Which is a fancy word meaning the mixing of the senses – hearing colours, smelling textures, feeling flavours and so on. Music of course is a great means of promoting synaesthesia, especially visually and texturally. (Not sure anyone ever did a song which you could taste). The timbre of music is of course a recognised quality, being the qualities beyond its pitch and volume – to take some random examples, consider the stark wintry strings in “Eleanor Rigby” (so well produced, with no reverb, that you can feel the cello strings vibrating) and the plasticky wah-wah of The Edge’s guitar on “Zooropa”. (Co-produced by Brian Eno, much of the album Zooropa is unusually atmospheric for U2 – well, the first side, anyway: the second half is disappointing). However, what I really really like are songs which bring to mind visual images. I’ve mentioned previously the revelation on first listening to The Beatles’ 67-70. The colour, the sheer vivid psychedelic technicolour, just dazzled me, like suddenly being conscious of a new dimension, or perceiving an entirely new sense. (Or, of course, dropping acid). This vastly expanded my musical taste, and I cherish the memory.
So let us share some great examples.
1. Aphex Twin, “Metal Grating”
The ambient works of Mr. Richard D James are filled with synaesthetic moments: not much by the way of a tune, but the stuff on his Select Ambient Works Vol. 2 are filled with atmospheric and highly visual moments. Consider this: the sound of water dripping to form a stalactite in an ancient cave, or this, a spaceship silently landing on a glacier at midnight. My favourite though is this one, an Inca tribe dancing round a fire in a clearing in the forest in the middle of the night. I have played this track to people of various nationalities and a high proportion of them have “seen” the same thing as me, which I think is quite incredible. In another sense, it reminds me of some of Jackson Pollock’s action paintings.
2. Gustav Holst, “The Planet Suite: Mars”
OK, so this is a bit of a cliché, but one can see why it became so. Written during 1916 when the industrialisation of war had been brought to a hideous apotheosis, this piece is harshly simplistic, calling to mind the pounding rhythms of the machines of war, the stomping of boots, and the grim portents of death (via the trumpets). Classical music of course is much more technical than most rock, and much more familiar with appealing to a broader range of senses. What’s impressive here is the vivid brutality within the confines of a highly technical performance.
3. Pink Floyd, “A Saucerful of Secrets” (from Umma Gumma)
The Floyd have said that this song is about a battle and its aftermath. I’m not quite sure I see that – the second section (“Syncopated Pandemonium”) sounds more spacey, with Gilmour’s overcharged echoing guitar taking you into orbit – though it is admirably chaotic. Either way, the bit that really affects me is the last section, “Celestial Voices”. Gilmour’s wordless singing is just incredible, bringing to mind majesty and magnificence and glory, not triumphant but redolent of painful labours and grim, perilous trials. It doesn’t sound like a lament; it’s not mournful, though it could be a salutation of an epic confrontation, I suppose. Something in it reminds me of Tolkien, too: not the bucolic Shire but the epic tales of Elves and Men standing against Morgoth, the primal source of all evil. It’s hard to describe how I see this exactly (how does one visualise something abstract like “magnificence”?) but I find it deeply moving and utterly majestic.
4. The Beatles, “Strawberry Fields Forever”
Sorry, but I really felt I had to include this! The colour, man, the colour! The opening sepia-toned mellotron, the trumpets, the surging cellos, the cinematic dissolve of the zither, Lennon’s slowed and deepened vocal, the foreboding orchestration. Just incredible. (Dig the outro, too – “do I wake or sleep?”)
5. Kraftwerk, “Neon Lights”
I really got into Kraftwerk during my first year of university, way back in 1996-97. They’re The Beatles of electronic music aren’t they? As good, and as important. It was a campus university, and had a lake in the middle between the halls of residence and the teaching admin and student union buildings, so going to and from the union meant crossing a white concrete bridge. As you made your way back to your room, the halls loomed ahead, filled with life and drama and learning and laughter and crisis and love and tears and friendship and music. The lights from all the rooms in the halls sparkled in the water, too, and I have always thought of this when listening to “Neon Lights”, a wonderful peon to urban living (which is simply life for most of us!).
How about you?