An Eyeful of Sound

What does the number four taste like? What colour is the letter L? What shape is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Take That’s The Flood?

These may sound like unusual questions, but for someone with synaesthesia, they are likely to evoke a whole array of sensations.

A joining of the senses

Synaesthesia is often described as a joining of the senses, whereby two or more of the five senses that are normally experienced separately are involuntarily and automatically joined together.

This may be hearing a piece of music and seeing a certain shade of colour, or where numbers, days of the week or months have personalities, shapes or even tastes.

It is an interesting phenomenon which has fascinated artists for generations, and an animation lecturer at the University has spent five years researching and developing a project that explores and celebrates this rare trait.

Award-winning documentary maker

Sam Moore is an award-winning animated documentary maker at the University’s School of Art & Design.

Her short film about synaesthesia, An Eyeful of Sound, recently won the prestigious Nature Journal Scientific Merit Award at the Imagine Science Festival, New York.

Sam says: “Film makers spend a lot of time sending work out to film festivals and it is a long process – sometimes we get in and sometimes we don’t. To get in was great but to win the top prize was a real thrill.”

The prize is awarded to the best short film of the festival, and was significant recognition for the documentary.

Seeing music

The 10 minute animated documentary focuses on audio-visual synaesthesia and was produced with three women who see music.

Sam received funding from the Wellcome Trust to conduct a research and development project, which grew into the film.

“I had been interested in the brain trait of synaesthesia for a few years. I am always looking for things that can be visual and put across well within an animated documentary. The research and development project was really interesting to do, so it seemed a logical conclusion to continue and turn it into a short film and give it a life outside,” she explains.

“A lot of artists are interested in synaesthesia; if you have a creative output once you have heard about it, you don’t forget about it and it seems to hold the key to why the human brain is creative.”

Representing the condition

Sam, who is not synaesthetic herself, built quite a relationship with the three women she interviewed for the documentary.

The process began with an audio interview about their experiences, and then Sam began to cut up the sound and think of how to make images that would be representative of what they described.

Sam says: “It is a view of the subject that we could not get any other way. You cannot put a camera in their heads to show how they experience life.

“When I played them sounds – not just music, even the sound of a coffee grinder – it would bring up something visual and outside their body that was really interesting.

“One of the participants said that when her friends and family came round to the house, she would play them the film to explain what the condition was like. They really like the film – one said I had made it very synaesthetically which I liked! A lot of people don’t admit to being synaesthetic because people will think they are weird, but it is not an illness, it is a way of seeing the world.”

Sam says she picks up nuggets of information all over the place and files them away for future use.

Her previous work, The Beloved Ones, tells the true stories of two African women living with the repercussions of HIV/AIDS, while doubled up is a portrait of her own experiences of having twin boys.

Animation course

Students on the School of Art & Design’s BA (Hons) Animation are encouraged to get their films screened as much as possible.

The course seeks to develop students’ technical knowledge and cultivate their understanding of movement, mostly through drawing. They learn to combine visual and sound skills with  structured time and motion, as well as honing their editing skills and creative use of sound.

“One of the things I love about the course is that it’s really diverse, has an open ethos and students are encouraged to find their own way,” Sam says.

“It is really about finding your style and respecting different ways of working.

“I always say to students that they should get their work out there as much as they can and get it screened. You see your work in a different context and see what’s not working – the more feedback you get the better.”

Sam's next project

Sam has already moved on to her next project – her PhD, which is looking at animation to represent unique brain states such as synaesthesia.

As Sam’s work shows, inspiration comes from many places, and students at the University continue to amaze and challenge expectations with their work.

And with an award-winning lecturer behind them, the sky’s the limit.

(c) Samantha Moore An Eyeful of Sound funded by the Wellcome Trust. Front cover: Glitter Flyover