“Aunt Booby stared hard at me just the way she did when she told me to lie if the police questioned me about the stolen electronic equipment in the back of my Uncle Yefim’s diner.”
—from “Aunt Booby Gives Advice” by Cathy Adams
I want to have a conversation with Phil Spector about architecture, because I think I have something in common with him.
If I knew where to go to be tested for synesthesia, then I would. Although I don’t know if you need to be tested. Not exactly. Shouldn’t you just be able to know?
As far as I can tell, I am a synesthete, which means some of my senses get confused in my brain. You’ll often hear about people who confuse taste with sight or sight with sound. I have a theory that you often hear about those because those lend themselves easily to description. You know, they could have a visual component that I could demand, like, “Paint me a picture of the sound of my voice.” Things like that.
It’s more difficult to try and say that I have touch/sound synesthesia, because those senses are so hard to describe and visualize anyway. We already use words like “swell” and “flow” and “percuss” to describe both sounds and touches. It’s one of the facts of being descended from monkeys that, as a species, our sense of sight dominated our sense of the world. Touch never took as much prominence when we started writing language, and sound, while important, always took second place to sight.
Really, without any visual reference at all, it becomes hard to even describe how a sound might feel—its texture and its girth and its temperature. So even if I am as synesthetic as I think that I am, I’ll always have difficulty explaining it to people. The languages that I know don’t have the right vocabulary.
But the thing is, linguistic communication does not always need to describe. It does not always need to define, or convince, or build a wall of impenetrable argument that fulfills all possible requirements of data in order to obtain a complete impression of something. Sometimes, skillful linguistic communication can content itself with evoking.
Some of the most calming sound/sculpture that I have ever experienced is produced by a Japanese stringed instrument called the koto. It’s a sort of harp that sits on the ground, and the koto player plays it while kneeling.
I could try to explain the smooth-edged, cooling shapes that I physically experience, forming from nothing and morphing to other nothing. I could try to explain what I touch without touching when good koto music arranges sound. I could try to do that.
I think I prefer trying to evoke it.
You know those Chinese paintings of mountains and things that are done with black ink on off-white paper? With just a blush of color in some corners? I love those, because they demonstrate the genius of negative space. You know that all the space around the few dark lines has whole worlds in it. You can see the worlds behind your own eyes, even though the paintings don’t show them.
Which is a meandering way of basically saying that Phil Spector is the anti-Ernest Hemingway. I would be surprised if it didn’t turn out that Mr. Spector had sound/touch synesthesia, like me, because he seemed determined to build sculpture out of sound. Sculpture being a mild term for the massive installation pieces that he strove to construct from noise. He pioneered this “wall of sound” technique of producing, which, as a synesthete, makes perfect sense to me, as a concept. Because I already sense sound as a physical pressure, I can definitely see what it would mean to listen to sounds coming at me, to then attempt to identify the chinks in that sound, and then find that last triangle’s ting or whatever I needed to plug the last few holes, like that kid with his finger in the dyke, keeping the wall from allowing an uncontrolled trickle through. Phil Spector built walls and, in the way, kept control of the sound on the other side.
That’s how I perceive it anyway. It’s an expression of saying to me, “These are the sounds. You must receive them only this way. You must feel only this way. No argument and no interpretation.”
It’s probably why I don’t enjoy Phil Spector songs much. I find them overstimulating. For me, it is like running into a wall.
On the other hand, I don’t think that Mr. Spector would like Japanese koto music. The koto makes long, sweeping, single sword-strokes of sound, and arranges sound into minimalistic sculptures, evoking shape and letting the human subconscious put in all the things that it finds most pleasing. The human subconscious has a lot of power in it, if you do what you can to work with it on its terms.
If I ever met Ernest Hemingway and explained this take on his whole “iceberg” principle—which is essentially what I’m describing here—I feel like he’d probably roll his eyes, brush me off, and go have another whiskey. I’ve used too many words to explain something that ought to be evoked with only a few.
I’ve always had an ironic perception of Ernest Hemingway. He had this legendary skill to use a few words, to use a few stark lines and blushes of color on an off-white background, to suggest the right kind of negative space to evoke worlds. At the same time, he always seemed like a curmudgeonly misanthrope with no patience for romance. That doesn’t work too well in my imagination.
His idea still works though, you know? My imagination is the off-white paper where the few stark sword-slashes and blushes of plucked harp strings can create negative space where I can tell a story to myself. That’s the brilliant experience of evocative storytelling.
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