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Synesthesia

Debussy for the Senses

Performance Friday at BAM marked historic return of immersive sensory theater

Courtesy BitterSuite
Source: Courtesy BitterSuite

Have you ever wanted to experience synesthesia? One ambitious theater company from the UK will blindfold you, touch you, waft perfume through the hall, play beautiful music and delight your eyes with dance, all in an effort to mimic synesthetic and cross-modal experiences.

Thirty performers...as many audience members...30 blindfolds, four choreographers, one chef, one perfumer and a consulting psychologist...plus Debussy and some strings and it added up to one extraordinary sensory performance Friday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).

To my mind, the program marked the historic return of the lighted color organs from the heyday of synesthesia interest just over 100 years ago. Back then, synesthesia was not just known, it was chic, and concert halls attempted to give audiences the experience by showcasing organs which lit up in color for various musical notes. While there were earlier efforts, the first such organ to receive a patent was invented in 1893 by British painter Alexander Wallace Rimington. It was called, "the clavier à lumières" and was a sensation that even composer Richard Wagner admired. P.T. Barnum owned one.

However, those marvelous machines only addressed sound to color synesthetic or cross-modal experience and this immersive work invoked all the major senses.

Mastermind Stephanie Singer explains that her company, BitterSuite UK, began as a question: "Can we deepen the way we listen to classical music by creating sensorial experiences to match and enhance it? ... Here you don’t just listen through your ears—you feel, taste, and smell it with your whole body."

The Sensory String Quartet: Debussy is an international debut of a company which has had much success previously with immersive theater experiences in the UK. Engaging all of the senses, the performance leaves a lasting impression on audience members. It is inspired by synesthesia and cross-modality.

"Lots of tears and lots of reactions particularly to the level of trust they must put in the guides,," Ms. Singer explains. "As soon as eyesight is taken away and they are put in the hands our our guides - they must let go. We have had many people go on imaginative and sometimes the synesthetes that come have increased synesthetic journeys.

Courtesy BitterSuite
Source: Courtesy BitterSuite

"We of course have had people who actually the piece doesn't resonate with and who find the touch element overwhelming. But we are open to all and every reaction...As ever, it's an experiment."

New York based quartet The Curiosity Cabinet, (www.the-curiosity-cabinet.com) will do the live musical accompaniment and the tastes are by international food creator and writer The Conscious Cook (www.theconsciouscook.nyc). The dancers feature an all-new cast of Americans.

I asked Ms. Singer what it means to do this in NYC?

"It's our debut in a city at a thrilling point experimentation with the experience and immersive performance. To have performed our work consistently in the UK for 4 years on UK audiences it will be absolutely fascinating to see and witness NYC audiences reactions to the work. It will be a big and exciting investigation into potential cultural differences of emotional responses, and particularly I will be fascinated to understand whether the NYC audience will be more 'active' or less 'active' participants than the UK audience.

The two first shows were sold out—watch this space for future dates.

And here is a TEDx presentation on the group's ongoing work.

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