SJO works with synesthete and visual artist on a multidisciplinary show

“Music is going to be more powerful, because it’s not just auditory, it’s also visual.”

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Allyson Glenn sees music.

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Not in the sense that she can see sound waves emanating from instruments or radio speakers. For Glenn, music takes on specific shapes and figures in his mind – and each stroke of the piano key or trumpet note looks different.

A professor of painting and drawing at the University of Saskatchewan, Glenn experiences synesthesia – a fancy term for when someone experiences one of their senses through another.

In preparation for a Saskatoon Jazz Orchestra concert earlier this year, Glenn worked closely with two Saskatchewan composers to create video animations based on what she sees when she hears their music.

Thus, on January 22, the public will have the chance to see the music through the eyes of Glenn. “I’ve always been able to see music…shapes and textures in space,” she says. “It’s involuntary. I don’t have to think about it. It just appears.

In preparation for this concert, SJO artistic director Dean McNeill hired two composers to work with Glenn and compose music to take advantage of the way his synesthesia manifests. As McNeill says, understanding how someone else experiences art is an almost impossible task. Through Glenn’s artistic depictions of his synesthesia, an audience can have a unique opportunity to see — or hear, in this case — through someone else’s eyes.

“It’s an interesting experience. Here’s an example where we can actually look inside someone’s brain, with their permission,” McNeill said. “Allyson…is a really special kind of conduit for cracking this code.”

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Above the Deluge is a short film by Allyson Glenn, featuring music by Paul Suchan, performed by the Saskatoon Jazz Orchestra.  It was created for Dimensions in Sound, a multidisciplinary collaboration with the SJO.
Above the Deluge is a short film by Allyson Glenn, featuring music by Paul Suchan, performed by the Saskatoon Jazz Orchestra. It was created for Dimensions in Sound, a multidisciplinary collaboration with the SJO. Photo provided

One of the most common types of synesthesia involves interpolating numbers as colors or vice versa. But Glenn’s synesthesia experiment translates sounds into black-and-white images.

Different sounds appear as shapes with different outlines. As an example, Glenn describes seeing the high notes of the trumpet as long, thin streaks, almost like fluorescent lights. For this project, Glenn chose to create monochrome video animations through a process called “rotoscoping,” where the animator superimposes sketches onto the film to create action and movement.

“Music is going to be more powerful, because it’s not just auditory, it’s also visual,” she said. “When you see something that looks good on you, something moves. It might even amaze the audience for a while.

For composers Paul Suchan and Silas Friesen, the process began with an interview with Glenn to learn how different sounds influence the shapes she sees in her head. The team learned that different musical timbres (or sound quality) alter the shapes Glenn sees in his mind.

As Suchan said, a synesthete like Glenn has a simpler, more relevant way of describing music to others.

“For us non-synesthetic people, it’s kind of magical to think about that,” Suchan said.

Suchan, whose wife and brother-in-law also experience synesthesia (although in a different way than Glenn), said finding the triggers that changed the way Glenn viewed music was a fascinating experience. “I wanted to see what specifically changed the way Allyson viewed music,” he said. “I never imagined (what she did).”

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Glenn’s animations differ between Suchan’s and Friesen’s pieces. For Friesen, seeing the video play with his composition during a first screening felt like a missing piece falling into place.

“The visuals seem to complete part of the puzzle,” he said. “Seeing the visual that Allyson created…it makes it more complete and it makes sense.”

In the Fray is a short film by Allyson Glenn featuring music by Silas Friesen, performed by the Saskatoon Jazz Orchestra.
In the Fray is a short film by Allyson Glenn featuring music by Silas Friesen, performed by the Saskatoon Jazz Orchestra. Photo provided

During the Dimensions in Sound concert on January 22, Glenn’s video animations will be projected above the orchestra as the new pieces play.

McNeill, who conducts the orchestra, will follow a “click trail” to help keep accurate time between the video and the musicians. McNeill said it was a remarkable artistic achievement.

“For me, the most meaningful cross-disciplinary experiences are made by people with deep knowledge of a specific field,” he said.

“When I watched those movies, I didn’t feel like Allyson was polluting my personal impression of that music…more often than not it was analogous or added to how I perceived the music.”

January’s concert will feature more than Glenn’s videos and new compositions – renowned drummer Larnell Lewis will be in town to perform, and the SJO will play several other jazz classics.

But the chance to see this fusion of sight and sound is a unique opportunity.

“I’m very invested in it because that’s how I see the world…it’s going to be a very visceral experience,” Glenn said.

The Saskatoon Jazz Orchestra’s Dimensions in Sound concert will take place on January 22, 2022 at 7:30 p.m. at the Broadway Theatre. Buy tickets in person and live on the SJO website.

Allyson Glenn takes a photo in her studio in Saskatoon, SK on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021.
Allyson Glenn takes a photo in her studio in Saskatoon, SK on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021. Photo by Heywood Yu /Star Phoenix of Saskatoon
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