Sunday, November 4, 2012

Exhibit Inspirations: Kinesynesthesia

Check out this fabulous anatomical(ish) drawing of the eye
by Johannes Zahn from 1687! The closest thing I could really
find to illustrate the bizarre ways that synesthesia makes the
senses overlap. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Let's talk about synesthesia for a minute. I want to sketch out an idea, and it's going to need a wee bit of context to make sense (and even then, of course, it's anybody's guess how much the machinations of my brain translate to comprehensible reality.) Synesthesia is all of the awesome. It's a "neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway," according to Wikipedia, which means that when you have it, what you usually experience through one set of senses sometimes comes out simultaneously through another. The common example is people who perceive numbers as colors or colored, but you may recognize it as well from any exposure you've had to various forms of psychedelia, where under certain circumstances music may become color, color may become scent, and scent may become music, among other, weirder things. There's also ideasthesia, which is a word that attempts to identify more accurately what happens in certain experiences usually called synesthetic. As far as I can understand it,  synesthesia refers to a union of sensory experiences (for example, those who experience the color pink as tasting sweet, or "hear" the yellow of a lemon), while ideasthesia refers to an association of a concept with a sense (for example, those who experience the number five as red - which I do, as it happens.)

There are all sorts of ways to be ideasthetic or synesthetic, and many people have varying degrees of it. I have mild grapheme-color ideasthesia, which generally speaking refers to people who see letters, numbers and/or typographical symbols as vividly colored. I see some numerals very strongly: 3 is very green for me and 5 is very red, but 6 is a pretty washed-out yellow, 8 is a muddy dark blue, and 1 is sort of colorless; I see 4 as pink, but only barely. When I say I see it, I mean that when I think of a 3, it is always a green three; even if you present me with a 3 written in red pen, the concept of 3 is green to me. (My father started an experiment a long time ago where once a year he asked me & my sister to list the colors of the numbers 1 through 20. Mine have been the same every year; there is something inherently green about 3 to me. I can't see it any other way. Other people I have met with grapheme-color ideasthesia only occasionally share the same association, and we are always sort of aghast when we hear differing colors - the idea of a blue 3 is very upsetting in its wrongness to me, and a green 3 equally repulsive to them.)

I also have mild spatial-sequence synesthesia, which also is more properly called ideasthesia: I perceive the calendar - the days of the week especially - as oriented in space. The weekends "look" different to me than the weekdays; next Tuesday occupies a different "place" than last Thursday. This is not unusual, apparently; for my part, I am baffled as to how anyone could "see" it otherwise, despite knowing perfectly well that they do.

This, alive and in motion, is very much how a string quartet
might "appear" to me. Via Wikimedia Commons
A book that deals pretty profoundly with synesthesia is The Phantom Tollbooth, and if you haven't read that gem of children's literature, I beg you to go and do so now. There is a wonderful sequence in the Vaults of the Soundkeeper where sounds manifest as objects (applauding creates a shower of sheets of paper) and another where Milo, the main character, conducts the colors of the sunrise like a symphony. That might be familiar to fans of the 1940 film Fantasia, which was ruined for me as soon as I was old enough to realize how frighteningly racist some of it was, but which does include a harmless opening sequence in which J.S Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is represented by a sprightly abstract animation, with the sounds of the music appearing as colors and shapes in what certainly struck me, even as a child, as a highly synesthetic manner. That may have been where I first started associating sound and shape, although the Bouba/Kiki effect suggests that that association is somewhat innate to human beings. But now I do something a little different, something I am certain I am not alone in doing but have not heard others talk about: I associate sound with shapes moving in space. It's not unrelated to the movement of a conductor's baton, but with two key differences: my shapes follow the music, where obviously the baton leads it, and the movements I see appear to me as direct physical manifestations or translations of the way the sound feels to me. Thus I see Philip Glass's String Quartet #5 as a series of spirals and peaks rising and falling, a little the way a long photographic exposure of one of those kids swinging around balls of fire in the park might look. (That piece also happens to be a very vivid red-gold to me, but most music is less colorful.) I'm calling this particular form of synesthesia kinesynesthesia, from kinesis, meaning motion, plus, um, synesthesia. Which, incidentally, is where we get the word cinema - the original devices for making moving pictures were the Cinematographe of the Lumière brothers and the Kinetoscope of Edison.

When it comes to the blurring of the lines between sound and movement, I think immediately of this collaboration between beatboxer Emcee Infinite and John Kloss of Stepology, which convolutes notions of the body as instrument by treating tap and beatbox as naturally related performance forms. Tap! and beatbox! Who's making what sound?

I find this totally exciting and exhilarating to watch. And I would absolutely call it an example of kinesynesthesia, or perceiving sound as movement. I think really talented bellydancers do something similar: witness this video of Suhaila, where she's moving so precisely with the sounds coming from the live drummers that some of her movements are almost invisible - watch it full-screen - and she's hardly even breaking a sweat.

If there's something I have learned about dance and music, it's that people love having their expectations inverted. The most powerful and enthusiastic responses I've ever seen to dance pieces are ones in which there lay a surprise, a revelation, the appearance of a completely new and unexpected set of relationships. The collaboration above is one. Another, less kinesynesthetic but still wonderful example of this is the incredible version of Swan Lake choreographed by South African dancer Dada Masilo, where classical ballet is fused with African dance to extraordinary and arresting effect. It's amazing for many reasons, but one of the major ones is that all of your preconceptions about what constitutes ballet are suddenly turned upside down - not through mockery or any breakdown in form or technique, but through the addition of an element that is in itself an art form that suffers from an entirely different set of misconceptions and stereotypes. The African dance calls into question our perceptions of ballet as boring, elitist, or snobby; the juxtaposition with the technical demands of ballet reveals the African dance as being an equally nuanced and complex form. The whole instantly becomes more than the sum of its (equally impressive) parts.

This is kind of what I imagined. Girl is feelin' it. Photo by
Kenta Morigami [CC-BY-SA-2.0] via Wikimedia Commons
I had a moment recently of strong association between these two things - the idea of kinesynesthesia and the idea of juxtaposition and inversion in dance - as a way of illuminating all sorts of wonderful subtexts about how we experience music and movement. The lightbulb first flickered into life, I think, when I was listening to Fauré's Requiem with a friend of mine who is a classically trained singer. (Or was it Queen Mary's Funeral March? Something epic, anyway.) I was sighing in delight about it, as I tend to do, and he looked over at me with (somewhat justifiable) smugness and said "Ha! You think it's great now, imagine what it's like to sing it." Which was not, in fact, something I had actually ever thought about doing before. So I sat there for a moment and tried to imagine those extraordinary sounds coming out of my own throat, and I was immediately smitten with envy: what an amazing experience to be able to actually emanate those sounds, to be the active creator in such a wave of glory.

But I'm no singer at all, and the reality of that experience is closed to me. It struck me, though, that I have another set of tools at my disposal for the embodiment of a piece of music. I'm a professionally trained bellydancer, and bellydance is all about embodying music - it's just that it's usually percussive in nature. You'll be shocked, I'm sure, to hear that the association between Western classical music and Middle Eastern dance is not one that gets made on a regular basis. And yet it's in listening to classical music that my kinesynesthesia hits most strongly, and there is a clear and easy relation between the shapes I see and the way my body moves as a dancer. Why not use something like a requiem to set a bellydance piece?

I have a whole theoretical groove I want to eventually develop about this, but that private project is only one of many potential places this concept could go. I would love to stage an entire exhibition based on kinesynesthetic principles and possibilities, because I feel on some level that the relationship between music and movement is something that people inherently understand and even crave. It's not that synesthesia isn't interesting enough in and of itself.  It's just - rich as the synesthetic experience is, at some point non-synesthetes just can't step into the experience, no matter how well or beautifully it is presented. (Poetry, in its ability to evoke and allude, probably deals best with conveying an impression of sensory commingling, as a number of 19th century poets endeavored earnestly to show.) What I think is unique with kinesynesthesia is the idea of a point of entry: even if you yourself are not kinesynesthetic - and let me reiterate that I'm defining that as experiencing sound (especially music) simultaneously as a sense of movement in space - almost everyone can relate to the commingling of music and dance, sound and movement, even sound and shape, on something approaching a gut level. And therefore works that play with our expectations of a piece of music (here, Swan Lake score as African dance, beatbox as tapdance, the solemn and spiritual Fauré's Requiem as sinuous bellydance piece) can act as to give us new points of entry into the experience of listening.

Of course, it's always possible that I just wanted to make up a word and then justify its existence with some fancy museum-related rhetoric. But experiences that surprise and delight the imagination and the senses are what the Museum of Joy is all about, and an exhibition of works based in the desire to help us experience what we hear with our bodies as much as our brains is one I find absolutely fitting. Pieces that shake up our idea of what the physical embodiment of music might look like are all around us - after all, I used to think John Cage's 4'33" was the stupidest thing ever, until I saw it performed on the bagpipes. Watching bagpipes play silence for four and a half minutes? Quite an...unexpected experience. Delightful, it was. I sat tensed the entire time, my body ready for that blast of sound that never came. You see, there are ears in the bones, if only we are listening.

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