I hear something that you can’t see

Musician Elisabeth Sulser has synaesthesia. She sees sounds as colours – C is red, C sharp is pink – and she can taste them too. She attracts quite a lot of attention with her abilities, but sometimes also incomprehension.

Text: Julie Freudiger; Photo: Nicola Tröhler; Video: Sebastian Klinger

It wasn’t until you were 16 that you noticed that you perceive sounds differently from the people around you. Why did it take so long?

I had always been greatly stimulated by my senses: sounds, colours, tastes. As a child I thought this was perfectly normal and I simply protected myself from certain sounds. But when I turned 16 I realised that other people didn’t react the same way as me. Others are able to sort and organise their senses, but I am overwhelmed by all of them at once.

When did it dawn on you that you were different?

It was a perfectly normal evening with a friend in Chur. It was raining heavily and I suddenly realised that the pitter patter of the rain sounded like the key note G and that G was blue. Initially I didn’t understand this perception myself. But as I sang a scale I could see the colours before my eyes: C is red, C sharp is pink, etc. My friend was completely perplexed, as were my parents who put it down to tiredness. But as I began to do some research on the subject I realised that synaesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon that other people have too. It helped enormously.

Please take us on a journey through your mind: What do you see when you hear music?

As soon as the music starts, colours flash before my eyes like on a projection screen. They change constantly. I also see shapes such as circles or small squares when I hear a percussion entry. I can also taste things on my tongue depending on the tone interval. A third tastes a little salty, a major third sweet, a fifth tastes like a glass of water, and a sixth like single cream.

How do you communicate with other musicians?

Sometimes I am not able to master certain passages of a piece. I can feel an inner resistance, which is due to the colours. Often I find it helpful if I am able to have a say in the tones or the interpretation of the piece. I find it easiest when I play a solo or duet, but I also take great pleasure from playing in a group if it’s with the right people.

Do you have this intense reaction with everyday sounds too?

I see colours when I hear the key note, for example when I hear church bells or an alarm clock. The whir of the coffee machine in the morning makes me see a dash of light blue. If I don’t detect a key note, I see a grey figure. Everyday sounds don’t usually taste of anything. But when I hear voices I can taste lots of different materials such as stone, sand, earth, liquid metal, cloth, wine and air.

That must be really intense. Are these simultaneous perceptions a burden sometimes?

No, I don’t know any different. As a musician, suffering from synaesthesia certainly has its advantages: When I have a piece of music in front of me I can orientate myself according to the colours and shapes. I don’t need to practise in order to learn a piece off by heart.

How do you get away from it all?

I enjoy my own company and live in the countryside. I need peace and quiet. And I paint music. If I like the colours of a piece, I listen to it until I know it off by heart, then I paint the most beautiful parts. Afterwards I see the colours much more intensely and everything is clear and neat and tidy. Painting is cathartic for me, like tidying up.