“Five Ideas About the Relation of Sight and Sound”
October 10th and 11th, 8 p.m.
Duderstadt Center, Video Studio

Courtesy of Virgil Moorefield

If you’ve ever looked at an advertisement and thought, “That blue really doesn’t go with the letter T,” you may be a synesthete. The taste of a word, the color of a number or the sound of a shape are mere poetic devices for most people. But for others, these experiences are real. Neurologists believe all people are synesthetes until about age four, but as our brains develop, these connections disappear. But not everyone loses the ability to access synethesia. For as many as one in 23 people, the brain fails to disconnect these cross-sensory activations, allowing the associations to continue — colors with letters; shapes with sounds; textures with smells. Even though most cases are genetic, synesthesia has also been reported from individuals who have experienced epileptic seizures, blindness and deafness, and also those who have used psychedelic drugs.

You don’t, however, need to take illicit substances or gouge out your eyes to experience synethesia — you just need to go to North Campus. Tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m. in the Duderstadt Video Studio, Virgil Moorefield, an Associate Professor in the School of Music, will premiere his latest intermedia piece, “Five Ideas About the Relation of Sight and Sound.” The word “synesthesia,” derived from the Ancient Greek words meaning “with” and “sensation,” is the crossing of the senses, in this case those of sight and sound. The performance simulates the experience by simultaneously compiling live, acoustic music and real-time visual imagery with 7.2 surround sound and nine screens, including a custom-built 60-feet-by-10 feet “wave screen.” The anticipated result of this combined media is an all-consuming sensory immersion.

“We don’t work with (a pre-arranged) video clip,” Moorefield said. “We’re actually generating a matrix, a video matrix, from the sound. So we’re going directly into the computer, hitting the computer with audio and saying, ‘Translate according to these rules,’ and it creates a video from that.”

This aspect of real-time performance adds to Moorefield’s concept of what he calls “comprovisation,” the art of composed improvisation. Certain elements are improvised in the performance space while the large-scale themes and musical scores are structured. Moorefield integrates “comprovisation” into his pieces regularly, and “Five Ideas About the Relation of Sight and Sound” is no exception. The visuals aren’t arranged beforehand, but occur as the notes are played — thus giving the element of improvisation — but the computer program behind the improvisations has been perfected over many months.

This may sound like sensory overload, and for good reason. But it’s not just a technological display. On the contrary, those involved in the production are primarily musicians and want to create something as organic as it is abstract. The piece may be intermedia, but it features all live, acoustic instruments such as piano, drums and guitars.

The balancing act between traditional performance and technology is a near impossible feat. While the two crafts certainly complement each other, they tend to be ideologically opposed. Technology is always in the midst of reinvention. The same cannot be said of art. The fundamentals of art — such as narration, spacing and progression of time — have changed minimally in the last few hundred years, which is why Beethoven and Sophocles still hold precedence in our performance halls. While art upholds timelessness, technology upholds fast-paced change.

Moorefield recognizes this paradigm, and wants to make sure art doesn’t become stagnant.

“We are, as a society, valuing technology, the how, far more than the what, the content,” he said. And that’s why Moorefield plans to manipulate technology to propel fine arts into the new millennium.

Moorefield has been working in multimedia performance for the past few years, and he has been composing music for the past 25. After earning an M.F.A. and Ph.D. in composition from Princeton University, he released three full-length CDs, wrote a book about the artistic aspects of producing and toured with several bands as a percussionist. He has received Rockefeller Foundation and MacDowell composition residencies, as well as several grants, including one from the National Endowment of the Arts.

Moorefield embarked upon his project “Five Ideas About the Relation of Sight and Sound” in late 2005, and started rehearsing at the University about four months ago, acquiring the assistance of musicians and programmers Robert Alexander and Devin Kerr. He considers tonight’s performance the premiere.

The structure and technology of Moorefield’s piece is certainly avant-garde, but the concept of visual music has a history reaching as far back as civilization itself. Ancient Greek, Chinese, Persian, Arabic and Indian texts mention empirical connections between sound and color. In 1704, synesthetics entered academia with Sir Isaac Newton’s book “Opticks,” in which he proposed a theoretical relationship between musical scales and the light spectrum. After Newton’s publication, several inventors designed mechanical instruments displaying sound-color relationships, usually involving glass shields and hundreds of lamps. These creations reached a peak in 1893 with Alexander Wallace Rimington’s famed color organ. Twenty-two years later, Russian composer Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin used this design for the symphony Prometheus in Carnegie Hall.

As the 20th-century progressed, visual compositions flourished. One of the more prominent inspirations for Moorefield during this era is Oscar Fischinger (1900-1967), responsible for Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” — one of the first films to have a surround sound system built for it, custom-designed by Disney engineers. But that’s only a small, pop-culture portion of what Fischinger contributed to the field. His lesser-known abstract works, such as “Motion Painting No. 1,” correlate light and sound in more theoretically interesting ways.

With technology moving ever faster today, Fischinger is, as Moorefield describes, “the grandfather of what is now possible on anybody’s laptop.”

Robert Alexander, a performer and programmer in the piece, also recognizes how far we’ve come.

“(In the early 1900s) people went to a theatre and they were freaked out because they saw a train coming and thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be hit by a train!’ and everyone ran out of the theatre,” Alexander said. “And concerts, nowadays, you go and you expect that there are going to be laser-lights going everywhere … it seems that the trend is that the level of immersion is steadily increasing as technology has progressed.”

The movement toward sensory immersion might be due to the allure of technology, the excitement of live animation or nostalgia for our childhood days as synesthetes. Whatever the reason, multimedia has consumed society and will continue to do so to ever greater extents. “Five Ideas About the Relation of Sight and Sound” is a performance embedded within our present sensational world, and perhaps paving our sensational future.

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