image of a sense other than the one being stimulated,” like when you take acid while listening to a Grateful Dead album and the sounds seem to become colors. Many well-known artists had or have the condition: painters Wassily Kandinsky and David Hockney, writer Vladimir Nabokov, and musicians such as Franz Liszt, Duke Ellington, and (who knew?) Billy Joel. As this NPR report shows, it’s estimated that one in 27 people has synesthesia, which produces fascinating crossovers, like the sommelier in the article who sees three-dimensional shapes when tasting certain wines.
A recent collaboration in Chicago between visual artists and composers, called Ten x Ten, explored the most common form of synesthesia, which seems to be the relation between colors and sounds. An organization named Homeroom paired up five artists from Spudnik Press, a local printmaking space, with five composers from Access Contemporary Music, an organization that promotes contemporary classical music. Five of the artists were asked to create a 10-by-10-inch screenprint using primarily blue, a ‘cold’ color, and they were partnered with composers asked to write a short piece featuring primarily wind instruments. The other five artists were given red, a ‘hot’ color, to experiment with, and their partner composers were asked to use the ‘warmer’ sounds of string instruments.
The results of the months-long collaborations were presented at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art on the evening of Saturday, November 16. Visitors were able to see the suite of prints and hear the musical pieces in a concert by the excellent Palomar Ensemble. The former were mainly geometrically abstract, or abstractions based on natural forms, like “Deep at Sea” by Renee Robbins. She began working with composer Seth Boustead in February 2013, sending him a series of sketches based on waves, which he responded to with a piece imitating the rising and falling of water. I asked another of the composers, Timothy Corpus, what it was like working with a visual artist for the first time. “I’ve scored music for movies in LA, where you have to make the sounds hit the beats at specific moments, so this was very different. It was nice to have the freedom to interpret the colors in a looser way.”
Nothing I heard on Saturday was really about synesthesia, though; no people hearing colors or painting sounds. It was more about artists (mainly the composers) seeing something they responded to in one medium (a shape, a suggestion of rhythm, crescendo or decrescendo) and creating a metaphorical equivalent for it in another. But, terminology aside, the project absolutely fulfilled its aims, in that some well-made art and some hauntingly expressive music was created which otherwise would not necessarily exist.
So for now, if you truly want the synesthetic experience, you might still have to drop a tab, load the hippie music onto your iPod, and wait for the curtains to start talking to you. If you want to find out more about the Ten x Ten project, the print suite and the music are available online.
The Ten x Ten 2013 release concert and exhibition took place on November 16, 6 pm, at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art (2320 West Chicago Avenue, Chicago).