By Eva Mowry Lewis, Charlotte Symphony
Synesthesia is a condition in which a stimulus of one sense leads to a secondary reaction from another sense. These ‘secondary impulses’ result in relationships between numbers, language, taste, colors and music. People who experience synesthesia (synesthetes) see inherent relationships between numbers and colors, days of the week and personalities, or auditory sounds and visual motion. Individuals who experience sound-color synthesis “see” specific colors while hearing music; the shade, shape and intensity vary given the note and key. Composers Lizst, Rimsky-Korsakov and Bernstein were synesthetes, as were visual artists Kandinski and Kilford.
The Charlotte Symphony’s first KnightSounds concert of the 2011-12 season centered on artistic collaboration, while throwing bits of synesthesia into the mix for audience members at the Knight Theater. The concert, part of the centennial celebration of Charlotte-born artist Romare Bearden, featured American composers and projected Bearden’s images during the performance on a screen above the orchestra. Concertgoers were invited to view the Mint Museum’s Romare Bearden: Southern Recollections exhibit free of charge before the concert. A post-concert activity offered patrons the opportunity to tear their favorite piece from the bright perforated concert program and tack it to a board, creating a unique collage of opinion and color.The images portrayed during the concert were chosen to reflect each musical selection, with an urban series portraying New York City shown during a jazzy Duke Ellington medley, and images of rural Charlotte paired with the piece “Rusty Air in Carolina.” Each Bearden work was chosen based on its comparable qualities to the music, leading the audience to connect the visual and auditory art.
Duke Ellington, a friend of Romare Bearden’s, reported experiencing synesthesia and said of it, “I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it’s one color. I hear the same note played by someone else and it’s a different color. When I hear sustained musical tones, I see just about the same colors, but I see them in textures. If Harry Carney is playing, D is dark blue burlap. If Johnny Hodges is playing, G becomes light blue satin.”
The KnightSounds series is an innovative project aimed to contemporize the symphony setting. This year’s series is building on a highly successful first season and is making artistic collaboration a tenet of the concerts. The partnership between the Mint Museum and the Symphony, including visual art as part of the concert experience, reflects a growing trend among arts organizations.
In August, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation awarded $125,000 to the Charlotte Symphony to expand the KnightSounds season, including the commissioning of a synchronized digital animation video to accompany a future concert performance.
Combining instead of isolating the arts creates a richer experience for the audience and increases exposure to all art forms, breaking down barriers between the arts and audiences. The concert included several different kinds of music, visual art, and culinary delicacies, creating a form of cultural synthesis among audience members.