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An Eyeful of Sound: Top Five Multisensory Performances

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Throughout human history, cultural thinkers have tried to find connections between the five senses. In ancient Greece, Aristotle associated colors with sounds. The neurological phenomenon Synethesia causes people to taste colors, see sounds and experience occurrences through difference senses.

Even those of us who aren’t synesthetes have been shown to exhibit less pronounced, but similar associations in our experiences, such as combining music and color. Knowingly or not, composers and performers have exploited this phenomenon. Here are our top five examples:

1. Debussy that Tickles

BitterSuite, a London-based organization, has been presenting concerts meant to titillate all the senses. Its most recent performance of the Debussy String Quartet paired soda, tickling and scent-soaked scarves along with different movements to enhance the audience experience. The Guardian’s Lyndsey Winship found the extrasensory stimulations heightened her experience, holding her attention more than usual throughout the performance.


2. A "Scent Opera"

Taking a queue from 1950s Smell-o-Vision, "GreenAria: A ScentOpera" debuted in 2007 as part of the Guggenheim's Works and Process series. Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurdsson composed the score, Stewart Matthew provided lyrics and direction, and the French perfumier Christophe Laudamiel collaborated on the piece. Laudamiel created 30 distinct scents, which became the characters of the opera, that emanated out of a specially manufactured scent microphone.


3.  Scriabin's Psychedelic Display

Almost one century earlier Alexander Scriabin associated colors to musical notes, so far as to create a color organ that would project hues for the audience to appreciate. His symphony, “Prometheus: A Poem of Fire” was written with a "counterpoint of light." However, the piece was rarely performed with its accompanying visual display, even during Scriabin’s lifetime.

4. The Ocular Harpsichord

The combination of color with sound dates back to the early 18th century, when the Jesuit priest and mathematician Father Louis Bertand Castel invented the Ocular Harpsichord. The instrument associated the seven notes of the Western scale to a particular color so that a pulley system would lift up a curtain on one of 60 stained-glass panes for each note that was struck. The harpsichord was so popular that it inspired works by Georg Philipp Telemann.


5. Food Operas in Boston

More recently, the composer Ben Houge has collaborated with the Boston-based chef James Bond on a series of Food Operas. Like a fully staged production, the dinner is choreographed to coincide with specific musical cues, which are emitted through speakers set at each setting. “The potential to link sound to food, scent, and the tactile sensations of the mouth creates an entirely new field of sensory interplay,” Houge wrote in an article for NewMusicBox. It helps that the operas themselves tend to hew toward culinary topics, such as sustainability, locally sourced produce and asparagus.