MONA’s true colours shine through in a festival exploring this strange musical phenomenon.

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have synaesthesia – the involuntarily association of musical pitch or tonality with colour, and vice versa. Sure, perfect pitch is a neat party trick, but could “seeing” sounds in technicolour enrich the experience of music? Would a “loud tie” actually be loud? What happens if Elvis’ voice in Blue Suede Shoes makes you see red?

Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini has co-curated a festival at Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art that attempts to give a flavour of these mingled sensations to the general public. MONA’s Synaesthesia weekend, he says, will be a “pretty out there festival.” 

With musicians as diverse as Messiaen and Scriabin, Duke Ellington and Billy Joel affected by the condition, Terracini has devised a “program with many different entry points.” Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen and Quartet for the End of Time are the full expression of his immersion in colour, while other works on the program interact with visual and lighting stimuli throughout the MONA gallery. In addition to classical music played by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and several guest soloists, cabaret star Meow Meow and popera chanteuse Kate Miller-Heidke share their own musical responses to colour. 

“There are very few other places where an event like this would work,” Terracini points out. “It will work well at MONA because of the aesthetic that [founder] David Walsh has; the pictures will still be on the walls and you can start from a point of darkness and then have a particular light illuminate not only the space that you’re in but also the piece of music that you’re hearing.” 

It has indeed become a banquet for the senses – quite literally, with creatively presented meals included in the ticket price of the $600 Gesamtkunstwerk of a weekend.

Included in the program is a panel discussion, the premier of MONA creative director Brian Ritchie’s Hiroshima Circle, performed in the gallery room containing rocks from the bombed Japanese city; composer-pianist Michael Kieran Harvey’s Psychosonata (inspired by the paintings of Francis Bacon and named after his cat) and Larry Sitsky’s new Five Colour Pieces for Solo Oboe played by David Nuttall. 

Kieran Harvey jokes, “I myself saw sparks once when a piano lid came down on my hands.” But Andrew Legg, a synaesthete and director of the Tasmanian Conservatorium, has volunteered himself as guinea pig. In a concert of Scriabin, gospel tunes and piano improvisations, Legg will be wired to a computer program that translates his body movements and the texture of the music into visual projections. 

So just how synaesthetic is he, I wonder. I decide to test him, singing A=440 over the phone. “For me, that particular sound is very light blue, because the pitch is relatively high and it’s a female voice I’m hearing. The actual note conjures up blue tones for me straight away,” he explains. “Certain sounds have comfortable colours; some have aggressive colours that I’ll avoid. Put me in a red room and I’ll go completely nuts! But I love blues and purples, and anything with that satin finish.” 

It is this highly subjective internal process, says Terracini, that he finds so fascinating and mysterious. “There are degrees of an individual’s synaesthetic response. It’s not – pardon the pun – black and white. It’s where these gradations take you and how you interpret those subtleties that makes it more interesting, whereas Messiaen felt he had a complete immersion in synaesthesia.” 

But is it a blessing or a curse? Legg, an expert in gospel choral music, insists, “I’m told I do things in the African-American gospel culture that white boys aren’t supposed to be able to do.” 

On the other end of the spectrum, however, he has trouble telling left from right (“I can’t get a driver’s license in the States”) and reading maps. “I perceive through my ears. It’s not unlike being blind, without being blind. 

Combined with his so-called perfect pitch, Legg’s sensitivity to colour can cause problems. If something is pitched in a tuning system outside his comfort zone, “it’s like Luke Skywalker not having the force anymore! I don’t know what chord to put down; I can’t map to the sound. If I listen to Bach played at Baroque pitch, it disturbs me so much I actually have to leave the room. It’s not Bach’s fault – Bach’s about as perfect as you can get in music.” 

Legg is aware of four or five students at the Tasmanian Conservatorium who react to colour in similar ways. While he admits there is a bond between them, he is adamant that he doesn’t feel compelled “seek out synaesthetics to work with any more than other musicians. Good music’s good music and that’s what I’ll gravitate towards.” 

Synaesthesia is at MONA from November 3–4. View event details here.