Synesthesia is the rare condition that allows a person who has one sense stimulated to experience it from an additional sense. For Northeastern senior Katie Kerr, she’s able to visualize sound in colors. For her Capstone final project, she’s used paint, crayons and other mediums to share how she envisions different artists’ voices and music. Featuring such Go artists as Chance the Rapper, Slug from Atmosphere, Frank Ocean, Anderson .Paak, Dessa and Run the Jewels, Kerr is helping us see their music in an entirely new light.
We spoke to Kerr about living with synesthesia and how her final project came to be!
1) When did you first discover you had synesthesia?
I first discovered [it] around the end of high school, and I started studying it more during [my] freshman year of college. As I began to understand it more, my art grew and evolved alongside. When I figured out I had timbre-color chromesthesia, which means I hear different instruments in different colors and textures, I was immediately interested in figuring out colors of everything I heard. Now that I knew how my chromesthesia worked, I needed to put it under a microscope. I sketched a ton of songs, just trying to get them all visually laid out. I would draw 20 songs a night sometimes, and there were lots of repeats. The music drawing became a big part of my identity, and grounded me and gave me a direction to always push in. Moreover, it’s always mentally satisfying to see my synesthetic experiences as specific visualizations; it’s like having something on the tip of your tongue, and finally hearing someone say it. I’m constantly trying to make the most accurate depiction, which means I’m always tweaking bits here and there.
2) What was the first voice you created an artistic rendition of?
One of the first songs was “Sweet Disposition” by the Temper Trap, and I think the first voice I drew was Lorde – which is funny, because she has synesthesia too! I drew mostly songs in the beginning, and only recently started working with voices. Voices are expansive, and their range can extend their color/texture into a map of pitches and tones. I love seeing the gradients of voices – some of my favorite gradients belong to Dessa, Florence Welch, Brendon Urie, Slug, Prof, José Gonzalez, Chance the Rapper, and Deca.
3) When hearing a voice, do you have the full visualization instantly, or is it something that reveals itself?
I get a main impression first, then as the voice changes over time, through different songs, the visualization complexifies. It grows more detailed as I listen to more of an artist, and how they use their voice.
4) How did you decide to do your capstone on it?
My synesthesia has been a huge ongoing experiment for me, ever since I figured out it wasn’t the normal way of experiencing things. It’s evolved so much over the last five years, and has taken me in many different directions. I’ve played with different mediums for drawing music, starting with colored pencils and white paper, then moving to markers, then settling on chalk pastels on black paper. Not settling though, because I’m always trying to come up with new ways of visualizing music. The interesting problem is that it’s hard to condense a 4D medium like music into a 2D visualization. My next project is going to be animating the beginnings of songs, because I think the set-up of a song is one of the coolest elements of seeing music. It’s the exposition, the set up of all the characters involved.
5) What’s the response been like?
The response has been really positive! People are floored to hear that synesthesia exists, and a lot were excited to read about their favorite musicians’ experiences with it. Hearing music is not uncommon in the music industry, with tons of singers, producers, engineers, and composers having some version of chromesthesia.
6) Are there any misconceptions you find people have about synesthesia?
People are mainly just interested in how it works. They love asking questions, which I don’t mind at all. It’s a weird experience, and I’m always glad to share. There are some other types of synesthesia that completely baffle me, like lexical-gustatory. That means you taste words. How do you taste words? It’s crazy. But I hear music in color, so I’m already kinda crazy. It’s all a matter of perspective.
7) What are your post-graduate plans?
I’m living in Boston until mid-June, then I’m moving all my stuff back home to Denver. In the beginning of July, I’m flying to Vancouver for a dialogue through Northeastern. It’s 6 weeks abroad, taking 2 courses, themed to a specific study. This trip goes to Vancouver, Anchorage, Seattle, and Vancouver Island, studying Outdoor Experience Design. It’s perfect for me, because being from Colorado, I’ve grown up backpacking, hiking, mountain biking, and camping, and I just graduated with my BFA in Experience Design. It’s the perfect way to end college. After I get back in August, I’m going to hang around Denver for a few months, then go to southern California to visit friends and family, then New Zealand to WWOOF for 6-8 months. After that, I’m not really sure.
I am really passionate about public art, and I’ve done a few murals on campus. I love public art, because it takes the inspiration and passion that art has, and puts in outside, away from galleries and hallways, into the people’s spaces. They’re communal works, because as the community watches the mural grow, it becomes part of their world too. Street art can transform a dreary, boring space into something that makes people smile. The world has enough going on right now, but we have control over our immediate environments – why not beautify them?
Another facet of my future plans involves makerspaces. I’ve worked in three different digital fabrication studios as a designer, a studio manager, and a head laser monitor, and I have unique perspective that comes from being a user, an experience designer, and an operations manager. I also started Makers Club on campus for students to connect with resources to use and learn different methods of making. I created and ran a lot of workshops in the makerspaces, with a focus on lasercutting (“Make Your Own Coasters,” “Make Your Own Jewelry,” etc.) I recently wrote a proposal for a new makerspace on campus at Northeastern, and I hope to have a hand in setting it all up in a year or so.
Over the course of my travels during the next year, I also plan on expanding my stickers, coloring books, lasercut designs, and synesthesia drawings, with products available to order.