The Flavor of a minor Key: My Life With Synesthesia
by Lee Dopteras
My mother theorizes it was the hearing loss I suffered as a child that caused my obsession with music, languages; anything that attempts to transcribe sound into meaning. In my youth, I drifted in an underwater world of soft amorphous sound; isolated and often frustrated with my inability to understand or be understood. Eventually, surgery brought sharp relief to words. They took on edges and corners, losing some of their abstraction, but my formative years and much of my growth were strongly affected by this strange beginning which has led to what I believe is a more intimate connection to words and music than most. I know the sounds that lie beneath the sounds and the meaning at the heart of a word stripped of its construct. I see the shape of a spoken word and feel the heat of a sounded note. I will fall a little in love with one band or another; loyally if half-heartedly devoted to them for a time, but there is one band that is my musical drug. That band is Man Man. Of course, context is necessary for such a statement to be read without being casually set aside; unread by the already rolling eye.
Before surgery, music was a transformative experience. Even at high volume, everything I heard was muffled and slightly distorted. Perhaps it was to compensate, perhaps it was a strange defect of my birth, but my other senses filled in the gaps. Romantic-era composers (particularly the Eastern Europeans) sent a feeling like the pik-pik of pop rocks and Coke on the roof of your mouth across every inch of my skin. Elgar produced mercurial abstractions of colors shifting through the air. Modern Western European composers The Beatles often tasted like toffee.
Attempting to communicate these experiences or anything else was a pointless endeavor. I spent my days looking into angry faces, unaware that they were telling me to do something for the umpteenth time. Those faces transformed into confusion when I tried to make myself heard, then into the much-hated pity. Because nothing was clear coming in, nothing was clear going out. Anger and confusion were the emotions that defined my vexing little world and people were frightening creatures that were clearly to be observed from afar. Music could be my retreat or a means of expression. Bartok spoke for me during my darker moods.
But amidst all of the difficulty, there was such a wealth of beauty. I did not know that to most people, a sound does not taste like a peach, look like a cloud, or feel like suede. My experience with sound was extremely unusual and all-consuming. My parents took me to operas and orchestras where I would perch on the edge of my seat, lost in a world nobody could even dream of. Once the music began, I was locked in a timeless place that engaged all of my senses. It was transcendent. I assumed everyone heard as I heard; with tongue, eyes, and fingertips.
After the surgery, I had to learn anew how to listen. The nature of music changed. It was as though I spent my life seeing the spirit of things only to have them abruptly wrapped in substance and skin. I scrutinized the faces of others to gauge their reaction to the songs that moved me. I watched to see if there was any hint that they knew, as I knew, that beneath each note there was something more than frequency and tone. I mourned. I could hear and be heard but it felt as though this clarity muffled the raw purity I had grown accustomed to; the life that pulses beneath each note. These things began to dull and fade. I developed a voracious appetite for music; consuming it desperately as I searched for some proof that this life was real and not imagined; that someone else knew; that this intimacy would not slip away from me entirely.
In my searching, I found that there are others out there that know the secret (either consciously or subconsciously). Andrew Bird and the Hands of Glory, Landlady, tUnE-yArDs, and Xenia Rubinos come to mind. These are the brilliant ones that can hear the shape of a song before they begin. They start with a sound or series of sounds sung, spoken, or played then build. You have to be able to view sound as an emotional construct to begin whistling a few notes or slamming a few doors that will later prove to be the basis of a rich and layered offering. I particularly admire anyone who creates unconventional beauty and who understands that sometimes the raucous crow-call is the correct choice to invoke emotion and ignores the tempting sweetness of a nightingale's song. When someone emits a particularly pain-filled cry, I will listen to it ad-nauseum, finger on the back button and eyes unfocused in an empty parking lot because when I step back into this world of emotion stripped of words, I am useless at anything else.
But I digress. I still have not returned to my thesis, as it were, that Man Man alone contains the perfection I have searched for.
I first heard them on the radio. I hate that. I feel like there should have been more meaning, at least a small coincidence or a series of missteps that resulted in my stumbling into an alley where a man in a hat discreetly passed me a torn paper with the band's name written upon it. If only life kept up with my over-active imagination. Instead it was the radio, accidentally turned on when I blindly reached for the A/C. The song was "Head On" and it was one measure shy of the very beginning. I felt each pizzicato on my ribs. People say they "feel" music, but I experience an entirely physical sensation that I have learned is mere metaphor for most. I felt the notes plucked on my ribs and gasped in surprise. I had to pull over because I could no longer keep my foot pressed firmly enough on the gas to keep a safe pace. Then the voice stopped my heart entirely.
It was raw, it was pure, and it vibrated my blood on some magic frequency. I finally heard everything that I lost when I was young. Somehow I remembered to breathe. The drums were more than a heartbeat, that overly trot-out metaphor. I felt the animal beneath the skin. I felt the tree in the stick. Most hear the song and think it is a light-hearted pop-y departure from their usual ‘experimental' sound. I have numerous complaints with this statement.
I grow tired of hearing Man Man described as ‘experimental' and for all of the bands I tend to enjoy being described as ‘experimental' really. People throw that word on anything that departs from a basic chord structure or incorporates instruments other than the usual four we expect to see on a stage. I also think that people are missing the depth beneath the seemingly placid waters of the song. There are ripples of darkness in lines such as "Father ghost in your chest" and I sat up, feeling found-out at the line "are you always so restless? Yes you are. Is that hard?" These lines, are sung casually over an innocuous melody and the effect produced is that of a wry line spoken stone-faced at a party intended to convey more than casual pleasantries to a sole recipient; a Victorian flirtation as it were. It's well-done.
I wish I could say I have been listening to them for years, that I have supported them from the beginning, but the truth is that I am grateful for their longevity so that I could finally discover them. Now, beyond familiar with their entire discography, I could not choose a favorite song or album. Gun to my head, I could not rank their songs in order of favorite. This is because each of their songs contains an absolute perfection that is no greater or less than any other. I have become dangerously reliant on them to emote for me just as I relied on Bartok and others in my youth and I am sure that my poor office wall-mate is ready to kill me by the end of a day in which I play "Spooky Jookie" for 8 hours straight. I must also mention that even if I do listen to "Spooky Jookie" on repeat for an entire day, I will still get goosebumps and I will taste matcha (green tea powder) each time lead-singer Ryan Kattner (aka Honus Honus) grates out that elongated "she" in the beginning.
Lest I sound like a blinded fan, I should mention I am an accomplished musician myself with a strong background in musical theory. I began playing the harp at the age of 5 (shortly after the surgery) and composing at the age of 8. While other children spent their summers learning how to boondoggle, I went to orchestra camp and when they went to the movies on weekends, I met with nervous brides to plan their wedding music or travelled to rallies and concerto competitions.
Now back to the business at hand. The sheer amount of talent present in the band must be acknowledged. Man Man shows are fast-paced spectacles and band-members frequently rush from one instrument to another which they play with equal comfort and skill. Bands, one in particular that I will not mention, have caused me to view the saxophone with distaste but that has been remedied by the swan trumpet of Adam Schatz (aka Brown Sugar) which sends butterscotch discs floating through my vision. I cannot mention the talented Adam without nudging you towards his equally-addictive and otherworldly band Landlady. His voice, incidentally, tastes like grilled pound cake and lemon curd. Bryan Murphy (aka Shono Murphy) will forever be nutmeg for me. Sweet or savory, he brings exactly the flavor needed and is impossible to define as one thing or another. He stands at the back and might be labelled unassuming until you see him jump from guitar to trumpet to vocals and realize he is the vertebrae. Have you read The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake? That bit about her brother and the chair? That is Chris Powell (aka Pow Pow) and his drum set, mysteriously linked and inseparable in substance. My poor irregular heartbeat is entirely at the mercy of his chosen tempo.
But what of those of you, most of you, who are unmoved by my words? Perhaps you rushed off to listen to a song or two and are staring baffled at the page, wondering what you are missing. I will make one final case. I recently went to a Landlady and Man Man show in Billings, Montana. I purchased the $13 ticket online then proceeded to work 11 and 12 hour days during the week and weekend so that I could take off two days (the show was on a Wednesday) to drive the 8 hours there and 18 (don't ask about the extra 10) hours back. I spent nearly $500 in gas, food, motel, and other expenses. When I returned home an exhausted but happy zombie, I caught 4 hours of sleep then went right back into the office. In Billings, I lingered silently in the corner before the show began then proceeded to the edge of the stage to dance and sing from the first note of Landlady's set to the final encore of Man Man's. I was drenched in sweat and dreading the drive home, but I'd do it again in a heartbeat. When my friends told me I was insane, I mumbled that this is what our twenties are for, knowing full well I will do the same thing next year and blame it on my thirties. They are under my skin. I listen to their CD's (yes CD's- support your musicians listeners!) on the way to and from work then stream them all day at my desk but I crave their live shows in a way that alarms me.
So far, I have happened to meet Honus Honus at each show and the impossibly kind Adam at the last. They would never remember me as anything other than a nuisance if they were to remember me at all. I was a deer in headlights, creepily staring with wide eyes and nothing to say that had not been said one million times previously by a million others. I will however report from observation of Honus Honus's time with others and his sweet patience with me that he is a genuinely good-hearted person and I hope life treats him as well as he deserves. I will also say that the interviews with him that I have read lead me to believe he is a very clever bullshitter and I would never expect anything but amusement if I could think of a question to ask him. Instead, I will forever gape like a fool, repeating my silent or stammering performance; doomed to hear the same Sonny and Cher song every morning (ala Groundhog Day). I have sworn to avoid further contact with any of them at all costs since I have lost any shred of respect I may have had. I'll still go to shows of course. I will just refrain from leaving notes under their wipers in the future. I swear it was all just a huge coincidence, sirs.
I have spent most of my life trying to regain what I lost when the surgery "fixed me" with little success. That day on the road I was forced to pull over as Head On played my bones like a marimba and readjusted the color and shape of the world around me. They alone are the alchemists that can turn sound into the supernatural substance that awakens the magic part of me I thought was forever lost. They have reopened a door that has breathed life back into all music for me. I go alone to their shows, travelling as far as necessary, to linger like a junkie in a subway bathroom waiting for the music to start so I can leave the world as it is and return to that world beyond substance. Should you give them a listen, try to hear beyond the sound. See if you can't taste the notes and see their colors. Feel the texture of their songs like raw silk on your fingertips. Why enjoy them with just one sense?
Also see our Landlady article
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