Big Picture: BitterSuite symphony

Words by Steph Singer and Clare Jonas; image by John Watts.

Clare Jonas, Psychologist, University of East London:
‘Synaesthesia is a harmless neurological condition in which a stimulus in one sense can spark a perception in another – for example, listening to music might cause a synaesthete to literally see colours. Most people don’t have synaesthesia, but we do make links across the senses, so, for most, high-pitched notes ‘go with’ the taste of lemon better than they do the taste of cinnamon. These kinds of associations, cross-modal correspondences, are not necessarily experienced at a conscious level, but when I first met Director and Artist Steph Singer she was looking at bringing those cross-modal correspondences into conscious awareness in the context of a performance of a Debussy quartet.

‘I met her and some of the other members of BitterSuite in the basement of the Rich Mix in London, and we chatted for several hours about the research on cross-modal correspondences and synaesthesia, and how it might be meaningfully incorporated into an musical and artistic experience.

‘A few months later, I got to experience one of the performances for myself. It was strange, bewildering, profoundly moving – and my first realisation that I, personally, could use my scientific research to create art.

‘Steph and I work very well as a team – a science-minded artist and an art-minded scientist, throwing ideas back and forth between us and moulding them into weird and beautiful shapes. There have now been several iterations of BitterSuite performances, and I’m starting to look at audience reactions to the pieces. We’re also working on an art/science festival for next spring and another cross-modal art idea that we currently refer to as the Sensory Kaleidoscope.’

Steph Singer, Director and Artist:
‘BitterSuite springs from a motivation to take classical music audiences out of their mind to experience an embodied state of listening. Psychology contains a wealth of inspired research on synaesthesia and cross-modality. Clare was my link to this world, uncovering truths and explaining dense academic ideas. She introduced me to key articles that became my foundation in thinking about how the senses interrelate to deepen the experience of the primary sensory modality.

‘In fact, she became more than just a “translator” of psychological ideas, to become an artistic collaborator. Unlike the stereotype of an academic, Clare is free, creative and instinctive within psychology. OK, so the studies may prove high-pitched notes should be paired with bitter tastes e.g. lemon. But to truly create a sensory experience which moves with the music, enhances the ideas rather than reduces the concept of the music to its fundamental elements, we have to look at how the music makes us feel in the moment, beyond its pitch – what is the music saying and how is it saying it? This then becomes the prompt for a decision on the sensory experience to accompany that particular moment of the music. Each and every moment of the music is taken unto itself and on its own terms. Luckily, Clare is all about creative leaps and instincts. She is a creative artist within a psychological world.’

Find out more, including upcoming concerts and a Kickstarter campaign.

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