Thursday, March 3, 2011

Tasting the Universe: A personal tale from Pharrell Williams

Tasting the Universe is making its way to stores as I type. To give you a better look inside the life of a person living with Synesthesia I chose to share part of Chapter 11 entitled The Sound of Grace about Pharrell Williams and his experience with this gift.

In my New York City public high school lunchroom, sometimes a rhythm would emerge as a would-be rapper would begin to alternately bang his fists and slap his open palms on the surface of one of the long lunch tables: boom-boom, thap, boom-boom-boom, thap-thap. Soon, the sound would fill the cavernous, industrial tiled space as other kids joined in and offered counter beats, the extemporaneous lyrics ricocheting around the space like silver synesthetic pin-balls in my field of vision. I drum my desk in memory of those spontaneous and joyous times.

If it weren’t for Pharrell Williams’ music-to-color synesthesia, countless stars would have had to find a new hit maker. “I’d be lost,” the Grammy Award–winning producer, performer, and entrepreneur says on the phone from London. “It’s my only reference for understanding. I don’t think I would have what some people would call talent and what I would call a gift. The ability to see and feel [this way] was a gift given to me that I did not have to have. And if it was taken from me suddenly I’m not sure that I could make music. I wouldn’t be able to keep up with it. I wouldn’t have a measure to understand [it].”

Williams, who spent time as a child in a Virginia Beach housing project and grew up to be named Esquire’s best-dressed man in 2005, can’t remember a time he didn’t associate music with the colors he sees in his mind’s eye. “Oh my God, it’s always been this way. But I thought all kids had mental, visual references for what they were hearing.” Music and Williams clearly have an extraordinary relationship, something that his musical heirs and beneficiaries—from Madonna and Britney Spears to Justin Timberlake and Snoop Dogg—would all attest to. On a recent episode on ABC-TV’s Nightline he told an interviewer that when his family moved to the suburbs and he encountered a wonderful band teacher, he knew music was for him. “It just always stuck out in my mind. And I could always see it. I don’t know if that makes sense but I could always visualize what I was hearing. It was like […] weird colors.”

Williams was just 17 in 1992 when a song he helped compose, the dance hit “Rumpshaker,” went double platinum. That would be followed by earning millions per song while writing tracks for Mr. Timberlake’s critically acclaimed album, Justified, as well as Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl,” Britney Spears’ foray into adulthood with “Slave 4 U,” Nelly’s “Hot in Here,” Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” and singing on Madonna’s “Give It 2 Me,” among other hits. Though his sound is immediately identifiable, he has said that he tries not to intrude too heavily on the artist with his track mastering—he simply imbues it with his talent. Speaking about the Britney Spears song on Nightline, he said, “I Warhol’d it. ‘Cause she’s still Britney. I just put my colors on it.”

The young man, whose name is derived from his father’s (Pharaoh), and who says he has both Egyptian and Native American heritages, introduced a new generation to synesthesia by naming his third album with N.E.R.D. (No One Really Dies) Seeing Sounds. Unlike many of the figures I interviewed for this book, he has been extremely open about his synesthesia in the media, raising awareness and adding his own brand of glamour to the gift. As he told Remix magazine, “Some people make music and they see things. The condition is called synesthesia. It’s when one of your senses gets more information than what’s intended. When you hear, your ears send auditory images to your brain. But some people conjure [visual] images to the sound, as well. That’s synesthesia.... Sure, my lyrics are inspired by synesthesia,” Mr. Williams added. “You ask any great rapper or writer or musician, and they’ll tell you their craziest ideas come from the shower or the plane because in both places there is sensory deprivation.” Laurie Kennedy, the music editor at Remix, was pleasantly surprised by the public’s response to Williams’ description of his gift, which was a cover story. “I wasn’t so sure of the topic at first,” she tells me, “but after we ran the piece, we got mail from people who are also synesthetes. It’s such a cool thing," she says.

In addition to his music, Mr. Williams has become ever more expressive with color as he has matured. He has designed riotous clothing and accessories for his “Ice Cream” and “Billionaire Boys Club” lines, and has collaborated on six different-colored Herm├Ęs bags outfitted with solid gold hardware. He has even designed furniture, doing a surrealistic spin on classic Eames designs. He has designed sunglasses and jewelry for Louis Vuitton. According to a press release by Vuitton spokeswoman Mona Sharf, “Vuitton delights in opening up to the foremost talents of our times. When it commissioned Pharrell Williams to design its debut sunglasses collection, it dared to reveal the personality and the sense of style of the star of the U.S. music scene.” His sense of style has even made headlines as far away as the United Arab Emirates, where he has been lauded as a trend-setter, fashion icon, and all-around renaissance man. His T-shirt designs for H&M’s Fashion Against Aids range has also proven him to be a humanitarian, which is not surprising given his synesthesia. He has even collaborated with Japan’s Takashi Murakami on artwork that was previously exhibited at Art Basel in Switzerland.

When this renaissance man is not moving in the realms of haute couture and modern art, he rocks a skater boy aesthetic—right down to installing a half pipe inside his home. But for all the riches he has acquired and for all his perceived materialism, he is a deeply spiritual person. He believes that color is not just a marketing tool or a form of expression, but a key to his spirituality. And he believes that the synesthetic imagery he sees is a connection to a higher power. “To me, [synesthesia] is the absolute, direct conduit to God and the collective consciousness, the mind, and the spirit,” he tells me. “That is definitely the conduit. I believe that it’s in us, I believe it has the ability to go beyond us and the flesh. But I believe for the most part because most people […] are raised […] to be very attached to the flesh and think that nothing can happen without the flesh. And so that’s why a lot of our ideas, and a lot of the functionality of the products that we create and the technology, doesn’t serve us as well as [they should] because we are coming closer and closer to realizing that the mind and the spirit [are] essential—and scientists are coming around to that and they’re realizing that as they’re creating all this Artificial Intelligence.” Williams believes one day we’ll understand that the real difference between brilliant computers and human beings is soul. “This essence or soul […] interacts and moves through the body, which is the machine, in a dimension which is on this planet here and now, which is time and space…. They’re figuring this all out now.” I “get” him, partly because he’s so future-oriented. Why do the photisms, the illuminated bits of color that synesthetes see, look so celestial, like stars being born or subatomic light particles? It’s difficult to not go off into space when describing this phenomenon, particularly when you are wrestling to find just the right words. I agree with him, whether science today can prove it or not. Williams is certainly a man with a cosmic consciousness.

Maureen Seaberg is a NYC-based journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, The Daily Beast, the New York Daily News, Irish America, ESPN the magazine and on MSNBC, PBS, and NBC.
She is an syesthete who sees numbers, letters, days of the week, months and some music and sound in color. She also has motion to hearing synesthesia. She sees the imagery both in her minds eye and out in her visual field.

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