Sunday, 31 March 2013

Synesthetic art & music

In its most basic (and presumably common) form, synesthesia is the association of colours and textures/sensations with words, numbers and sounds. This is something I’ve always been aware of, but it wasn’t until the late 90s when I realised that a) it had a name; and b) not everybody associated colours with words.

For synesthetes with a more severe condition, it can apparently be quite unpleasant and problematic (for example, certain everyday words could induce a feeling on nausea), but for me personally it’s been an interesting addition to my art and more recently, my music.

I can’t hear a song without “seeing” what colour(s) it is, and how the textures/forms change in my mind’s eye, while the song is playing. Back in 2004, I put this to the test and tried illustrating several Peter Gabriel songs, in order to try and capture the shapes, forms, textures and primarily what colours each song was for me. This work, “Talk In Pictures”, can be seen here.

As a passionate music fan, I can’t paint without having some music on. Perhaps without even realising it, my choice of music influences the colours I decide to use in the work. Clearly some albums are better for painting to than others, and often you have to choose the right album to match the mindset you need to create artwork to, or perhaps even something of the right kind of mood to what you’re trying to convey in the work.

Many albums have a consistent colour palette all the way through; others can be quite varied. I would also say that some albums can be quite monochromatic, and more ‘texture’ based; grainy, spikey, glassy, metallic, etc, with very little colour coming through. So for me, a song or album is more than just music – it can be a full-on sensory experience! It’s hard to imagine hearing music and not ‘seeing’ colours. Which sounds absolutely bonkers!

This isn't always the case, but sometimes, the choice of colour in an album's artwork can influence my perception of that album’s colours, so rather than my mind interpreting the colours, it's agreeing with  (or being influenced by) the artist or designer’s choice of colours for the design, as it clearly matches the colour of the music on offer (Depeche Mode’s “Exciter” being one such example, where I always hear the music in greens and black). 

What is perhaps more interesting for me, is the effect of synaesthesia whilst making music, as I’m now in control of what colours and textures I want in the music. In most cases, I’ll come up with a title first and base the song on that, it having set the mood. But before I’ve even laid a note down I have an idea in my mind of what colour I want it to be.

While this is only of real relevance to me, the next step is to find the right sounds – like a any musician would, except mine, also need to be the right colour! Sometimes it takes several attempts; one song I was working on recently had a lead melody that in my mind’s eye, was a kind of yellowy-white colour. But my first choice of sound, while the right colour, wasn’t the right sound; it’s texture too harsh. I eventually found another yellow/white sound that was softer, and absolutely right for the piece.

I have found that in many cases, a song has a consistent backwash of colours, for example a range of greens, with the lead vocal or melody being a lighter streak in say grey or white which cuts right through the middle of the greens. This is the sort of thing I was illustrating with the “Talk In Pictures” pieces.

I’ve said that for me, making music is the same as painting, just using sounds instead of colours – but I’m wrong, because it uses sounds AND colours… you just can’t see them in the end result! But I’ve figured out that my brain works in exactly the same way when painting or composing a song, and for me, synaesthesia is a crucial – if subtle – part of the creative process.

A lot of 'colour' went into crafting my latest album, Future Worlds - I'd certainly be curious to hear what fellow synesthetes think of it...
Future Worlds, by The Light Dreams

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The Light Dreams – Future Worlds

Future Worlds – track by track

Future Worlds is the name of my new instrumental album of science fiction-inspired music, and the first piece I have composed as Honorary Interstellar Musician for the recently-formed Institute for Interstellar Studies™ (

I like the idea of instrumental music being open to listener’s own interpretation, but as an artist, I always associate music with images, colours and concepts, so in turn, I like my music to have an idea to drive it as part of the creative process, which listeners can then either take or leave. Each track on Future Worlds has a specific theme or vision in mind, reflected in the title.

Souvenir of Earth is a downbeat and reflective start, taking both its inspiration and title from Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel, The Age of Miracles, which my wife had bought for me last year. The story depicts the impact on society and the environment following the slowing of the Earth’s rotation. The destruction or loss of our home world is a regular topic in SF literature, and I wanted to create a piece to match that mood, leaving Earth as just a memory. This was the first track I made and starting point for the whole album.

To the Stars was one of the first tracks I composed after being invited to join the Institute for Interstellar Studies™, and I wanted to reflect the forward thinking goals and ambitions of the Institute. I had recently made a 25-minute evolving soundscape entitled Chrysalis, which was more of an experimental demo, but there was one section I particularly liked, which I adapted as the main melody in “To the Stars”.

Utopia – whether it’s the city of Diaspar in Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, H.G. Wells’ When the Sleeper Awakes or almost any given Philip K. Dick scenario, beneath the perfect, blissful society and lifestyle there is always a dark undercurrent or conspiracy.

Colony ­– many space and science fiction artists have painted radical visions of what man’s colonies on other planets could be like. “Colony” is one of the more dynamic tracks on the album starts out as a heavily electronic piece and gradually morphs into a thunderous orchestral score. I first started using symphonic sounds when I created the soundtrack to artist David A. Hardy’s English edit of 1957 Russian film, Road to the Stars. I enjoyed working with these powerful sounds so much, I decided to fuse orchestral and electronic styles together for Future Worlds.

The World Outside – is actually the title to my own digital painting that I used as the album cover. I wanted a sparse sound and cold atmosphere, which could depict either the first sight of a new world outside a freshly-landed spacecraft, or a beautiful yet inhospitable alien terrain beyond the confines of a colony.

Second Sun – I was reading 50 Years in Space by the late Sir Patrick Moore and David A. Hardy, which contains one of my (many) favourite Hardy paintings, Antares. It’s one of those pieces that you feel you could step right into, with beautiful cascading waterfalls set against a vibrant double sunset. It’s also one of the brighter tracks on the album – thinking to the end of the film, Sunshine, when the dying sun is ‘rebooted” and warmth and sunlight returns to the Earth.

Icefall is one of the more orchestral tracks and combines the cold atmosphere of a solar winter with the underlying message of climate change and the melting of the polar ice caps.

Beneath the Surface continues the ecological theme, this time focusing on the endangered life under the sea. This is perhaps the album’s most epic track, with a gradual build and mid-point transition with echoes of Vangelis’ work and Mike Oldfield’s Songs of Distant Earth (which was inspired by the Arthur C. Clarke novel of the same name)

Cities in the Sky goes in a darker, industrial direction with thunderous drums and metallic drones. The concept of the floating city is no stranger to SF, and I wanted to produce a menacing piece that could capture the vast spectacle of enormous, monstrous floating machine-like cities.

Flightpath is about the adventure of space flight, such as the journey between warring worlds as depicted in Joe Haldeman’s Forever War or the plight of the Leonora Christine starship in Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero.

Earthlight – the partial illumination of a dark part of the surface of the Moon via light reflected from the Earth, and also a term for the appearance of the Earth as seen from the Moon during the lunar night – and an early Arthur C. Clarke novel!

Sea of Flames is an apocalyptic vision of the sun closing in on the Earth and setting alight to everything, including the oceans – a haunting close to the album.

I usually like albums to be around 40-45 minutes in duration – I think that’s just the right length to digest. However, I had so many ideas on the go whilst making Future Worlds, even after completing my planned twelve tracks, there were two pieces that I really liked and decided to include them as bonus tracks. In the one sense, the album starts off with man leaving the Earth and taking to the stars – almost like a first act.  So for the second act, we’re setting foot on a new world for the first time, and starting over there. This was the general thinking behind the two additional tracks, which are only available with the album download on my Bandcamp page.

First Steps started off as an energetic dance track entitled “Contact”, but it wasn’t the right style for the rest of the album, so I slowed it right down and changed it from an all-electronic piece to all-orchestral, the final track sounding almost Terminator-like in approach.

Origins is a slow building track, with layer upon layer of music gradually emerging and evolving into a dramatic, but optimistic crescendo. It’s also the only track on the album to feature vocal samples.

Sometimes when you start work on an album, it often takes unexpected turns and ends up going in a completely different direction to what you originally set out to. But with Future Worlds, I’d say it has turned out exactly how I intended, as an emotive and thought-provoking soundscape with a mixture of moods and atmospheres through a powerful blend of electronic and symphonic music. I’m certainly proud to associate the album with the Institute for Interstellar Studies.™ 

Future Worlds is available now as a digital album from (with 2 exclusive bonus tracks and PDF booklet) and will be available on Amazon and iTunes from 18th March.