Sensorium

A Quest to Understand Extraordinary Experiences of Sense

Richard Wagner's Heir

Composer, singer and producer Dev Hynes creating synesthetic "total work"

It's appropriate that we meet at Cafe Ost on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Ost is "East" in German and Dev Hynes has an important connection to that nation's cultural history. Mr. Hynes is working on a visual and musical experience reminiscent of likely fellow synesthete Richard Wagner's "Gesamtkunstwerk" or total work of art. He doesn't care if he makes a dime on it, though he will. It is his passion. He workshopped part of it at a downtown art gallery recently, adding red smoke to an all-white space, including a grand piano, while he performed. "You have to see the work live—that is the only way," he explains.

Richard Wagner was apparently so interested in coordinating stage set colors to music synesthetically that he famously stormed out of a rehearsal of "Tristan and Isolde" when the colors were "wrong" to him. His royal benefactor agreed and the show went on with a different set.

Dev Hynes and Solange Knowles
Collaborators Dev Hynes and Solange Knowles strike a pose.
Courtesy Dev Hynes
Mr. Hynes, who also performs as Blood Orange, must complete this work around a very busy schedule collaborating with some of music's biggest acts, including Florence + The Machine. For now, he's taking a break from writing and producing Solange Knowles' much-anticipated album (one of his friends wittily calls this Solange Orange) and he arrives in his tennis whites with a racquet slung over his shoulder after a couple of morning matches and orders a tea.

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In his charming British accent (he was raised between Houston and the UK) Mr. Hynes adjusts his New York Knicks cap and tells me what he's really about.

"I want everyone to have a good experience," he says, taking the seat at the table with his back to the door because he says he knows other people don't prefer it. Highly empathic, he can take a temperature when he walks in a room and feel the emotions of all inside it. It's the mirror-touch synesthetic neurons, to be sure. "I think that's why I like sports so much. It levels the playing field for everyone." He says he wants music to do the same.

Mr. Hynes started his musical training at the age of seven and took piano lessons like the older sister he idolized before him. Then his father brought home a guitar. Young Dev picked it up and started figuring out how to play songs on the radio by himself. Without a single lesson, he instinctually found the right notes and chords. Synesthetes often have perfect pitch and can match up a note from memory.

He became aware of his synesthesia while studying cello in school. After class one day he began describing his colorful impressions to his teacher when they had a moment alone. "I wish I could remember her name. She told me it must be synesthesia. I went home and began researching it. It freaked me out a little in the beginning and I didn't talk about it again for several years."

As he grew into his awareness as a synesthete, he noticed as a young adult how over-stimulating some bars and some concerts were to him.

Then about three years ago he was on a train in Tokyo and the melodic tones that play as one enters the station piqued his interest. He felt the rumbling of the train had one color and the ringing bells of these chimes created an overlay. "I found them so soothing and pleasing and I started getting really into Eastern melodies." It would change everything and inform his compositions going forward. He has been using it while doing the writing for Beyonce's younger sister, Solange.

"I write now more according to color and emotion," he explained.

Ms. Knowles is very yellow to him synesthetically, like The Go-Go's he says, so he often first lays down a G chord for her, his personal sunny musical note. Building the rest of the foundation of his songs for her, particularly "Forget It" which is featured in her new Madewell advertising campaign, he adds A minor, which is red-to-pink. Completing the primary palette, the foundation of the song, is an E minor, which to Mr. Hynes is dark blue.

Dev Hynes
Synesthete Dev Hynes has been composing according to color for three years.
Courtesy Dev Hynes
But harkening to his experience on the Tokyo train, he decorates the rest of the song with a parallel track of bursting violet (D chords) and other colors. Ms. Knowles is such a muse for him ("She's the best singer I know," he tells me) he finds himself thinking of new songs all the time. She urges him, he says, to keep some for himself.

The Solange Knowles record is expected to drop in early 2013 and a single will be out soon.

This is Mr. Hynes collaborating with Florence Welch, who is red to him beyond her Titian hair:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5A6fF9Bkks

Maureen Seaberg is an author and synesthete dedicated to advancing understanding of synesthesia.

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