A Most Wonderful Introduction to Synaesthesia
Synaesthesia is a joining together of the senses that are normally experienced separately. I have it myself, thinking until I was thirty years old (not so long ago!) that it's normal to see music (I still have a very hard time believing that others see nothing when hearing music or particular sounds). Experts say this is an especially rare form, though I don't know life any other way so it doesn't seem particularly special to me, other than comparatively.
What does music look like to me? Well, it depends on the music itself. I see it a few feet in front of me, and it's a fairly large composition consisting of colours, patterns and shapes. If the music is composed of many layers or tracks, I see those individual elements. I've seen everything from a bright transparent green background with diagonally moving red opaque spheres of varying size, to a smooth, light-coloured wood grain texture moving slowly and horizontally along the bottom of a very pale yellow background.
I also taste things that are emotionally repulsive to me (it's a wonder I don't carry gum with me at all times as it's so sour I want to spit) and I see some people as colours and shapes, as I do with music. I don't know if that's what people are referring to when they say they see auras; I prefer not to label it as even between synaesthetes experiences can be wildly varied and are quite personal. Quite common is seeing letters and numbers as colours (for me, the number 37 is yellow tinged with orange on the 7 but there's no universal 'colour code' amongst synaesthetes):
Out of my three brothers, one shares a remarkably similar synaesthesia to what I have. We've written music together where he creates an electronica composition using computer software and sometimes live instruments, and I listen, then draw it using coloured pencils. After, we take a look and see where the composition needs something added to create symmetry, in other words - a balanced composition, a successful piece of art. So, if there is an awkward gap between the lines, shapes, or patterns near the bottom of the composition, for example, we know we can add, say, an ice blue bursting shape over the bass and the sound will become more lush and complete. And we keep going until we're happy with what we see.
Oddly, the brother I'm referring to is an identical twin, and his twin doesn't have it. The same has been observed by Dr. Jamie Ward of Sussex University, UK, a leading expert in synaesthesia who has written an excellent booked called The Frog Who Croaked Blue: Synesthesia and the Mixing of the Senses which argues that the condition is not abnormal as it was once viewed but rather quite normal (though I can tell you that myself and my brother had always felt different growing up but we didn't know why). While it does run in families, many identical twins don't share the neurological phenomenon.
That was the introduction and here is the 'wonderful' part I promised. By chance, I happened one day to find a website featuring an exhibition from 2005/2006 called The Sound of Clothes: Synaesthesia. Admittedly, I immediately suspected the word was used to superficially 'make cool' some fashion piece by someone who knew little about it. I was thrilled to the point of loudly squealing to discover this was far from the case. From SHOWstudio.com:
During the shoot of a 'Balenciaga special' by Nick Knight for Pop magazine in November '05, digital artist Daniel Brown was invited on set to respond to Nicolas Ghesquiere's Spring/Summer '06 collection. Inspired by its delicately layered, translucent garments, Brown proposed a series of interactives based on the unpublished images from Knight's story (published in January '06). Using the notion of 'pictures for the blind' as a stimulus, a collaboration with synaesthete and sound designer Nick Ryan ensued, aiming to interpret the source garments and images through sound.
Nick Ryan is amazing. When he was shipped the Balenciaga jacket (as modeled by Gemma Ward, who happens to be my favourite model, what a bonus) to complete the score (he realised he needed to see it in person after trying first with photos) he heard 36 distinct sounds upon seeing the exquisite garment. After working with an orchestra to capture exactly the right audio for each fabric or skin tone, Ryan then gave the tracks to Brown, who delicately married each sound with its respective part of the image. Use your mouse to unleash the full cacophony in Brown and Ryan’s extraordinarily beautiful, fashion interactive:
Be sure to get your mouse going on the image to begin the interaction. Notice the sounds on the tiny little buttons on her cuffs, and her fingers which are like delicate tinkling on piano keys. Just incredible. Do you find yourself becoming familiar with the sounds and instinctively creating your own composition?
If you have synaesthesia (I prefer to call it my 'thing'), I'd love to hear from you.