The Colour Out of Space (introducing sound to vision)

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe" Paul Evans 'road testing' the 'Homage to the Sphere' virtual environment.
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe” Paul Evans ‘road testing’ the ‘Homage to the Sphere’ virtual environment. Photo by Nick Bax.

Gilman’s dreams consisted largely in plunges through limitless abysses of inexplicably coloured twilight and bafflingly disordered sound; abysses whose material and gravitational properties, and whose relation to his own entity he could not begin to explain.

From The Dreams in the Witch House by HP Lovecraft

Imagine a space with no sound at all, not even the sound of footsteps …

Quite early in the development stages of our Homage to the Sphere virtual reality (VR) environment, we decided that our ‘colour space’ would need sound to help orientate the visitor and enhance the emotional content of the experience. We also decided that sounds emanating from the ‘colour objects’ would also help visitors to navigate the space – providing way-marks on their three-dimensional journey.

Our perceptions of space are constructed by visual information entering our eyes, and also by aural information – from echoes and tonal qualities reflected from various surfaces entering our ears. Aural space, like stereoscopic space, creates depth perception; and it might also suggest the enclosure or expansiveness, softness or hardness of the environment that surrounds us.

I have previously worked closely with John Redgrave, an exceptionally talented musician, on a project entitled Gaze-Shift for The Festival of the Mind 2014. I recently approached him again to bring his creative flair and sensitivity into the development of the sound design for Homage to the Sphere.

Our first meeting for this current project was held at Humanstudio at Park Hill, Sheffield for a ‘test drive’ or fly through experience of the VR environment. I was delighted to observe John’s evident enjoyment – and to hear that he was keen to be involved.  I had imagined, when the time would come to begin our detailed discussions about the sounds that John was proposing to design for our space, that it might be difficult to communicate ideas about colour in music. How, for example, might we talk about a ‘red’ sound?

Dark sounds are easy enough to ‘visualise’: they create an eerie ambience through, for example, sepulchral minor organ chords, gloomy sub-bass ‘dubstep’ wobbles, stifling discords etc. … all of these and many more summon up shadowy feelings. John also talked about the possibilities of adding reverb to create a sense of confinement; of the virtual walls closing in …

Equally the ascent into light – expressed through heavenly, ethereal, expansive, major chords is easy enough to conjure up in the ‘mind’s ear’.

But, I asked, what about colours – and what about the shapes?

John talked about the warm sounds that might evoke reds and oranges, about the icy dissonance that might suggest blue, about the dreamy qualities that we might associate with purple or violets. Shapes might be evoked through angular sounds or via more rounded musical forms. All of this sounds highly subjective – almost certainly influenced by culturally determined ‘meaning’ – but we certainly weren’t having trouble understanding each other …

We agreed that the sounds identifying the objects should be simple – ‘one repeated note creates music’ – said John, with more complex tonal platforms for the various layers of the VR environment …

As our conversation progressed I began to think that perhaps sound could be seen as another model through which we can communicate colour sensations. The project so far as focussed on an exploration of structural colour: nano-structures affecting our perception of colour in biological organisms through the bending of light; pigments that have the subtractive effect of absorbing selective wavelengths of light, and the additive effect of coloured lights that combine on our TV or computer screens to create the hues of nature. Perhaps music might be another model through which we perceive sensations of colour?

The painter Wassily Kandinsky is sometimes assumed to have experienced a kind of synaesthesia. Synesthesia (also spelled synæsthesia or synaesthesia; from the Ancient Greek σύν syn, “together”, and αἴσθησις aisthēsis, “sensation”) is a neurological phenomenon, occurring in the brain, in which the stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.

It so happens that John’s father is Professor Peter Redgrave the noted psychologist – a neuroscientist – who I worked with on Gaze-Shift, and who has recently retired from a long and illustrious career in teaching and research. I learned from Peter that it can be argued that all experience occurs within the biological confines of the human brain, in areas that sit near enough to interconnect through the complex inter-weavings that make up neural pathways and networks. Perhaps, therefore, these connections between sound and vision, even between art and science, are both hard-wired and inevitable?



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