The Moonlight Sonata: Beethoven’s Psychedelic Danube Journey

Posted by – April 28, 2011

The Moonlight Sonata, accompanied by a video making full use of selective saturation in an attempt to emulate the experience of drug-induced psychosis.


I’m about to leave the Netherlands for good, so naturally I felt that that during my last full weekend I needed to experience the main thing the Netherlands is famous for: tulips. However, since the famous Keukenhof is an hour away by bus, and since my level of interest in tulips approaches zero, I decided instead to purchase four grams of exotic herbs from one of the many “coffee shops” that do business openly and freely in The Hague, bake it into cakes and consume it at the rate of one gram per day for every day of the Easter weekend.

I then attempted to document the experience using a cheap camera and a somewhat complex but powerful video editing computer language, Avisynth.


A while ago I posted an article to this website arguing that the experience of psychedelic drugs (which these Dutch herbs may fairly be called when eaten rather than smoked) and schizophrenic psychosis are probably very similar experiences, the main difference being that involuntary psychosis quickly becomes an experience of attempting to deal with a complicated modern world while in an altered state of mind unsuited to such a task.

“Psychosis” is often thought of as having something to do with axe murderers and violent mad people, but really (at least in my view) the word should be reserved for the distinct and usually peaceful state of mind that I outlined in my previous article on the subject.

Although I’ve (thankfully) never experienced involuntary psychosis, I have experienced temporary “psychosis” due to consuming psilocybin mushrooms during a period when they were widely believed to be legal in the UK, and were sold openly in high street shops. I have also experienced the effects of eating large amounts of cannabis, since I live in the Netherlands where cannabis is also sold openly and, for all practical purposes, legally. While the two drugs are very different, they share some interesting common features.

One of the most striking, and to me the most enjoyable, aspects of the experience provided by both of these psychedelic drugs — also experienced by many people who are becoming involuntarily psychotic — is the curious effect psychosis has on the perception of colors, which I’ve attempted to reproduce in this video.

It’s impossible to truly render this effect in film, but certainly one can create a crude approximation of it. The effect involves certain colors glowing, to the point where it can become intensely pleasurable to look at them. Psychedelic drugs tend to cause all colors to become more vivid, or “saturated”, beyond the point that one could ever experience in normal life. But often certain specific colors in a given scene will glow far more intensely than all the others.

For reasons that I can only speculate on, purple seems to be the color most likely to be affected in this way, at least for me. During my first experience of an effective dose of mushrooms, I remember staring joyfully at a purple UK 20-pound note. I found it interesting, therefore, that when the UK sports presenter David Icke began to undergo some curious psychological experiences that some have called a breakdown, he became obsessed with the color turquoise, which he wore at all times.

A Color You’ll Never See on a TV Screen

Why purple might be more readily subject to this effect than other colors, I don’t know, except that I might observe that purple is close to violet, a color which in scientific terms carries the most energy per photon of any hue of visible light.

Violet is an unusual color when you think about it. Computers, televisions and most printed media cannot reproduce this color whatsoever; they can only produce a purple approximation of it. If you want to see violet, you can look at the very edge of a rainbow, where it fades into invisibility at the opposite edge to red, always on the lower edge of the rainbow while red is always at the upper edge. But you can’t look at a photograph of a rainbow (at least not on your computer), because violet won’t be there. You will see only purple.

Beyond violet, the rainbow fades out into invisibility. In fact the rainbow is still there, but it has transitioned into a range of hues that human beings cannot see, known collectively as “ultra-violet”. Insects can see these hues however, and flowers that rely on insects for pollination are secretly zoned in ultraviolet hues, the zones pointing the way to the flower’s nectar and pollen.

Whether the tendency of purple and violet to glow under psychosis has anything to do with all this is anyone’s guess.

Selective Saturation

Other colors can absolutely also be affected this way in the psychotic state of mind. For instance I once consumed a biscuit laced with cannabis while in a coffee shop with a friend (this was an actual coffee shop, in the English sense, with coffee); a girl walked in wearing yellow shoes and carrying a yellow bag. Suddenly my eyes matched the yellow bag with the shoes and some more yellow that they found behind the counter, adorning the labels of drinks bottles. The entire scene appeared to me as a beautiful riot of matching yellow objects.

There’s no way to reproduce this effect on video, since you’d have to turn up the saturation control in the visual cortex of the person observing the video. But a crude and far less lovely approximation can be rendered by desaturating all the colors in a video except for one or two specific colors, which you make more saturated.

This effect is very similar to the “selective coloration” you can see in the film Schindler’s List, where a girl wearing a bright red coat appears in an otherwise black-and-white scene. However, there you see one particular object in color, whereas in the video above, certain hues are over-saturated while others are removed. I’ve also experimented with over-saturating only the most saturated colors in a scene, while desaturating the others, and with changing the hue of the selected colors.

Avisynth allows you to do all of this, as well as allowing you to edit and dub video clips.

Footage for this video was taken over the Easter weekend in The Hague (Den Haag), and in Budapest last month.

There’s one common object that I didn’t include in the video and probably should have. While tripping on my first ever effective dose of mushrooms (purchased apparently legally from an “alternative” shop in a busy Cambridge high street), I happened to come across a set of traffic lights near dusk. They amused me no end, since instead of changing to red, then to orange and then green, they seemed to change to an outrageously strong shade of red, followed by an incredibly vivid shade of orange, and then to a green the like of which I had never previously seen.

It was as if red had been replaced by an enormous display of red fireworks and red lasers, followed by a vast crowd of people wearing orange and throwing oranges into the air while holding orange floodlights, followed by …. but you get the idea. The degree of effort the traffic lights appeared to put into their work seemed hilarious at the time.

Once you’ve experienced these curious effects, you are liable to find yourself looking at ordinary scenes and mentally picking out the most saturated hue. It can become a habit, always looking for the most vivid shades of color in everything you see.

If you read people’s experience of psychedelic drugs at, you’ll see that this effect is much sought-after by connoisseurs of the psychedelic experience. Yet it always remains elusive. I’ve taken psilocybin mushrooms several times (in the interests of science, you understand) but have only fully experienced this effect once. I have also eaten large quantities of cannabis on several occasions, baked into cakes or biscuits. Only perhaps two or three times did I fully experience these delightful glowing colors. It’s as if something gets used up in your brain, and after a while the experience becomes mostly inaccessible.

This may explain why the psychedelic drug experience often seems to be primarily visual (as well as psychological of course), while schizophrenia is more closely associated with audible hallucinations. The visual effects of psychosis tend to decrease rapidly with time, while audible hallucinations (which I have scarcely experienced at all) seem to become more prominent with repeated exposure.

Possibly color saturation is related to rising levels of the psychosis-inducing substance in the brain, while audible effects tend to reflect more a general mental disorganization, which requires time to really get going.

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2 Comments on The Moonlight Sonata: Beethoven’s Psychedelic Danube Journey

  1. Lucy says:

    This is an incredibly haunting video, and quite good, but I have no idea how it even moderately evokes what psychosis feels like. I have experienced this horrendous thing three times, and the key factors is that is it terrifying, usually exceedingly violent at root, and renders the world one is in deeply confusing to altogether replaced by visual, sensory, and aural hallucinations of our entire system of being, as well as ideas of reference. I don’t even recall what the hospital room I was in looked like when I had my first, very severe psychotic break; in my mind, I was on a boat, chained to a wall, and beaten. I think Requiem For a Dream does an excellent (and bone-rattling) job at showing what a true psychotic break is like when Sara Goldfarb literally sees and feels as if she is on a game show when she is actually in the psychiatric hospital. I can barely write this for fear it will induce a flashback, as I now have PTSD, but felt it was important to state. Thank you for your work—I am acutely intrigued by this site, and will certainly be looking at the rest of your thoughtful projects.

    • Squiffy says:

      Sounds horrendous! Some people experience intensification of colours as a symptom of psychosis, which is what I had in mind to capture in the video, in a limited sort of way. But of course it’s not a universal symptom of psychosis. Thanks for your kind words.

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