62. I'm Synesthetic, and So Are You / by Allie Farris

     I’m on my flight back to Geneva, passing over the island of Grand Falls-Windsor and St. John’s; I’m just now leaving behind the North American continent. I must really be growing up now; this was the first flight on which I refused the ice cream, and didn’t finish my whole mini-loaf of bread. It was all driven by the single, apathetic feeling of eh…I’m good.

     The woman sitting next to me didn’t eat anything at all; all she wanted was sleep. We talked for a few minutes during takeoff about the decidedly unapologetic bunch of flight attendants we had on this leg, who filled mine and her overhead storage space with extra first class amenities kits, and the one doing the filling just gave me a bored shrug when I questioned her about it. During the drink services and meals, the staff flew down the aisles full steam ahead, beaning elbows and legs as they went with a flat thunk! thunk! thunk! There were a few first class seats grouped together in the back of the plane, ones that were specifically reserved for the attendants. To retrieve their amenities kits when it was another’s turn to sleep, each reached up into mine and my row partner’s overhead bin, one time dropping two kits right onto the head of my poor neighbor, startling her awake. The stewardess just mumbled a small “srry.” and snapped the dark curtain surrounding their rest area closed.

What you will read below is what I composed on said flight, fueled by no sleep, and as previously stated, no ice cream.


     The past two weeks were spent engaged in family reunions, work meetings over drinks, and a few canceled dinners with friends who couldn’t make it, but promised to ‘catch me next time'. Cheyenne and I got a lot done for FM, including new band pictures, shooting a new video, and penning three original songs. 

     Now, I’m just eager to see the coast of Lac Léman. I hear it’s growing cold and snowy in the Swiss Alps, and the plane is filled to the brim with American tourists swarming into Switzerland for ski season. I just watched a travel show I downloaded off of Netflix, in which a Swiss-French chef was interviewed about moving to New York City; he eventually opened the world’s current number one restaurant. When asked about the move so early into his career, he said:

     “When I landed here in this city, I knew I had to live here.” 

     I feel the same way about the place you came from, I thought to myself.

     Things will really start happening now. My applications are filed and my marriage will take place soon; my French lessons will begin in a week and my schooling concentration will have to be decided upon shortly; and my head is swimming with more music ideas than ever before. New ideas, original ideas. Shapes filled with movement, like luminescent colored smoke on a black backdrop. Sounds erupting from the base of a landscape in my mind’s eye, like a volcanic earthquake splitting the ground and frightening the dinosaurs. I want to make pictures with sound, yet I have no idea how to make that happen without a visual medium. There must be a way.

     I see sound visually, and that’s never been more apparent to me than now, in this new season of my life. I hope this means that I’m standing right at the edge of a new discovery. When I was younger, everything seemed loud, overwhelming, and oppressive. The world had no order, no hard edges; there were only soft walls and nebulous rules that everyone but me knew how to follow. I felt scared then; I don’t anymore. It makes me wonder if this isn’t the undertaking I’ve been leading towards my whole life. This may be the great thing I long ago hoped and prayed to be the one to achieve; maybe I could be the person responsible for progressing humanity’s relationship to sound.
     The people I talked to on this topic this week were skewed on the idea. One I spoke to was gung-ho and ready to go, slapping me on the back and sending me links to books and articles on the topic of synesthesia, or the intermingling and/or linking together of different senses within a person’s mind. The fact that this word has recently become more popular, especially within music universities and production vernacular, leads me to believe that humans are ready for the next step in sonic-sensory evolution. For the longest time, I was convinced that I wasn’t, and couldn’t be synesthetic, because the only person I’d ever met with “that kind of gift” was in an aural music theory class at the University of North Texas, where a young composer turned around in her chair to whisper that she had perfect pitch, because for her, the notes had specific hues attached to them. 

     “This song is in C major,” she whispered.

     “How can you tell?” I asked her, puzzled.

     “It sort of looks like a burnt orange.”

     And she was right. The song was in C Major.

     It was only out of necessity that I began to visualize things while listening to music. As I wrote before, in order not to go mad from so many hours of tuning pianos by ear, I started to see the sound waves projected before me, and how, when played against another note, they produced beats against one another in the places where the waves didn’t line up. I could see the overtones in a vertical line, like a ladder. And later, I noticed the differences between pianos, and how time, materials, and room could affect the outcome of a tuning. I even began to see how conflicting tones could refract off of one another, creating a sense of depth, a concept which received quizzical looks from a few of the people I talked to this week. But still I have this idea, holding tight and fast to me, so impossible to shake off. 

Here is my theory:

     Synesthesia is not some gift only born to a chosen few geniuses scattered throughout time. It is not rare, and it can be awoken in any mind. It is always there. I believe all people are synesthetic. What I mean is, just like a certain and concentrated smell can send just about anyone to a certain place and time; just like sommeliers can learn to discern the year of a bottle blindly just by accessing a database in their mind which leads them to a vineyard in Jura, France in late fall, 1980; just like movies can make you feel fear, and longing, the kind that sticks with you for years and years and can even change your thoughts on life or the way you approach love; so too can music be an immersive, engulfing experience. It can put you into a place you never thought existed, just by closing your eyes and seeing the music paint a picture in your mind, and course through your veins like a new, electric life blood. Sure, music has been wooing humans for thousands of years; but we have virtual reality at our disposal now. We have gastronomy, and avant-garde, modernist cooking techniques: like the olive created at the famous El Bulli restaurant with the entire essence of a Spanish olive condensed down into a concentrated liquid, then captured into a gelatinous membrane and rested on a spoon, somehow again looking like its original form, but now, so very much more. Someone needs to help the world realize that music is not just something that comes out of a speaker and hovers above you in a bustling room. It is a 3D world created and compressed into a 3 minute sound byte, that anyone has the ability to see, interact with, and be changed irrevocably by.

I want to be that someone.

     There is a long road ahead of me, and I have a whole lot of ground to cover before any of what I write below is possible. But, here are a few ideas I have for mixes:

     1. A fluorescent golden circle hovering above a craggy, sand swept, Mars-like landscape with a pale yellow sky. I would want to move towards the circle, as it spins, passing under it and around it (hence my fascination with virtual reality sound), as the sky gradually turns blue. If I could achieve this picture, successfully planted inside people’s minds just by using sound, I would dedicate it to my marriage and it would be my anniversary present to C that year.

     2. A hospital scene, with the listener having just given birth. This is not about strapping a recording device to a woman in labor, but successfully inducing the feelings of fear, anxiety, and ultimately relief; coupled with the perception of movement both by the listener, who is on the gurney and transferring between hospital rooms, and the perception of movement by the different people surrounding them. At one point, I would instill a sense of safety and connection brought on by the presence of a partner or spouse at the listener’s imaginary bedside. This entire scene would occur within a lyrically-driven composition (verse, chorus, verse, etc.), incorporating both organic and synthetic sounds to achieve these pictures within one’s mind.

     3. I want to figure out how to create the sensation of riding a roller coaster while listening to a song. The ups, the downs, and even a loop-de-loop or two. I remember riding a roller coaster at Six Flags Over Texas when I was little, in which you went through a large, winding attraction amidst pitch darkness. Just by listening to the song, I would want to harness that feeling of movement, that drop in the pit of your stomach when you reach a dip in the ride. What if you could trick your mind into believing your hair was being blown back by a rush of wind? You could do anything.

     All of these are some of the wild ideas that play around in my head. But the chief first step, my number one goal, is currently only one thing: I want to create a mix in which I can make people see one common shape. Be it a 2D circle, square, triangle or rectangle, it has to be the same shape. Every long journey starts with one small achievement, and that would be mine. 

     I know it makes no sense, and that’s okay, right? If enough people like me believe these things could be possible, who’s to say they aren’t? And now I have my own studio in a serene French town overlooking snowy mountains, with no one left to tamp down these nutzo concoctions I may or may not have been cooking up ever since I was a tiny little dreamer, pulled into my dad’s office to listen to something new that threw sparks inside my imagination. Visiting my dad two weeks back, I watched him sincerely feel real feelings while listening to a great song next to me, and I told him that he is a unique individual to be so affected. It’s most definitely a reason why I create music, to bring a sense of total immersion and discovery to people like music does for me and my dad.

     Out with my producer friend, the supportive one who gave me a slap on the back, and who shared a few nice Manhattans with me at a speakeasy called Hemingway’s, we talked at length about everything I wrote above, hypothesizing and pondering over how these things might be possible. Eventually, his girlfriend came to collect him, and I introduced myself while he went to close his tab. She sat down, and before he walked to the bar, he said to her about me: “oh, she’s great, she’s synesthetic. She sees things when she listens to music.”

     His girlfriend looked at me with the same blank stare that you may currently have on your face as you’ve read this post. I said:

     “Oh yes, well, we were talking about how I want to create mixes that allow people to view pictures, shapes, and even colors. I want music to become a 3D experience all by itself.”

     “So,” she said, “you want people to see music like you do?”

     That may be the case—but to put it more accurately, I aim to show people that they could see music like I do all along. All it takes is a new way of producing music, with a picture in your head, and the feeling in your heart, concentrated, like a permeable memory seeping across the boundaries of the senses.