"It's the smell of rain on rubber," says Steph Singer, thinking about the scents that transport her instantly to other times and places. "Wet rubber and overcooked chips. That's the smell of my primary school," she laughs. She sits back to think of other aromas that send her to happy places. "I love the smell of lavender," she says. "It's connected to my boyfriend, he grows lavender on his roof."
Singer is more tuned in than most to the power of the senses. The 27-year-old is a composer and creative director who runs BitterSuite, a series of sensory concerts that immerse the listener in a multimodal experience. At a BitterSuite concert you don't just hear music, you taste it, smell it and feel it too.
As an audience member you may be blindfolded, and led through the piece by a dancer. As the live music unfolds, your senses are pricked in tandem: sweet or fizzy tastes put on your tongue, evocative scents passed under your nose, rhythms tapped on your skin. It's a form of intense, active listening in an era when we so often graze on sound as background noise.
BitterSuite has taken off in a way Singer never expected. They've staged concerts at the Roundhouse, Wilderness Festival and TED, using classical and electronic music from Debussy to experimental pop composer Tanya Auclair. BitterSuite's latest project, Tapestries, is based on the passionate and tormented String Quartet No.1 by Czech composer Leoš Janáček.
Singer was inspired to create BitterSuite by learning about synaesthesia, a condition where sufferers experience a confusion of the senses, they 'taste' words, or 'hear' colours. For a synaesthete, this is not a choice, it's a way of life, but if you take it as a way of thinking, says Singer, "It gives you permission to make connections between things you wouldn't automatically, to expand your creative process."
Even if you don't notice you're smelling something, it will deepen the experience of the music.
In making Tapestries, Singer and her collaborators pull stories and emotions out of the music and try to translate them for the audience. "So, how would you create the sensation of vines creeping round your body?" suggests Singer. "Or the moment where it sounds like someone sinks through the floor? Or a sense of fear that's also tantalising? To the chef I might say, this moment is all about a sense of foreboding," she says. "I want the taste to coat the mouth but I don't want there to be a texture in the mouth for any longer than a split second. And I want it to be a dense sensation. And then the chef will go, 'How about a syringe filled with whiskey-flavoured liquorice?'"
Singer worked with perfumer Sarah McCartney, using scent to highlight motifs in the music. Each time a certain motif appears, the scent appears too, "so we lay a memory imprint" she says. "Even if you don't notice you're smelling something, it will deepen the experience of the music. Smell is the most direct sensory experience, even if we're less conscious of it, it gives you the ability to communicate properly, to connect with people, to understand fear, a sense of space – it's a location device. It informs everything that you see."
Smell is particularly good at evoking memory, whereas Singer might use touch to amplify rhythm, or to trigger an emotional response. "We've had so many men, in particular, be moved by the experience because touch is not part of their daily lives." But sometimes not touching can be just as powerful. "By being near you but not touching you, like heated hands held in front of your face," she holds up her hands to demonstrate. "Your skin and your body start firing, you can feel that something's near you but you don't know what. That's really intense."
Through working on BitterSuite, Singer has found she isn't the only artist interested in this world. "It feels like there's a movement of people interested in the senses," she says. "In holistic practice, in medicine, the arts, perfume, restaurants, everywhere." If it's true that in the 21st-century we measure our lives more by the experiences we've had than the objects we've accrued, then the "sensory boom" as Singer calls it, is a logical progression.
Next year she's organizing a festival in London, Open Senses, to bring together people working in that field. "It's overwhelming when you realize there are so many people," she says. It's also happening in New York, where Singer is currently living (she comes originally from a tiny village in Berkshire). "The scene there is behind London but it's more polished," she says. "It's almost like London is the ideal place to make something remarkable and for it to have a lot of soul and be a bit rough around the edges. And New York is the place that you then take that idea to get polished and massive – that's what New York can deliver, but there are more exciting projects being developed here."
In the 21st-century we measure our lives by the experiences we've had than the objects we've accrued, then the "sensory boom" as Singer calls it, is a logical progression
For Singer, the hard work of making things happen, and the laptop full of spreadsheets that goes with it, is offset by an obviously unquenchable sense of wonder and possibility. Where do those creative ideas keep coming from? "If you think about it unemotionally, ideas come from when you've perceived something and you've recognized that it's maybe an individual perception of the world," she says. "You feel like people don't see this and you want them to. The emotional way is that you're kind of stunned by something and confused by something and you have to go on the emotional journey to figure it out. It's a conversation you're having with the art."
As a producer, and as a composer, Singer turns ineffable inklings into real, tangible events, sounds and actions, with a huge cast of players and performers. It can be magical but it's also stressful, she says. "This career is full of adrenaline and it's based on your ability to maintain an adrenalized relationship with life." But you have to embrace that adrenaline, run towards it. "The thing I always tell younger artists is, if there's an idea that you think is pretty good, you should consider doing it," she says. "If there's an idea that you think is quite risky and feels a little bit scary, you should almost certainly do it. And if you feel like there's an idea which is terrifying and you cannot imagine how on earth you would ever pull that off," she smiles, "then you should 100% do it."