Interview A Synesthete: Sam
Project Iris aims to showcase synesthetic art through the gallery but also synesthetic experiences through interviews! Every month, we will post an interview with a volunteer synesthete. If you would like to be interviewed, drop a note in the box with your contact information.
How did you know you have synesthesia?
I learned about it when I bought and listened to the album Orblivion released in 1997, when trying to get a copy of the single Toxygene that I had listened to on a soundtrack for the movie Hackers.
I found that really, really weird things happened when I listened to it in a dark room, and I was like, “Oh, I’ve seen these before, but now they’re whole colors and shapes and they’re really distinct!” That was the discovery.
Did you know what it was?
No. I had never heard of synesthesia. I expected that this was something anyone could do. I, in fact, inferred that this must be one of the primary appeals of genres like ambient house, because they seemed to promote the strongest tapestries of color.
Only much later on would I even hear it referenced at a party in Gunbarrel. A girl was talking about how she got strange tastes from colors and that it was one form of synesthesia!
After you told me about synesthesia, I scoured the Internet for others synesthetes. Did you do anything similar?
Not for a while, no. That happened a long time later when I came across a reference to it online and looked it up on the (now existing) Wikipedia.
It had a summary of a lot of the known synesthetic experience. I was pretty amazed. I don’t recall a lot of what I thought at the time. It would be a while later that I got completely fascinated with the idea when I realized that one video graphic artist had been making synesthete video translations for BT that corresponded eerily with what I would see if I listened to music.
That was when I really actually first cared about it and was amazed by the phenomenon
Yeah. BT. Brian Wayne Transeau. His albums This Binary Universe and These Hopeful Machines are pretty pinnacle experiences in terms of his genre. And they were put into what I consider to be very synesthetic video form by a man named Scott Pagano.
What other artists have very synesthetic videos or experiences for you?
I’m not sure of many beyond what Scott Pagano has done—here’s one example.
I’m sure I’ve run across a few, but none that I would be able to immediately recall.
And, if you watch that and his other videos for this binary universe and the Trifonic single Parks on Fire, you can see that I don’t expect that very many people have created things like this!
Very neat! Have you ever tried to take snapshots or make videos of your own synesthesia?
Videos are just absolutely well beyond any of my production capabilities right now. But I have started creating tapestry representations as a crude example of what kind of visual ‘mood’ and response I will get from a song in general.
They are bastardized versions, because they try to represent shapes and colors from a song over time, and so represent a number of different distinct visual elements over time without true representation of movement, but it’s still good enough to get an idea even if it takes some necessary creative liberties.
How do changes to the music change your colors? For example, changing the volume or the speakers.
I need audio depth and I need immersion. Songs which have a very strong, very complex interplay of moving parts vanish or become very indistinct and “ugly” if I’m listening to them on cheap speakers.
What do you mean by “ugly”?
A subwoofer and good speakers are pretty important to keep a song from being “ugly”—it’s a subjective concept related to how all the shapes and things are indistinct and don’t do a lot and often just blur out into distracting fields of “ugly” color. It’s really hard to explain!
But sometimes when I am doing a picture of a song very intently, I’ll try it out on my laptop speakers and be amazed at how much of the tapestry just vanishes and becomes fuzzy and ugly the second the sound goes tinny.
Has synesthesia influenced how you interact with the outside world?
Not in any notable way. I’m fortunate in that any effect synesthesia has on me is completely indistinct unless I’m concentrating on a specific series of patterns or sounds, like in music. And most sounds don’t register much for me in general. Though, if I’m just waking up or I’m in a dark room, some sounds—like the heater or the fridge kicking on, or rain and wind outside, will create a distinct color impression. It’s just relaxing, too. The other synesthetes I knew with things like sound to X were all endlessly distractable due to it and it caused a whole mess of trouble between them and their roomates, because you never knew which sounds would drive them up the wall because the sound … tasted bad, or something.
Synesthesia is known to be strongly genetic. Do you know anyone else who has it in your family?
None. If anyone has any tendencies towards it, it hasn’t been mentioned to me at all.
Anything else to add about your experience with synesthesia?
I often test it to try to see if any of the influences I get for color and shape patterns come from something other than pure synesthesia. Am I influenced by cover art? By picture representations of sounds? By thematic ideas about color and mood?
Sometimes, I see patterns, sometimes I don’t. I just always make sure to test to see if there’s more at play than I think. I guess recently I’ve been seeing patterns of purple in deep, dark notes. But as usual, its always contextually mutable.
Only songs seem to be consistent! Individual sounds, not so much. I’m a weird sound to color.
Do you think there’s some emotional variable in play? Some synesthetes have their colors change due to their emotional connections.
It’s completely unknown to me. I’d have to analyze it through someone who knows a lot more about synesthete tendencies.
Thank goodness we’re starting Iris. That’s what we’re here for!
Sam is a contributor to Project Iris and co-author of Project Iris: The Blog. He can be contacted at email@example.com.