This article was first published for Artery on 9 April 2014
Amanda Cole is a composer and interdisciplinary artist drawn to finding new ways of experiencing sound. In her latest projects she is translating music into colour and colour into music.
A recipient of an Australia Council for the Arts Creative Australia Fellowship for an emerging artist, Cole is using her Fellowship to develop two audio-visual interfaces; a Programmable Light Metronome and a Microtonal Colour Mapping. Both projects highlight in different ways characteristics of Cole’s instrumental and electronic compositions, which feature microtonal structures, interference beats and fusions of electronic and acoustic timbres.
The Programmable Light Metronome (PLM) is an experiment in visually representing complex rhythms and layered tempos as they are played, making them visible as well as audible. It consists of four powerful LED staging lights, the colours of which Cole is able to morph, strobe and cross-fade in time to the music by using an eDMX1 interface connected to her laptop.
Her Microtonal Colour Mapping involves plotting the RGB colour spectrum to the frequencies of an octave, translating colour into pitch. Cole sometimes refers to her Microtonal Colour Mapping as an Organ in reference to 18th Century colour organs, such as Scriabin’s keyboard, that ‘played’ colour in response to music. She plans to develop something similar by developing an electronic interface/ instrument. The first piece she will experiment with is a microtonal flute solo called ‘Node’ that she has written for Queensland PhD student, Janet McKay.
Cole hopes to video McKay performing the work in conjunction with a modified version of her PLM. As McKay plays into a microphone the software Cole has written will convert the frequencies into RGB colours that one of her lights will then play out in real time. The video may then be the basis for an installation piece.
She has also used her mapping to convert colours to music, by analysing a painting by Melbourne-based artist Robert Owen, Melatonin Shift #3/C and translated the 80 hues he used to specific pitches. She has then used these notes as the basis for a microtonal composition. She has created a composition based on a work by artist Gemma Smith in a similar way.
Cole has always been drawn to visual arts, which is hardly surprising as she comes from a family of artists; both Cole’s parents and sister went to art school and her aunt is artist Donna Marcus. Cole says she virtually ‘grew up’ in galleries and considered art as a career at one stage but music seemed like ‘something different’. ‘Maybe I just had an overdose of art,’ she laughs.
Still it seems the desire to be part of the visual art world is still there. ‘I love having music presented in a gallery,’ she says. ‘I just love setting up an installation… the experience of being able to walk in and out of it… creating an environment.’ She says her collaborative and interdisciplinary projects feel like a way of worming her way back into the gallery scene.
Alongside her two major projects, Cole is also working on a number of other collaborative projects. A shared interest in intricate rhythmic systems has led to a collaboration with choreographer Antony Hamilton for what may eventually be a contemporary dance score. She is also working with audiologist John Dewhurst, to write electronic music compositions that draw on research regarding how the ear hears particular frequencies.
Your ear can’t separate two very close together notes when they are played simultaneous, Cole explains. ‘So it fuses them together and you hear one note but it has this arrhythmic beating to it.’
Notes that are very close together in pitch are known as microtones and are common in many Non-Western music styles, such as Indonesian Gamelan, which Cole says she is quite influenced by. ‘It has all these notes that are close in pitch…When they’re played together they create these… shimmering-like interference beats.’
It’s that exotic quality that attracts Cole to microtonal composition. It’s also relatively uncharted territory, she says and is theoretically exciting because of the capacity it provides to make a near infinite number of interesting scales. ‘But what really motivates me is I just really love the sound of it.’
Cole’s career has been steadily gaining momentum since she completed her PhD in composition at Sydney Conservatorium back in 2008 with a number of commissions, international performances, interesting collaborations and growing her repertoire of works. She sees her Creative Australia Fellowship however, as a chance to establish a self-sustaining career. ‘I don’t want to do the Fellowship and then go back to teaching,’ she explains. ‘I’ve got to put this first and get some big things out there.’