Audrey Hudson and Robin Kingsburgh on colour!
This is Quantization!
Hi, we are Arezoo Talebzadeh and Kaveh Ashourinia and this is our podcast on inclusion.
Arezoo: Quantization is an independent project with support of Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University.
[Music: Quantization (Theme-Guitars)]
Arezoo: Welcome to the fourth episode of Quantization. In this episode we have a conversation between Audrey Hudson and Robin Kingsburgh on colour.
Kaveh: “A colour has many faces.”
This is a quote or in a better way a chapter title of Josef Albers’ book, Interaction of colour.
We may consider these variety of faces based on the appearance of colour in different conditions, or based on different social contexts. Chemistry and physics of light play huge role on perceiving colour, and this part falls into the visual perception territory. At the same time, colours play role in the societies and carrying variety of understandings and meanings. We may call this part the social perception of colour.
Understanding and studying colour requires considering so many areas such as psychology, physiology and genetics, physics and chemistry, culture, symbolism and linguistics and even politics and economy. In this episode we are trying to track and cover functionality of colour. So, let’s listen to our guests, Audrey and Robin, about how we perceive and understand colour?
Robin Kingsburgh: I don’t know how you see colour
Audrey Hudson:I know
Robin: Right, I was just saying that, I don’t know, I call this greenish gray with a warm shade, but maybe you call that a dark gray, like more black than green
Kaveh: This is season one, called Signal. Episode four, colour.
Audrey: Hi my name is Audrey Hudson, I am a faculty member in the faculty of design, I teach courses on colour for both 2-D and 3-D students, I also teach a course called Think Thank on sustainability and design, I teach a course that I developed three years ago which is Hip Hop and converging culture, and I also teach in faculty of art, I teach art and education labs and community.
Arezoo: Dr. Audrey Hudson earned her doctorate in Education from University of Toronto.Her thesis was entitled, “Decolonizing Indigenous Youth Studies: Photography and Hip Hop as Sites of Resilience”.
Audrey is an artist, designer, educator and researcher who believes the art is a way to begin decolonizing post-secondary education by discussing histories of colonization, race, representation and sovereignty.
Robin: I am Robin Kingsburg, I am a teacher at OCAD in the faculty of liberal arts and sciences school of interdisciplinary studies (very ling title), I teach the science of colour and I also teach astronomy and the physics of time, what is time. I have a background in astronomy, trained astronomer and I also paint, so I have this dual interest that seems to come together really well in colour. And I also teach at York University.
Kaveh: Dr. Robin Kingsburgh has a Ph.D. in Astronomy from University College London, and worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Mexico.
Her painting experience comes from studies in Canada, France and the U.K., and has paralleled her scientific development. She has curated the number of shows, including Toronto Nuit Blanche, and artwork inspired by the ideas of science.She has exhibited in solo and group shows for the past few years in Toronto.
Audrey: Okay so I guess lets start with the basics, how do we really generally how do we see and perceive colour and perhaps you can speak to how colours are generated, measured and produced?
Robin: So There are a lot of things that come into factor when we look at something that has colour, so I usually bring in a red piece of tissue paper or something to my class at the first and say okay what colours is this? You know people say it is red and what information do they need to stay that this is red. And you know do they all say that it is red, so we start to brainstorm, so we need in this case it is a paper, so the surface, you need a source of light if I turn the lights off and you can’t see that particular piece of paper, and you need the human eyes. Light, some kind of material and the optic of the human eye and brain give us the components that we need to say something has a particular colour.
Audrey: And how do we get the language or how the language drives in order to us to say that the colour is red? Or say that the colour is specific?
Robin: so there is actually really interesting work in the last 10-20 years on that there is this to poles one is called the Universalist camp and they believe that just based on the physiology of our eyes that we should just be able to see that as red, and the other group is called the relativistic group and they think that actually the development of language is very instrumental in terms of being able to discern colours so the Universalists were sort of thought of as the truth would for a long period of time and now the relativistic are coming out and bringing their ideas and more recent studies to the forefront so we learn something is red because our mother’s teach us that colour is red when we’re young so there is definitely sort of the learning in terms of the labeling of colours we do have colour receptors in our eyes called cones, so there is three different types of people, those who have so-called normal colour vision in the general population were called trichromatic so we got three different colours, so we have cones that are sensitive to more or less red, green, and blue colours or wavelengths of light so and it just depends on which of those cones is activated more or less compared to the others so when we see something that’s red or red cones are firing most of all and that’s the message that goes to our brain and it is actually like the redness is not anything to do with the external world, the redness comes as part of being human beings so the way that our eye and our brain puts the what is coming into our eyes is actually red wavelengths of lights or energies or photons, whatever you want to call them, and they activate our red cones and they send a message to our brains, so colour is actually totally human perception, it is a sensation prior to sort of old theories that colour was part of the objects, like a table has the texture and weight and mass and the colour was thought to be tied into the objectives of the table, but there was a very important experiment done by Sir Isaac Newton that showed actually colour was part of light.
And he actually , he has his famous code in the paper that he wrote the rays themselves are not colour, so the way the red light ways that reflect off that red piece of paper they are not red, the redness actually comes because of the human experience.
Audrey: And speaking about human experience do you ever or have you encountered a student that’s it in a call that I didn’t have that name for red maybe they had perhaps they had with a blue or perhaps they had a different name for red, like they didn’t see the red as red per se because a big only because perhaps they had learned that red was actually different word for red?
Robin: With people who called colourblindness which is not a great term that there are people who can see for example the red part of the colours, the red part of the spectrum, spectrum runs from the blue through that sort of I go right it then is red orange yellow green blue indigo violet so that’s a part of light that the human eye picks up, so they are some people who because of their genetics can’t pick up that red part of the spectrum so they may well have learned that or they may be able to tag that because they learned for example they might see it as more of a gray, or more as a pink or we can’t really know what they see I think we can’t know what anyone see, we all have different genetic makeup we have millions of cones in our eyes and they’re starting to study now people’s distributions and map the cones on the retina, and every person they study has a different map and different relative numbers of blue, green and red cones, so it’s likely that we all see colour a little bit differently when we agree on the mapping and what our mothers taught us so what’s in the external world that stimulus or that energy comes to our eye and we kind of tag it with what we’ve learned. You know there is some cultures where it usually comes with the divisions between blue and green sometimes red and orange but there might be colours and words in other languages say that for example in Korean there is two words for green and they are actually better able to distinguish certain greens or yellow versus yellow green.
And other tribes that might have difficulty distinguishing the blue from the green and, so there is definitely is both a cultural and linguistic component that comes in more with nuance stuff not like swapping out a red for green or something like that but more with a very close colours that might be hard for people to discern.
But it’s very interesting I think people are paying attention more to the role that language has on colour perception and what culture has.
Audrey: and just I guess, we both teaching at OCAD, we both have got quite diverse students coming from every part of the world and so thinking about colour and culture and how do we teach our, I guess how do we teach our students about this cross cultural understanding of colour and especially in Art and Design how do we get our students the tools to communicate colour in an honest and truthful ways when they are designing and creating?
Robin: Can I ask you that question? (Laughter)
Robin: Because I teach the scientific part, so what wavelengths? What energies, we do projects that are based on kind of scientific investigation and not necessarily cultural ones and I would actually love to hear how you do that?
Audrey: How I approach it, yeah, I mean, you know student get a colour class in first year in faculty of design and it is mandatory for all students to take it is very is an introductory course, so we do the colour wheel, we do the gray scale, we learn about very basic needs for colour and then we expect or we hope that the students learn more colour theory and applications as they move on, speaking about projects and how to teach that appreciation how to teach, we go through colours and look at, let say, red and what red means and different cultures and we do that in class and sometimes students like would never use red in design you know where as if your if you’re in the states and in you the US using red and using red and white even using rad with that the white splash is Coca-Cola and so that is advertising and is a positive thing, where as using red in another culture would be like a negative thing and you wouldn’t do it because it brings you know bad energy bad history of using that colour for that specific means.
Robin: Can I interrupt for just a second, so like in that special case of Coca-Cola being used so like the reason that would be chosen like you are certainly cultural association with red and we also have the way our human body reads red and the fact that we actually have all the types of cones we mostly have red cones, so we’re sort of tuned in what we call the warm colour bias, so we have naturally our eye will pick up reds and yellows and warm colours much more readily than blue so when we look at now painting or something like that we use warm colours, are we choose to make a Coke can red so it pops out on the shelf, right? So, actually exploiting even if we didn’t totally understand the fact that our bodies are tuned in for the warmer colours which ultimately we evolved to match the sun light so the sun being yellow and yellow and red are closely linked to each other so, there is actually sometimes I do see examples of that in class, an underlying piece to that or the fact that blues are usually so dark because we have only a smattering of blue cones in our eyes like 5% of our cones or less are blue and so actually most blues when we see them and I think might added to them there naturally dark and that’s because we are not registering that many photons and photons in our eyes, because we don’t have so many of them in our eyes.
So, it is really interesting that kind of undercurrents and a lot of times people work just intuitively that is happening and then once we know a little bit more about how the human eye work and they can draw in a more specious.
Audrey: Especially in advertising and design, I mean advertising is all is based on drawing you in, when you creating a logo, are you going to use what colour you are going to use? And you will see a lot more red I guess that explains it than necessary the blue spectrum. So that’s really interesting to find out the actual link I don’t know a lot about the science of colour or really deep in terms of cones and everything so it’s great to hear that.
I think another way to facilitate cross-cultural learning about colour is through group work so we just ask how do we do for yet studio based on course and so we do projects where students will develop that one of the projects for the whole colour stream or the whole colour cohort is to create culturally sensitive poster about a country other than something that you know so research a specific place and create a poster, now this does coming to a little bit of contingent on this because how do we be culturally sensitive how is your instructor being culturally sensitive and how are you making sure, as an instructor that the poster is, or the advertisement is not going to be thoughtful in its work. And that’s the work I think we have to do as instructors to educate ourselves on what is good design what is ethical design and ethics come into play a lot in design so I really bring that into a play bring that into the first year cohort because it should start right at the beginning so that’s how that’s another way of thinking about ethics and inclusion.
Audrey: I am excited to ask you this question, as a society we’ve come to understand colour as visual emotional and psychological, so why do you think this is important for artists and designers and maybe if you could speak to the scientific dynamics of colour, which you are speaking already, but how do you see it? How do you see it being applied to? How do you see student working through this idea of colour scientifically within their work may be or within the writing papers that they are writing for you?
Robin: So, I guess there is couple of threads there like the psychology of colour is actually very difficult to study and there have been a lot of contradicting studies and so I think it’s important to have science courses at a place like OCAD because you learn science as a way of knowing and you know working visually is another way of knowing or working intuitively is another way of knowing. So, within the sort of boundaries of the science world view you have experiment that you can repeat that other people will get the same results in a lot that psychology experiments with colour running to problems because one experiment will show that red raises your heart rate and other experiment will show that it doesn’t raise your heart rate so through my kind of history of exploring colour looking at the science of colour I’ve always found contradictions within that, yet I do believe just from personal experience that colour does have a strong impact on people I think it’s more like a music like people will hear different people might hear the same piece of music and be moved by it in different ways and just kind of try to measure that input in a box I think it’s too restrictive and I think that there is validity in different ways of knowing in different ones can be applied in different situations if you’re creating a piece of work then you may not want to be stuck in the science box of having to justify results and having someone else reported its results and so on, but I think knowing that that’s the way that science is done and that’s how we’ve reached conclusions about things like having so many red cones in our eyes and I mean that lead to huge impact in terms of building knowledge for sure.
So with my assignments, they are pretty, much more kind of straightforward where I’m looking for people to explore scientific method so, they are doing experiments in the kitchen with PH for example, if you boil the red cabbage it makes red cabbage juice which is a natural indicator’s if you put it with a base like Windex it turns green, if you put it with an acid like vinegar it turns red. So, I get them to kind of investigate various things, sort of doing the process and that may feed into their work or may not but they sort of log that somehow as being methodical and certainly as an artist or designer you may want to test out different colour combinations or like Chevreul did with his book. “The harmony and contrast colours” and so he went through because he was a chemist by training and he compared every colour with every other colour and probably drove everyone crazy down but you know Delacroix would go on pilgrimages to him to talk about colour and just his depth of colour knowledge was tremendous and that on a large part due to his scientific training, and he just kind of had a structure so you know for some people that works and they can take that and for the people it might be too restrictive, but at least they’ve had exposure to that and if they work in a more intuitive or organic way they can explore things like I had students to pieces with using red cabbage dye on fabric, or things like that.
Audrey: Or beats or onion
Robin: Yes, like turmeric, there’s a lot of natural dyes, one of the project that I sometimes do with student, so they investigate how dyes stick to fabrics and different fabrics were different they use mordant to help the dye does that change the colour so they kind of getting at things that are really molecular level and understanding about atoms and we talk about electrons and they get really tired of that I am sure …
So, by the end of it they heard me saying it so many times, so it is a whole other brain activity so you know how that crosses the boundary into inclusivity I think I can’t really like there’s no kind of prescriptive way and it just kind of happens.
Audrey: Right and even in kind of going back to the basic right, because we not always had a tube of paint to squeeze and put on the canvas, that’s a very manufactured way, very new concept going back to how we used to, and how indigenous ways of knowing even and looking at how we dye how we used to dye and all the history of that is really interesting.
Robin: Right and that kind of process actually drove the science of chemistry like the history of dye technology is strongly linked to the history of chemistry as a science first this accidental discovery of the dye by Perkins when he was 18 years old and so going from accident to being able to totally manipulate molecules is incredible but it does start with that and certainly looking at natural dyes and natural pigments is interesting in all kinds levels and also a lot of the cultural readings of colour actually come from those dye sources like to talk about RED, there is a certain bugs can be used to stain red like Cochineal or Carmine and the fabric that was used for religious ropes were very expensive and so it was dyed with this Carmine’s dye which is red so often you see red Cardinals and in the Medieval and Renaissance painting a lot of figures are in red.
And so that’s coming with the value of the fabric which happened to be dyed red or there might be blue like the story of ultramarine is that an amazing beautiful pigment very laborious to make very difficult to get so it was worth more than gold in medieval times it was used symbolically in painting and then with that symbolism came a lot of associations with blue for example is a peaceful spiritual colour.
So it is interesting to look at some of the pigments or the purple gets associated with royalty, valor, and courage, and if you look at natural dye for purple a very rare there was one a mollusk and they would extract they have something like hundred thousand mollusks to get 1 gram of dye and it was very difficult kind of a lot of process and steps to make that, and so it was only used like on the mantles and trim of the generals’ uniform so then when they want to, I forgot which American president wanted to make that Purple Heart so he was choosing kind of that as a symbolic colour so that sort of reinforces and perpetuates the kind of symbolism. So, I think there is a lot of instances if you look at where a particular pigments came from more or dyes historically and culturally then you know that does feed into a lot of symbolism today.
Audrey: Great, and even talking about rarity with pigments, by trade I am a ceramic artist and so an I love the glazing aspect of ceramics it’s quite, there is a lot of chemistry in it, people don’t understand. It is magic. When the heat comes up, you do a line test of cobalt or you do a line test of lime green, hoping to get that lime green and then it comes up brown, you know and you go back again and do the 12 steps, even thinking about colour pigmentation cobalt you know is quite in Chinese painting and pottery and then also chrome, chrome is such an interesting pigment for me because it gives you green and it gives you pinks and everything in between and then here in North America lead was out, like we couldn’t use lead in ceramic so then, so, then whenever you got something close to red it was always, you know; the real joy, like yes, we got this! So, thinking about chemistry and the whole culture of ceramics and its long history with the pigment of blue, like when you talked about the rarity and the experimentation.
Robin: Cobalt used in paint, it used in glass, ceramics, and the reason it is always giving blues because of the microscopic structure of in the way that it’s electrons sit around it, so they tent to absorb long wavelength red wavelength and leave blue short wavelength to be reflected back so, you can actually, we delve into the minutiae of microscopic and then you can see how it applies either when use it in fireworks or the same thing can be used in and it is all down to the microscopic structures I think it’s really interesting.
Audrey: Always so reliable! Right! Cobalt such a reliable, it is a go to!
Audrey: And something else that you kind of brought up, and I want to getting to was the sound and colour – and the group blues rock Alabama shakes they were really big and well they are still very big, but they came up with an album called “Sound and Colour”, and I was listening to this song and the music and the vocals are very eerie and very beautiful and actually the title of their album is Sound and Colour, but they also have a song and the album is black and white and, so I think that void of colour, but just a couple of lyrics that I want to think about that stood out, thinking about sound and abilities, different able people and how we can perceive colour and sound, so their life, sound and colour, love is sound and colour, sound and colour with me and my mind and so, I guess I like to think about that a little bit more and think about maybe should we put more emphasis on hearing colour or do you know of any technology that hears colour for, or in order to be, for someone who can’t perceive or does not perceive a certain colour. Is there a sound attached to it, is that, I mean that’s a very literal connection, but even thinking about! In my master I did a project on listening to photographs and so, bringing sound and just thinking about the sound that were evoked from an image and that was so you know I could hear everything is happening and you know the voices, and this is just all me, my interpretation of this, but this is what I’m getting at is what is being evoked from this very visual piece of work that I was attaching sound to it. And I think now attaching sound and colour, I think that is a very kind of ephemeral sort of philosophical way to think about colour!
Robin: For sure, there is two things we can talk about one is group of people who actually do hear sound, when they look at colour, which are people with Synesthesia, so or people who look at black letters or something and see them as colour. Often it’s a sound, so the sound colour just made me immediately think about people who listen to music and then see colours, or sometimes people look at the colours and they hear sounds, so its just a different way that the brain works in probably more people than we think, because people have and the brain has an increased connectivity with people who have Synesthesia. So, babies are all have Synesthesia, I’ve seen one known researcher who worked with infants, she hooked them up to EEG and when they look at something their whole brain lights up, when they touch something their whole brain lights up, so all their senses are interconnected. And then as they get older the neurons start to pair so they separate by people with Synesthesia likely retain higher connectivity. So, when they are encountered colour that might also signal sound part of their brain to activate, so they see, they hear colour and all the sensors can be involved and even things that we might not called sense, but might be some sort of perception so personalities might triggers something or auras to scientists are not believed, but someone with Synesthesia might actually see colours with different personality traits or things like that, so I think there might be some underlying truth on that for some people, so there’s been a real work in last 20 years upsurge in the study by scientist brain mapping and try to basically understand how, because someone with Synesthesia has a more conscious access to what is unconscious to everybody else, so with that there have been development of kind of using one part of the brain to tapping to another part. So, exactly what you’re talking about using reflectivity, degree of reflectivity from the surface of the colour of the surface to translate into a sound and allow someone without sight. So, I have seen technology like that so, certain things which will allow someone to pick something and so it makes use of the real reflectivity either just based on tone, or value and maybe also based on wavelength and frequency as well, But there is certainly are sort of instances of very small number of people that have that technology to help them to see using sound and then there’s the brain like the brain is so adaptive and so plastic, so it’s that it’s just like the way that they perceive the world’s becomes totally integrated with the sound generating something.
So it’s possible for our brains, because our brains are so easy, (laughter), so it is possible for the brain to compensate for things which have been lost, for example people had stroke then other parts of their brain can take over so they can re-learn tasks again or if someone is learning something like playing violin different parts of their brain actually show increases in amount of gray matter or people who meditate a lot showing increases in their frontal lobes. So, the brain is plastic, and that’s something which in last 15 years, so I think that certainly technology can and will be used to tap into this property of the brain being so adaptive and being able to translate from one sense to another if 15% of population does that all the time already, maybe people who are lacking one sense can we use another to initiate it.
Audrey: It is exciting, and I think, I knew that we are doing this podcast, so I really wanted to bring in and talk about sound and colour, my interest in music and my interest in music and culture and everything I just really wanted to see if there was a sort of scientific connection of these?
Robin: Certainly are, and lots of composers have this Synesthesia, so they would compose their music based on something that they saw or based on colours, or the music regenerate colours, like and there is emotional component as well!
Audrey: Yes, we didn’t even talk about that!
Robin: Yes, there is so many things involved, and colour is often apart of this Synesthesia, I think because it is sort of lesser sense, like if Synesthesia, if your brain always generated sound for example that might hinder you, your survival in the world, but colour is sort of an extra bonus, so it tends to often happens with colour.
Audrey: Maybe we can talk about the emotions of colour, because I think lots of people, we talk about colour association and the emotion on the nature of colour, I think is really interesting for me, something that people can really grasp because often, let’s think about Valentine’s Day. It is Red an advertising methodology, but also like it remotes, love is passion, but I wonder do you talk about the emotion of colour in your class?
Robin: Not so much. Just because again it is something that is hard to measure, having sort of scientific measurement is trying to extrapolate to the universal, so red may kind of activate a lot of people, but maybe not every body. So, when you’re trying to put something in a scientific framework those sorts of accommodations become more difficult to create a sort of overarching idea or theory. So you hitting against the limitation with that.
Audrey: And we touch on it a little as well and something so abstract as attaching colour to a motion but I find a lot of people come to understanding colour with emotion. You know, Blue, sadness, Yellow, happy and we see all of these things all over in pop culture, in society attaching colours to certain emotions and maybe it is kind of fed into people so they believe that’s the emotion of colour but, I think it’s a hard to qualify that.
Robin: I think certainly having an awareness of it is important, because probably we all have a different sensitivity to it and maybe that ties into our genetic make up of our cones or something like that, some people really love colour love strong colours other people need to have muted colours or gray like it has different personality types associates with different colours kind of teasing that out scientifically is more difficult, my training is like, is physics so I always say physics is easy because you drop a ball and it falls down.
Robin: You can say how fast it is going to fall, you can drop it on Mars and know how fast is going to fall, but how someone responds to when walking to a red room or something like that is like so hard to measure, like Faber Birren when he read studies of how red was like anxiety, he painted his whole apartment red and just found it peaceful!
Robin: So, I think untangling the subjective is difficult, but certainly colour has a lot of power on people.
Audrey: Because as designer we are working and creating spaces, interiors and creating online environment, creating objects and whatnot, so thinking about colour and its emotion that’s when I think that’s where it comes in, and then creating something for your client and making sure that they, I mean if it was anxiety you are producing, you need to adjust accordingly but thinking about all these things in relation to your design and being sort of aware, that’s what I try to do in my classes any way and in my work try to create this awareness of colour and its background and its potential power.
Audrey: Is there anything else that you want to talk about?
Robin: A couple of questions I had recently on so called colour blindness and actually I like the term “alternate colour vision” better, because it is not that people so called “Normal“ have these three types of cones red, green, and blue so someone who has so called colour blind either has one type of cone completely absent or has an alternate version of the third type of cone, so that colours that they receive in their eye and the wavelength that they receive in their eye are not the same as general population, but they still receive those wavelength and their brain still interpret those wavelength but it’s a different. We can’t really know what they see, I had a number of students in my classes over the years and the red or green, so called colourblindness tense to happen most in males, it’s a gene that codes that in on the X chromosome, so if a woman has sort of the gene that will create the wrong type of cones, her other X chromosome is probably okay, so its got the right coding. So, women tent to be carrier, they pass it on to their sons, so then the blue, so called blue colourblindness is very rare, its just a genetic mutation. So, I have known one student at York years ago who was blue colourblind, so called colourblind and he was photographer and so he would use Photoshop and different source of algorithms to colour balance his images. So he sort of did this work around, but it was interesting because some times when you look at books or sources on colour vision and colourblindness you see images, so someone who was so called red colourblind would see this, so I had an image like that for someone who was so-called blue colourblind and I ask him if that image matched which it would of done but he said no those images don’t match. So, try to understand and predict what somebody sees, I think is extremely; like we just can’t know, there’s no way that we can know. Like I said we agree on the mapping, but what’s actually going on in our little head of gray and white map matter!
Audrey: Even people who are not colourblind and have the full spectrum of colour it is hard to tell!
Robin: Exactly, and the other interesting thing is that they are actually looking for people with four types of cones, calls Tetrachromacy and the idea is that it is more likely to be women and it would give probably an increase sensitivity in the yellows and oranges. So, there is this property that called metamerism. So you can have two different sources that might give off for example you may have a yellow light that just purely yellow. So, you just see pure yellow. You might have another situation when you have actually red and green together and that generate the perception of yellow exactly the same as the other one. So, you have these two totally different situations generating the exact same colour in your eye and our brain. And so the idea is that maybe someone with an extra cone could distinguishes those two situations, so there’s not any hard conclusive. There is a hand full of women that they found that might hinting to this, but in the last ten years people has started to do more studies and looking and search for Madam tetrachromatic.
Robin: So, yeah they might tend to be artists and designers too because they would just have a greater sensitivity for colour matching.
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