LUSH, the hugely successful spa and purveyor of fine self-care products, has been treating visitors to their UK locations to synaesthesia (British spelling throughout this piece) massage combining all the senses for years. I used to look at their video describing it longingly: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWvmetedB94, putting it off for the day I found myself across the pond. This is because I'd heard through the cross-sensory grapevine that not only did the co-founder and creator of the massage, Mark Costantine have synaesthesia, but so did the gifted Simon Emmerson, musical director and composer of the soundtrack to the treatment. Acoustic guitar! Birdsong! I was pretty sure this was the real thing -- an experience that might truly represent the experience for synaesthetes and non-synaesthetes alike.
Well, the massage is now available for busy New Yorkers, as LUSH opened a location on Lexington Avenue and 61st Street this year. So I recently checked it out. It is absolutely multi-sensory, with every sense modality addressed simultaneously for 80 blissful minutes. I received a better-than-average number of beautiful synaesthetic colored shapes in my mind's eye as I lay there experiencing hot and cold stones and light to medium touch with essential oils. Licensed massage therapist, Ellysha Delva, who comes from a sports medicine background, worked seamlessly and flawlessly through the choreographed massage motions set to music and the birdsong Mark Costantine has painstakingly collected in England. I recommend it highly.
The first questions are for Mark Constantine OBE, LUSH co-founder and managing director.
Do you have any other forms of synesthesia besides scent--->color/shape?
MC:I don’t think so but I’m not completely sure. I find that when I look at a set of numbers, I know when they are wrong. I can sense it. Or when I look at percentages, I intuitively know if they are not right.
When did you realize you perceived scents this way? Did you keep it a secret or tell people?
MC: In a meeting at work with about 50 people. I thought the reason I looked at things this way was normal until everyone explained to me it was not actually normal.
It was then reinforced in an interview with Vogue magazine who brought a number of items for me to smell (such as coffee, lemon, different fragrances) and then asked me to draw what I was smelling.
What do you think the meaning/value of synesthesia is?
MC: It’s a different way of appreciating the world. It’s not wrong, I think it heightens your awareness.
I find it exceptionally useful in my work, particularly with fragrance – everything has a right or wrong shape and I know intuitively straight away. I’m not thinking in numbers so much as shape.
I think it helps but I don’t like to think about it too much as it makes me feel a little self-conscious.
Now onto Simon Emmerson, LUSH’S Musical Director.
What are some of your musical associations? For example, what color/shape is F#?
SE:I am not totally convinced by the popularized reductive approach to understanding synaesthesia that explains it away by simply tagging one concept/sensation with another random dissociated experience or concept.
f# = dark blue, Number 7 = the smell of fish
This is the popular conception of synaesthesia and I do appreciate most synaesthetes have this. But this form of synaesthesia can easily get confused with what may be just deep random/creative memory connections.
Yes, I would say E major is a very black key but that may be because it is the guitarist’s favorite key and is used in heavy rock. D minor (especially in its modal form without a 3rd) is very 'Blue' but then it's the preferred key of cool modal jazz and Blue Note records. F+ is for me an earthy rustic red, the colour of the soil in Senegal but that may be because I co-wrote a song with a Senegalese Kora player that was in F#: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9AmoamGcjw
What are some of your favorite synesthetic moments?
My favorite Beatle as a child was always George Harrison who for me was represented by the number 3 (the 3rd Beatle?) and the color green and the smell of oranges. I was obsessed with shades of green and the number 3 and the number 9. Whenever I saw a picture of George Harrison I smelt oranges. It became a family joke.
The rhythms I REALLY love have always been 3/4, 6/8 and 9/8. When producing Baba Maahl in Senegal in the early 90's I found a deep connection between the triplet rhythms of his music and traditional Celtic music and went on to form the Afro Celt Sound System to explore these connections. But to be honest this was as much to do with my inherent love of the way triplets move against a 4 or an 8 count.
When I hear hardcore 4/4 music like house/disco music, I can't stand it. It's the only form of music I can't listen to and will leave a club if they are playing relentless House music with the same 4/4 bass drum pounding throughout the night. It literally 'closes me down'. 3's and 9's are very maternal, open, excepting numbers and rhythms, whereas 4 is a very male, authoritarian, judgmental rhythm.
When I mix music I know we have hit a sonic sweet spot when I sense the convergence of shapes forming a harmonious whole. The bass frequencies are circular and oval moving up the sonic spectrum to the pyramid/triangular shapes of higher frequencies. Each shape has a non-specific colour but when the mix is working the shapes and colors fall into a very pleasing spectrum that is like a meta language of the music. A 'bad' mix is a mess of shapes with jagged edges and 'noisy' confused colors, it can make me very uncomfortable and even angry at times!
A good mix is the physical sensation of shapes and colors falling into place in a way that is impossible to describe other than as a harmonious whole.
The ‘Synaesthesia’ LUSH spa treatment was a joy because I could literally bathe in the colors and shapes I use when creating music.