Synesthesia: Three Composers And Their Sensory Inspiration

Kate Peoples on Wednesday, May. 18th

Vedran Mehinovic tells me that a look at my face evokes the taste of caramelized sugar, and that my first name is an ochre color. Nick Vasallo sees the color of adobe in my presence and our conversations are invaded by notes in his head. Alley Faulk describes me as bright pink with a blue and white floating underneath it, though I’ve recently become translucent.

Unfortunately, I am no muse. These three have synesthesia, and constantly experience such vivid associations— while reading books, listening to music, or simply conversing. In a synesthete, one sensory experience triggers another unrelated sense. Someone might smell a sound, taste a word, or hear a color. While it’s difficult for the rest of us to grasp, it is simply how synesthetes perceive the world.

Nick Vasallo

For these three highly trained musicians, it is also how they compose wild and original music: washes of orchestral sound masses, electronic gurgles, descending quarter tones, distorted whispers, delicate classical textures, glisses, shrieks, pulsations, death metal screams, Balinese scales, and Korean percussion perforate their creations.

Just as all of us experience flavor through both taste and smell, Vasallo experiences groups of pitches through both sound and color movement. Whenever he sits at the piano, closes his eyes, and plays two notes that make a tritone (think the sound of the European siren), he sees “ a deep red ripple through and settle back down into the black.” The interval of a fifth, however, is “ a strong color of gold, old and metallic looking.”

Not surprisingly, Vasallo’ s compositions have a strong relationship to the colors he sees, and Mehinovic and  Faulk are equally driven by their synesthesia; Mehinovic is “ inspired to recreate all these complex colors with sounds.”

Synesthesia is not a pathological condition or a handicap. It is strongly associated with creativity, invention, and intelligence, loved by those who have it, and coveted by those who don’ t. It is notably present in the arts; according to distinguished neuroscientist Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, it “ is seven times more common among artists, novelists and poets, and creative people in general.”

The list of synesthetic composers and musicians alone is a long one: the band leader and composer Duke Ellington saw colors when he heard certain instrumental timbres, as did composers Olivier Messiaen, Leonard Bernstein, and Gyorgy Ligeti. The great pianist Franz Liszt notoriously confused his orchestra by demanding from them “ A deep violet, please!…Not so rose!” Tori Amos, Billy Joel, Eddie Van Halen, Itzhak Perlman, and Pharell Williams have it. Even Lady Gaga was caught describing “poker face” as “ a wall of yellow.”

Vedran Mehinovic

The ability to make connections between unrelated elements is a widely recognized and respected hallmark of creativity, and synesthetes like Vasallo, Mehinovic and Faulk are lucky enough to be born with this tendency hardwired in. Their connections between different senses are not experienced conceptually, but as actual physical, sensory perceptions. Between their propensity towards complex conceptual thought and the concrete nature of their associations, Dr Ramachandran believes that synesthetes are cross-wired to think creatively.

Many synesthetes feel that the realistic nature of their experiences integral to their process of creation, Mehinovic among them. “ You see all these connections which others might deem abstract, but which are quite clear in your mind. Often acoustics take me to a very specific place — flavors as well. I can have a sip of Scotch and I am already on this cold island with a foggy sky, smoke in the fireplace, and the sound of the wind— and it’ s instantaneous. Of course it’ s a little obvious with the Scotch, but some other flavors are crazy and abstract.” Vasallo hears sounds when he talks to people, and Faulk is often pulled away from conversations by a strong sense of displacement. “ I get distracted by creative visual worlds—daydreams—when I am talked to.”

Synesthesia is rare, and not yet well understood. For most of us, the closest we can come to actually experiencing such overwhelming connections is through a strong hit of LSD, which has been found to induce similar synesthete-like brain functions in someone without it. However, Mehinovic assures me that living with the ability is nothing like dropping acid. “You’ re not as emotionally involved in it, unless there is really specific cool off the chart combination. Otherwise synesthetes would not be able to function. We’ d all be schizophrenic, you know?” And while it may sound hallucinatory, so might vision to a blind person who was born that way.

Check out a sample of Mehinovic’s music here.

See an example of Vasallo’s music scores here.

Kate Peoples is a California transplant living in Brooklyn, where she is an active writer and musician. She has a degree in classical voice and is interested in writing about new music and the people who make it.


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