Do You Smell What I Hear? BitterSuite and Sencity Add Sight, Taste, Touch and Smell to Concerts

By Louise Burton on Jan 17, 2014 07:47 PM EST

Writer Lyndsey Winship attended a highly unusual performance of Debussy's String Quartet in G minor at the Rich Mix in London. She later wrote about the experience in her blog on The Guardian:

"The audience were blindfolded and fed different sensory experiences in parallel with the music: fizzy pop and cola bottles for the effervescent second movement and fingers scampering up your arms in tandem with the first violin, then as the music changed, a scent-soaked silk scarf flickering across your skin, and hands laid on to give a sensation of pressure or relaxation."

This performance of the Phaedrus Ensemble was presented by BitterSuite, a U.K. group that invites listeners to "experience classical music through every sense."

Their multisensory concerts are inspired by synesthesia, a rare neurological condition in which the senses of sight, hearing, taste and smell are somehow connected. People with synesthesia have a rare ability to see colors in music, smell sounds or experience other unusual sensory combinations.

BitterSuite, led by 24-year-old producer Stephanie Singer, isn't the first music group to include elements mimicking the experience of synesthesia.

Some ensembles have offered tasting menus geared to a particular concert program (including one for Karlheinz Stockhausen, of all people).

And others have enhanced the rock concert experience with similar elements. Such a group is Sencity, which enhances pop music with "expressive dancers, a SenseFloor, taste sensations, video projections, light effects, sign interpreters and hairdressers."

It's unclear what hairdressers add to the concert experience, but perhaps you have to be there...

Beyond mere disc jockeys, the Sencity experience is also controlled by light jockeys, aroma jockeys and food jockeys.

The concerts are designed to appeal to people who are deaf, with elements including signdancers, a dance floor that vibrates in time to the music and the option of wearing a "feel the music suit."

But the overall experience, kind of like Jimmy Durante's, is designed for general audiences.

Sencity presents concerts around the world, with concerts scheduled for the Netherlands on March 8 and São Paulo on March 22.

Some may dismiss these multisensory experiences as a gimmick, a misguided attempt to attract new audiences looking for greater sensory stimulation. But Winship, at least, seems to have enjoyed the BitterSuite concert: "It's a thoroughly entertaining experience....there is no dozing off, zoning out or mentally writing your shopping list. This is active listening."

 "And as for what Debussy smells like," to quote Winship, "I'd say a definite whiff of parma violets."

Whether or not she realized it, Winship expressed something very close to what Debussy wrote about his compositions: "I realized that music is very delicate, and it takes, therefore, the soul at its softest fluttering to catch these violet rays of emotion."

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TagsBitterSuite, Lyndsey Winship, The Guardian, Rich Mix, Stephanie Singer, Debussy, String Quartet in G minor, Sencity, synesthesia, multisensory concerts

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