To be a synesthete is to be a person in search of community. With no one to talk with for most of one's life about the experience in most cases, a new synesthete friend is a valued one indeed. I'll never forget the first fellow synesthete I met nor each one after that. What a joy it is to compare experiences and find someone, sometimes from the other side of the globe, who has so much in common with you. I was delighted to come across a really good synesthesia blog on Tumblr recently by a musician and painter in San Juan, Puerto Rico, René D. Quiñones Molina, and just had to reach out to him lest he feel at all alone on his beautiful island. It's called A Synesthetic World. You can find it here: http://a-synesthetic-world.tumblr.com/.
Rene tells me he doesn't feel quite so alone since building community around this personal topic. Here is our Q &A.
When did you learn you were a synesthete?
I learned about synesthesia about three years ago. I was a bit annoyed about how most of today's pop music was like static to me, until I heard (synesthete) Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower." He blew me away with all the colors and textures he could create. He was amazing. One day I was looking for information on a song of his called "Bold as Love," because I noticed the song makes references to lots of colors like red, yellow, blue, etc. and was giving personalities to each of them, and I felt connected to him in a way. In one of the pages I found, it said that he was a "possible synesthete." When I read what was synesthesia, it was like reading my life in every sentence, describing me in great detail. Later I started writing songs that in a way reflected synesthesia so others can, in a way, experience it.
Does it help you memorize music? How about composing?
It does help me memorize songs, I can listen to a song a couple of times, I can memorize the colors, and get the chord in about a minute; but I don't know if the songwriter would kiss me or slap me for changing the song a bit. Yes, I can play a song note for note if I have to; but I suppose you could say I'm a perfectionist when I'm playing the song. Sometimes I can listen to a song and say "That was great, but it needed more pink" and if I play it live, I would add or take out an "unnecessary" note or change the tempo a bit. Sometimes I even change the solo if it feels wrong to me. It's not because of music tastes, as if I'm going to turn a country song into a death metal song. Every genre has its own format, for lack of a better word, and I try to make the song as best as possible. It's like when you're proofreading an essay: you change a word here, add a fancy word there, or even change a whole sentence so the paragraph (and eventually the whole essay) has more coherence.
When I'm composing, the first thing I want is a "painting." A "painting" is what I call the overall colors and feeling of the song. When I finally have one laid out in my mind, I start writing it. From there on, I can try to figure out which chords go together by their color. Of course I have to keep in mind music theory, and where do the notes go in which beat, but what I'm really thinking of is that I'm getting the colors right. I'm not even thinking of if I'm writing the wrong note. Of course, if I'm writing a song, I want it to be perfect, but if I'm playing live, I improvise based on the wrong note. For me there are no wrong notes, just notes that didn't go there at the time. A way to explain it is when you're drawing a face with ink. It's going perfect until you did a random line next to an eye. You can't delete it. It's there forever; but what you can do is add more lines to it and say it's a strand of hair, or say it's a scar. It adds another dimension to the song. It wasn't supposed to go that way, but it adds flavor.
What inspired you to do the blog?
Well, one day I was going around Tumblr and I found blogs about just about anything. There was even one that was dedicated to the color blue! I thought to myself, "There must be other synesthetes here in Tumblr." But what really pushed me into doing it was that there was this one post on Tumblr that read (and I'll never forget it) "I wish there was a place where all synesthetes could just talk about each other's synesthesia freely and everybody understood what you were saying." And I said to myself, "Well, why can't I do it? I got time." So created it right there. It's been two months since its creation and I'm close to 200 followers at the moment so I guess the blog has had a very good reception. I'm always getting questions about if what they have is considered synesthesia, or if they're the only ones that experience this or that. Sometimes it's hard to come up with a brand new idea but life has her funny ways to give you inspiration. I'm especially glad that I created the blog because I met my girlfriend thanks to it. We both have synesthesia, which is really fun.
Are there any synnie groups in Puerto Rico?
No, which is really a shame. I don't think anybody knows or heard about synesthesia here in Puerto Rico, except those in medicine, psychology, or the few that stumbled into it. Frankly, I would have gone my whole life trying to explain people why I think this or that song is too yellow if it wasn't for Hendrix and people would think I've gone bonkers. The more research I do on synesthesia or the more stories my followers tell me, the more I believe it should be at least mentioned in school in biology classes. Synesthesia was one of the oldest neurological conditions recorded in history, all the way back in ancient Greece. So was cancer. That should put things in perspective.
Teachers should be able to know what's synesthesia and be taught how to identify synesthetes from an early age. Some graphemers (as I call grapheme-color synesthetes or those with OLP, etc.) can be really good at math, but others can have a really hard time because 6 hates 3, for example; or some may have trouble reading because the colors don't match to the words or letters. In 11th grade, our art teacher told us to paint a picture of a landscape we found on the Internet. I found one about a house near some snowy mountains. When I finished, the teacher said my style was the most Van Gogh-ish she's ever seen. I've always felt connected to his work in a way I had with any other painter, but I couldn't place my finger on what was the link until I read that he was a synesthete. I've always stood out in music classes. My teachers wanted me to join the school band but I hated the colors they played, so I didn't.
How is it being a synesthete in a Latin culture? Are they more receptive given love/celebration of color in the arts and the shamanistic traditions?
It's really interesting. You can have a really good time. Most of the traditional music from the Caribbean (which is where I live) has lots African roots to it with the characteristic conga rhythms and a taste of Spanish music, with guitars and maracas like in 'Bomba y plena', so there's a lot of "musical weaving" there. Plus, there are dances where all the women dress in long flowing clothes with really bright, almost alive colors, and they spin around and do circles and the lead dancer can command the lead percussionist how to play by their body movements and everything just flows; so there's a lot of synergy in it which I think is fantastic. We also love to improvise lyrics or jokes in songs. There are even songs that are made specifically so the audience can come up with a joke or verse, so it's always good to have an ace on your brain.
What do you like about being a synesthete? What do you hope to accomplish with the blog?
Synesthesia has given me a reason to keep going. Since I was a baby, I've always had ear problems. I was once hospitalized for 28 days because of a bacteria when I was still a toddler. I've had so many infections, I don't even feel its pain anymore. I suppose it runs in the family since my dad had to use hearing aids for a pretty long while. I had ear tubes on both ears by the time I was 6. When they took them off, the hole they left would not heal, so the doctors had to operate me on in each of them. I needed to take speech therapy too. I heard the world around me just fine (at least to me) but the human voice was a challenge. I'm the only synesthete in the family too so I couldn't really explain to them what I was listening to music. When I talk, I always sound like I'm mumbling because that's what I heard when I was little, since my hearing was so bad. But now they're better. I get an infection every now and then, but I can deal with it. So yes, my ears have had their fair share of aches and they've been troublesome at times too, but they mean the world to me. Thanks to them I can experience another world and nothing can replace them.
My hope is that every synesthete can find a place to belong, where they can say "1 is a cranky old man" and everybody knows what she means. Because trying to explain synesthesia to someone that doesn't have it is like teaching the blind what's a color. I really think Beethoven had synesthesia because it would be madness to say that a stone deaf person could have written the 9th Symphony. If he said that he could see the notes he wanted to be played, everybody would've said he'd gone mad. I want to create a community where we can say "You are not crazy. You're just like us. We accept you."