Seeing images as a response to sounds has always been as natural to me as experiencing the touch of silky fur when stroking a cat or smelling the scent of roses in high summer. As a child I saw each day of the week in colours and shapes, and so did my sister. Her colours were quite different from mine though, and many were the arguments we had about why my Wednesdays were lemon yellow when hers were a dusky green. Names, numbers, months of the year all had their hues, direction of flow, patterns and textures, as did voices, poems and music. As far back as I can remember, these visions were part of life and it never occurred to me that most people did not share my experiences. I was given a set of oil paints on my tenth birthday and from that time became seriously interested in art. My paintings were invariably ‘out of my head’ – for some reason I considered it cheating to paint what was already in front of me. Consequently, painting music was frequently part of the scheme of things.
During the 1960s I continued with my art and music whilst studying medicine in London. Then, after thirty years of medical practice I changed my career to that of a full-time artist, marking the moment by ceremoniously throwing my engraved stethoscope into the Thames on the morning of the new millennium. I discovered that my lifetime facility to see sound had a name, and that ‘synaesthesia’ was a well-recognised and vigorously researched area of neuro-physiology.
Approximately one person in 2,000 is a synaesthete. The condition appears to be inherited, many synaesthetes having a family member with the same thing. The commonest manifestation of this cross-sensory perception is seeing letters, numbers or words in colour. However, almost any sensory mix-up is possible. I have myself, on several occasions, experienced coloured temperature (e.g. a creamy whiteness on picking up a hot mug of coffee), coloured pain (deep purple sciatica) and coloured positional sense (a striking shift from banana-yellow to reddish-purple on altering position in bed).
My musical synaesthetic experiences are legion though I often find them hard to describe and explain. How do I convey what it is like to listen to a tenor on the car radio and to be absolutely certain that the voice is coloured green and red at the same time? The sound also looks like the skeletal remains of a decomposed autumn leaf. This image is not located either in the radio or in my head, but somewhere ‘out there’, totally integrated with the sound and yet separate from it and utterly recognisable and memorable. I once described this vision as looking a bit like shot silk but that isn’t right either. It is more like peering at orange fabric under a neon street light. You know that it is orange but it looks grey. It is orange and grey at the same time.
In working on my paintings of Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw I responded to the whole spectrum of synaesthetic visions that this masterpiece presented to me. Images were evoked by instrumental colours (Prologue; Variation XI); dynamic changes (Theme); cross-rhythms (Variation I); extremes of colour contrast between voice and orchestral sound (Act I, scene 4); chord colours (Act I, scene 5, Variation XI); fugal patterns (Variation V); word colours and shapes (Act II, scene 7) and overall soundworlds depicted as semi-abstract images (Act II, scene 3), to give a few specific examples.
I am sometimes asked whether I would miss my synaesthesia if it were taken away from me. I am sure I would though it can be a disadvantage of course. It is difficult to remember acquaintances whose names and voice colours clash. Loud music in restaurants and shops can lead to visual as well as auditory overload. On the other hand, synaesthesia is mostly unremarkable, constantly operating in the background, always part of things. At best it is a condition in which the music I love gives rise to images charged with a sort of creative energy – images that just have to be painted.
The Turn of the Screw: Visual responses to Britten’s opera by Jane Mackay with a commentary by Andrew Plant and a preface by James Bowman is now available from Boydell & Brewer Ltd.