We ask people with Synaesthesia to tell us what Theon Cross and Kamaal Williams’ music tastes like

6th June 2019

Sam Narr meets two people with synesthesia with a playlist of tracks – to find out what they taste and look like. 

‘Activate’ by Theon Cross? It tastes like dark chocolate with a hint of ginger.

Synesthesia is a form of involuntary sensory stimulation. Those that possess the condition – synesthetes (pronounced sin-es-theets) – can experience it in various forms, be it auditory, gustatory or mirror-touch. According to Live Science, synesthesia is a neurological phenomena and is thought to be genetic, affecting more women than men and occurring in approximately one in 2,000 people – it’s thought that uptown 25% of musicians, writers and artists are affected by it. 

Famous synesthetes include musicians Duke EllingtonPharrell Williams, Dev Hynes (see his TED Talk below) and  Aphex Twin; A modern Mount Rushmore of boundary-pushing creatives and forward thinkers.

To find out what some select Jazz tracks taste and look like, from Alice Coltrane to GoGo Penguin, two people with the condition offered their feedback, including James Wannerton; President of the UK Synaesthesia Association and one of the first individuals in the UK to have his experiences studied and documented. His symptoms are ‘gustatory’ – in other words, he tastes music. 

On the UKSA website, James writes; “Synaesthesia is a truly fascinating condition. In its simplest form it is best described as a “union of the senses” whereby two or more of the five senses that are normally experienced separately are involuntarily and automatically joined together. Some synaesthetes experience colour when they hear sounds or read words. Others experience tastes, smells, shapes or touches in almost any combination. These sensations are automatic and cannot be turned on or off. Synaesthesia isn’t a disease or illness and is not at all harmful. In fact, the vast majority of synaesthetes couldn’t imagine life without it”. 

Timothy Layden – an art curator who has exhibited works related to synaesthesia around the world – also offered his perspective. As someone that ‘sees’ music, he also creates his own artwork, as well as being a writer, musicians and educator. Of his experiences as a synesthete, Timothy explains; “Throughout the day I let my experience of moving sound shapes flow around me like a soft breeze which is mostly pleasant and not distracting”, although he adds that, “at times, I can be suddenly ambushed by sounds like sirens or noisy motorcycle engines that can be more aggressive like sharp stones or metallic spikes crashing down on me”. Read more about Timothy’s experiences with synaesthesia on his website

Here’s what James (taste) and Timothy (vision) had to say about five select tracks; Alice Coltrane – ‘Journey in Satchidananda’, Kamasi Washington – ‘Desire’, Kamaal Williams – ‘New Heights’, Theon Cross – ‘Activate’ and GoGo Penguin – ‘Hopopono’. 


Alice Coltrane  – ‘Journey in Satchidananda’

Taste: I experienced a near perfect flavour match with this, slow roasted chicken, soft on the inside but crispy on the outside.  Warm, crusty bread covered in a layer of melted cheese. Very textural and melts away on the tongue very quickly. A constant dribble of lemon juice accompanies. The soft bassline carries the slightly bitter taste of dark chocolate, leaving a strange aftertaste. JW

Visual: Shiny black boulders pass me in a line; one disappears as another appears. There is something regal about them; they are the bass line. The tanpura arrives in golden orange waves. Small copper seed pods rub together in cuddling huddles, warming themselves in the waves. A shower of blue harp sound falls in iridescent sequins, translucent yet taking the foreground until a golden orange sax opens its mouth like a snaking tube slithering. Layers form a brilliant tapestry and as the sound dissipates it lifts turning transparent. TL


Kamasi Washington – ‘Desire’

Taste: Desire has the signature of a traditional jazz track – a chef throwing all sorts into a big bowl, developing into a monumental comfort dish – i’m thinking cottage pie with red cabbage. The fruity, tart piano doesn’t sit very well with the main dish but the saxophone adds an eggy over-taste with a hint of pepper and a touch of lemon with the organ adding heat. JW

Visual: The bass line comes in on invisible feet wearing wooden clogs that morph into snow shoes as they side step in a tango motion. They break and gentle bubbles jiggle gently like jelly. Golden glitter flickers as it falls with shiny metal ball bearings. The percussion is grainy greys and whites, like clumps of salt and pepper sliding. A slowly rising pink ribbon rises and falls like tongues of fire.  Slow waves come in at the end like a recently disturbed yet calm surface of water. TL


Kamaal Williams – ‘New Heights’

Taste: The intro is a slightly crisp, cooked apple. There are also wafer tasting sounds fading in and out. The repetitive drums and bassline dominate and fills the mouth with texture – similar to a large marshmallow with a semi-solid centre. Like an everlasting gobstopper. New Heights maintains a childhood theme by morphing into a bag of sweets – courtesy of the idiosyncratic piano riffs. Lots of different levels of sweetness, coming and then quickly disappearing. A crunchy Rich Tea biscuit taste and texture right at the end. JW

Visual: Small blue stone slabs float above others which sets up the percussion, flapping like moth wings in the light. Bass line bumps in as soft leather padding, long and slender then bulging to punching bag size. Drums create planes of flashing powdered light that cut around in thin layers. Slicing electronics appear, first radiant orangey-gold then a blue breath of a cold fog then back to warmth. The final percussion rides down like tiny insects, some with long tails and others flapping wings. TL

Catch Theon Cross, Kamaal Williams and GoGo Penguin at Love Supreme Jazz Festival


Theon Cross – ‘Activate’

Taste: The strongly textured opening produces a bitter dark chocolate taste with a hint of ginger. The prancing saxophone introduces a cloud of gritty, lemon sherbet that reduces the bitterness a notch or two and the drums are like odd dusty chocolate buttons. Overall, this mix is chocolatey and weaves in well with the sharpness of the lemony saxophone.  It’s moreish and too much of it makes me feel queasy. This track conjures up a unique flavour sensation that I can’t remember coming across before. JW

Visual: Black orbs of bass enter in a pulse with jittering, silvery satellites dancing around them. Slithery swords bend in and out, coming from both sides, slicing through my vision. They are gone for a moment as a burbling dark texture builds to a boil of black shiny oil. Bobbles of vibrating viscosity get bigger, merging into each over the swords that render them soft before spilling away. The orbs dance and smash into each other and break apart into sparkling confetti. TL


GoGo Penguin – ‘Hopopono’

Taste: This track is another sweet one with a really comforting, rounded mouth feel. Predominantly, warm slices of apple with small pieces of tart pineapple.  The drums taste of thin biscuit wafers. Around a third of the way in the texture becomes denser. It’s a sophisticated dessert made with simple ingredients that you’d consider paying £35 in an overpriced restaurant. Hopopono has been created with great care and it oozes gustatory harmony. One thing ruins it slightly is some sort of fretboard sound which sporadically deposits a peppery dust over the top of the sweet tastes. JW

Visual: I see percussive bouncing platforms covered with sand, ochre, horizontal and vertical planes. The piano appears as strong solid walls of marble that turn to white sheets then disappear in a mist. A bass line of large leathery tails, glistening with moisture slap in and out of darkness. The building layers bring on mounds that pump up from the ground. Deeper piano of squared stones, like those found in castle walls, jump in and out floating above the stairways. Spinning swirls coast in. It ends in an orange pinprick of light surrounded by dusty fog that slowly fades. TL

See the full Love Supreme Jazz Festival line-up here

Words: Sam Narr

Find out more about synaesthesia here

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