“When I’m writing, if a song’s colours are too oppressive or ugly sometimes I won’t want to work on it – when we first started tennis court we just had that pad playing the chords, and it was the worst textured tan colour, like really dated, and it made me feel sick, and then we figured out that pre-chorus and I started the lyric and the song changed to all these incredible greens overnight!” (Lorde)
Well before Lorde, I heard about synesthesia from the Romantic poets. From Percy Bysse Shelley to be exact.
Percy Shelley was a compatriot of Wordsworth, an early adopter of vegetarianism, and the husband of vanguard feminist philosopher, Mary Wollstonecraft. Their daughter, Mary Shelley, wrote the novel Frankenstein.
This creative man and his creative family pushed boundaries for their time, including the realm of the senses. The Romantics didn’t begin the exploration of synesthesia, but with their interest in reclaiming emotions, made a place again for the visceral and the sensual.
They ranked the senses, with lowest being touch and highest being sight, and explained that the ‘higher’ senses had more words to describe them (at least in English). The poets often intertwined senses to give more emotional weight to a poem, as Shelley does here:
And the hyacinth purple, and white, and blue,
Which flung from its bells a sweet peal anew
Of music so delicate, soft, and intense,
It was felt like an odour within the sense.
However, digging further back from my first poetic introduction to the term, I learned that the ancient Greeks explored ‘coloured hearing’, or whether the choria – timbre – of music was quantifiable. Issac Newton claimed musical tones and colour tones shared certain properties and so did Goethe (another Romantic writer).
Synesthesia nowadays is described as a condition in people where the senses merge. Many musicians and artists tend towards this, as Pitchfork Magazine attests. Lorde’s quote above reveals how she sees music in colours. Other musicians too:
Duke Ellington saw a D note as dark burlap while a G note was light blue satin.
An NME blog notes that Billy Joel sees slow melodies in blues or greens, and strong, rhythmic melodies in vivid reds, oranges, golds.
Grimes has acknowledged synesthesia as part of her work, so too Tori Amos, Mary J Blige, Kanye West.
And music lovers experience it too. I remember reading this paragraph by Zora Neale Hurston years ago:
“Music. The great blobs of purple and red emotion have not touched him. He has only heard what I felt. He is far away and I see him but dimly across the ocean and the continent that have fallen between us. He is so pale with his whiteness then and I am so colored.” (From How it Feels to be Coloured Me, 1928)
Her essay was an impactful exploration of race, but also the first time I had read music being described that way.
Of course, the reason I’m intrigued in synesthesia is because I’ve also had some moments of star-crossed senses.
Recently I went to the opening night of Luminato Festival in Toronto. It was an evening curated and dedicated to the music of indigenous women, celebrating the ‘strawberry moon’ of June.
I was blown away by an ensemble led by musician Cris Derkson. There was fiery, powerful pieces by Iskwe, a gorgeous traditional melody by Jeremy Dutcher that translates as “In spring, if you get lonely, look up the river and I’ll be there in my canoe,” and an improv vocal/cello performance with Jennifer Kreisburg. Then throat singer Tanya Tagaq came on stage.
I’d been warned. And in her long red ballroom dress she was even more fierce and raw than I’d expected. Her music bore directly into my skull, and turned it inside out – her voice like thick caverns, and then childlike, evoking womb, night. It felt like she took two thin ivory nails and bore them into my temples, entering some inchoate part of me so all I could feel was texture, warmth, aching cold, dark.
The only other time I’d felt my brain give way to the texture – the touch – of music like that, was at a live Flamenco guitar concert in Granada, Spain. It was in a cave painted all white under a lively bar in the old city. A very small crowd and pitchers of sangria and a hot night and this man singing like his life depended on it. Even with the crowd of tourists there, I felt my skull turn inside out. But not old bone, stone, caverns – instead flame, flashes of light before my eyes.
Other times? This year a performance by Low Roar brought up prisms of ice. In 2004, a classical Indian concert with a raja that went for hours made blue spheres appear in front of my eyes and a feeling of euphoria rise until I couldn’t stop smiling.
All of this is rare, and involuntary. It just happens.
At the same time, I can’t help but wonder – I experience this, and in my research I see that there are at least 60 permutations of synesthesia and 4% of people have it. There is even a Foundation in America connected to the phenomenon.
I wonder though if part of the reason synesthesia is not experienced even more (in myself and in others) is because so many times we are experiencing art and concerts through the lens of our cell phones rather than with all our senses on.
Not only that, we are so good at separating our senses and compartmentalizing to make order of the world. This segmentation would have happened in very early developmental stages, with maybe some loose edges in childhood, and perhaps still prized by people who retain their creativity throughout adulthood – but my guess is most/many of us have lost touch with that ability.
Experiencing art brings this incredible richness that I forget in the 9-to-5. I’m grateful when I can challenge my perceptions.