First, a confession: I’m jealous of people with synesthesia, and I always have been.
Colours – Grouplove
Ah yes, jealousy of an inborn neurological phenomenon. All the great love stories in the world have spawned from it, right?
Definitely not. Not at all. It’s just me.
For those who don’t know, synesthesia is, by super fancy definition in the dictionary, “a sensation produced in one modality when a stimulus is applied to another modality, as when the hearing of a certain sound induces the visualization of a certain color.” In college-kid English: People with synesthesia see a letter of the alphabet, or a number, and they inherently associate it with a color. A is pink, B is green, one is orange and two is yellow. Sometimes synesthesia extends to the other senses — illogical associations involving taste, smell and so on — but “grapheme-color synesthesia” (letters, numbers and color) is one of the more common forms. I’m chartreuse with envy. Is it obvious?
Cry to Me – Solomon Burke
A litany of famous artists and musicians have had it. It permeates the writing of one of my favorite authors, Vladimir Nabokov. His doomed narrator in “Lolita” describes a dilemma in a beloved phrase of mine: “And I was laughing happily, and the atrocious, unbelievable, unbearable, and, I suspect, eternal horror that I know now was still but a dot of blackness in the blue of my bliss … ”
It’s this seizure of broad, airborne emotions — horror, happiness, disgust — and attaching them to hues, so as to enhance our understanding of, well, us, that intrigues me most about synesthesia. Our bliss is blue — our horror, a dot of blackness on a quilt of cerulean. This is how I want to see the world.
Feels Like We Only Go Backwards – Tame Impala
Mostly, I’m jealous of synesthetes that see and feel colors when they listen to music. This type of synesthesia is called “chromesthesia,” and it comes in an array of subforms. What’s notable is a lack of consensus surrounding it; there is no set “key” to the musical note-color pairs. B-flat can be yellow to one person, and red to the next — it’s all up to the solo synesthete’s mind to make the magical link.
At the beginning of fall break, my dad came to pick me up. Our drives home are a constant source of inspiration for me: Dad is a musician with an encyclopedic knowledge of music, and there’s no one I’d rather fight with for radio control. I yell at him about Steely Dan, he yells at me about Britney Spears, c’est la vie. But then we come around and hit a sweet spot, like this past Friday on Sirius XMU: Tame Impala’s “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards.”
I hadn’t heard it in a proper year (one of those songs with which I abused the replay button and, alas, grew indifferent toward), and this time it sounded fuzzy and familiar. I looked to my left and noticed my dad bathed in titian light, a secondhand glow brought about by the golden trees to the side of the freeway. It was dusk, and they were whirring past us at 80 mph, and they made him tangerine, the steering wheel mustard, the dashboard a mango blur of setting sunlight. “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” sounds orange to me now.
“Silver Street (Live)” – Ben Folds Five
Last week I was stressed in the University of Michigan Museum of Art, trapped in that ivory edifice of academic sweat, listening to one of the only live albums I will actually listen to (Ben Folds Live). “Silver Street” came on, with its perfect jazz chord progressions and sad-bar-pianist attitude, and it calmed me instantly. I thought about the silver all around. The metallic sleekness of UMMA — the chrome sheen and the whites, the stillness of the ivory walls and the deep blue of the night sky peeking through their windows. It felt the way silver feels. Beautiful, but sharp.
And then I was in that pink-wine-haze with “Little Bird” by Annie Lennox playing, sitting with my housemates at the kitchen table and seeing mauve on their phone screens, rose-colored pillows on the couch, the smell of 3 a.m. “Disco Inferno” feels like red to me now, the deep crimson of Solo cups at work and the scarlet smiles of my friends and coworkers to my left, to my right.
Color is everywhere, but, then again, it always has been. And we, as people with brains, can make it show itself however we want it to, connect it to certain experiences that we want to savor, certain songs. Even if these associations aren’t innate, like they are with synesthesia and those who have it, we can choose to notice opportunities for connections to occur — and we can let them occur.
The Village – New Order
Then sometimes, for no reason (and it’s best if we don’t have one), we can hear a rainbow.