On synaesthesia, collaboration, and creating a multi-sensory sonic world based on a volcano
by Nina Danon
Neurodivergent music listening & other starting points
My current research project, as a doctoral researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London, investigates the intersection between Neurodivergent identities and music composition, to develop compositional strategies valorising neurodiversity. I am particularly interested in exploring how the auraldiversity, or diversity of hearing and listening experiences, of Neurodivergent artists influences our creative processes.
Volcano is the first practical phase of this research project, commissioned by the Aural Diversity Network to be presented at the fifth Aural Diversity Workshop in January 2023.
As I was tasked to present a composition on the theme of Aural Diversity, I began by investigating how my own listening experiences diverge from so called 'typical listening'. As a kinetic autistic (a term to refer to people who are both autistic and ADHDers, which I first encountered in the insightful writings of Dr. Nick Walker), I have a high sensitivity to sound. I experience misophonia, and can have a visceral negative response to certain triggers and sonic stimuli. In other words: sounds can make me feel extreme anger, disgust, fear, and other instinsctive overwhelming responses. And there is more! When I am overwhelmed by chronic fatigue and pain, which are common occurrences for me thanks to my Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and Long Covid, my brain will amplify all the sounds around me, to the point of them becoming unbearably loud and painful. My relationship to sound, however, is far from negative. Quite the contrary! One of the perks of being neurodivergent and having sensory processing differences, is that I get to experience what autistic communities commonly refer to as sensory euphoria, or sensory joy.
How could I ever find the words to describe this most wonderful feeling? It is a state of pure bliss, where your entire being vibrates in harmony. Your senses merge, happy relaxing hormones fill your body. You are entering a warm bath. You are fully awake. You are in a dream like state. Everything is in order, everything is in just the right place. You have found the solution to a riddle. You have solved an equation. Found the missing piece of a puzzle, the perfect chord to support your melody. You are stroking the fur of your beloved dog. You are feeling the purring of your cat, sitting on your lap.
Sensory joy can be brought on by the smallest of details. Actually, it often is, since autistics have a tendency to notice details that neurotypical senses might miss! Sensory joy can come from touching a wonderfully comfortable texure. Running your fingers through the rich contour of a rock you picked up in your last walk in the forest, and have been carring in your pocket ever since. Noticing how your new pen makes a very satisfying "click" when you close it. It really is that simple!
I commonly experience sensory joy through sonic, visual and tactile stimuli. I noticed these generally trigger a response that merges two or more of my senses. It's a form of synaesthesia, you see. Motions and sounds are intrinsically linked in my mind and body, as are sounds and touch, and I have come to realise that my entire approach to music, as a performer, listener and composer, is intrinsically intertwined with my multi-sensory perceptions of sound.
I am still at the very beginning of this journey into understanding my own sonic identity and the many ways being Neurodivergent influences it. But these were the considerations I had begun investigating when I started working on my PhD, and on Volcano, at the start of the 2022-23 academic year.
The Algar do Carvão
To start this investigation, I approached two musicians who shared similar synaesthetic perceptions of sound: cellist Lily Hope, and sound designer Francesco Cassino, alias Comakid. All three of us experience strong tactile responses to sound, amongst other crossmodal responses, and we decided to use this as the starting point for the composition commissioned by the Aural Diversity Workshop.
The next step was to find a way to channel these perceptions, to amplify them. Having all learned music through Western classical and modern music traditions, we had been taught to focus on different aspects of our music making, and leave those intuitive synaesthetic perceptions behind.
We now needed a way to help us focus on them, a space that would enhance and stimulate our senses: the Algar do Carvão.
It is a volcanic cavern situated on the island of Terceira, in the Azores. Francesco and I had both visited this space, and been profoundly moved by it. Speaking of sensory joy - this was it! Sensory euphoria on a grand, magnificent, geological scale.
We decided to compose a piece that would take the audience on a multi-sensory journey to the centre of the Earth, musically evoking the shapes, colours, textures and tactile sensations experienced when descending into this ancient volcano, bringing to life the rich geological history of the island of Terceira.
For the first exploratory phase of our creative process, I devised a moodboard containing a variety of prompts from the Algar do Carvão. It included photos of the surroundings of the volcano and of the rock formations inside the cavern, written descriptions of some of the sensations experienced there, and videos of underwater hot spots, lava flows and the birth of volcanic islands, emerging from the sea.
I shared the board with Lily and Francesco ahead of our first workshop. We each looked at it, and wrote down ideas based on the sensory responses we had to the visual and tactile prompts.
These playing techiques, melodic motifs and other sonic ideas formed the basis of our first workshop, in which we explored these more in-depth, comparing our sensory responses. We discussed ideas for textures, playing and production techniques, rhythmic and melodic fragments, all based on our individual responses to the various stimuli.
It was interesting to note that, while we each associated different pitches and keys to the colours in the cave (is E Major green? Or is it red? We had pretty strong, contrasting opinions!), we actually had very similar audio-tactile responses. From these, we established a list of cello sounds and melodic patterns to record.
Two weeks after our initial workshop, the three of us met for a recording session.
The music we wished to record had been notated in different ways. I had handwritten some of the rhythmic and melodic cells using standard Western classical notation, but most of the textures simply had a written instruction indicating a pitch, where relevant, and a playing technique and/or its desired effect ("damped bowed strings for a sandy, atmospheric texture"; "sul tasto tremolo to imitate the raspy quality of the ferns"; "small range glissandi on the C string, following the shape of the underwater lava flows", etc.)
As we worked through the various fragments (sixty-six in total), the three of us noticed that this approach gave us the opportunity to pay attention to individual notes in a way that our respective creative practices did not usually encourage. The rich overtones of Lily's cello created intricate melodies and shapes within each note, the low frequencies vibrating in our whole bodies, stimulating multi-sensory responses.
Assembling the piece
For the last phase of the project, Francesco and I worked in Ableton, his preferred sonic playground.
Watching him work is a fascinating project by itself: one click of his keyboard and sounds are magically transformed, expertly crafted with the dexterity of a sculptor.
I conduct most of my work in a DAW and notation software myself, mostly Logic and Dorico. But my craft lies more in playing ideas in, and manipulating MIDI notes or creating scores - when working with sounds, I much prefer to collaborate with a sonic wizard like Francesco. It's not just a matter of specialism though - making music together is a game. We are building imaginary worlds, solving puzzles, assembling complex structures... The six composition sessions with Francesco for this piece were our grownup version of a playdate!
We began by sorting the sixty-six takes of our recording session into categories, much like pieces of a puzzle. Listening to them one by one enabled us to make more notes about the sensory responses we had to them. To my surprise, these were not dampened by being experienced on headphones rather than live. Some were even amplified by the way they had been recorded! One playing technique in particular (long notes in the treble range, played sul ponticello, with slight tremolo), produced an effect that neither of us had experienced in the recording session: a metallic taste! This was the first time I had tasted a sound.
We used these fragments as building blocks, to create larger 'macro-block' sections that would combine different sounds and production techniques to achieve specific textures or atmospheres. The three more melodic 'macro-blocks' of the piece were constructed in a similar fashion, using the cells we had recorded as building blocks for each section.
Working in this way enabled us to pay as much attention to the vertical structure of the piece as its horizontal one, combining our building blocks to create textures based on their sensory qualities.
Even though we were working on our music in a DAW's linear timeline, the most interesting aspects of the music happened vertically: the intersections between the different 'bricks', or cells. The horizontal aspect, time, was only a tool in our game of musical Legos to create the vertical layers - we moved various bricks right or left on our timeline to align them differently with each others, resulting in new textures, new combinations of sounds.
In the vast majority of the piece, timbre and textures are the main focus, with pitch and rhythm becoming a byproduct of the way our building blocks interacted with each other in the sonic layers we crafted.
We did not follow a linear structure at this stage, as neither of us tends to think about music linearly, working instead in any order that felt more intuitive. It is only once we had the different macro-blocks ready that we started structuring the piece into a more linear order, defining a narrative path.
Loosely inspired by the journey into the Algar do Carvão, the piece begins in the misty surroundings of the volcano, where rocks and ferns create intricate inviting patterns, and takes the audience into the cavern itself, investigating various rock formations and the geological history hidden within their layers. The origins of the volcanic island, as an underwater hot spot, form the focus of the last part of the composition.
You can listen to the full piece here (headphones recommended!):
If you'd like to read the listening guide with a precise description of what to expect in the piece, you can download it below:
I'd love to hear your feedback on Volcano! If you'd like to share your thoughts on how you experienced the piece, you can do so anonymously by clicking here: https://forms.gle/CfiJPgdAbnrXV4pJ9 , or you can email me at email@example.com.