LJ Rich: Synaesthesia and Music Genres

by Music Tech Fest | MTF Podcast

The first MTF Podcast asks the question “what does ABBA taste like?”.

BBC television presenter, music hacker and synaesthete LJ Rich welcomes us into her world of interconnected senses, where music has flavour. Sitting at the piano in front of a live audience at #MTF Stockholm, she explains the distinctive tastes of different kinds of music - from Debussy to Dubstep.


Dubber Hi, welcome along. I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m the Director of Music Tech Fest, and this is the first MTF podcast. Thanks so much for listening. What we’re going to do here is pretty straightforward, but let’s start with just a bit of background. Music Tech Fest, as you may know, brings together a range of brilliant and fascinating people from all sorts of backgrounds, with all sorts of specialisms.

The whole point of it is to put together artists and scientists, academia, and industry all under one roof and create new possibilities for collaboration, new projects, new products, new research, and new ideas that can then go out and have a life of their own beyond the festival. As a community, we’re interested in a pretty wide range of things from artificial intelligence and blockchain to music as a tool for social change. We work on projects that use cutting-edge 5G technologies, and we make breakthrough discoveries with the European Space Agency data. We’re neuroscientists and cryptographers, dancers and songwriters. You’ll find everything at MTF from a modular synthesiser controlled by gravitational waves to an art project that creates collaborative works by Iranian and Swedish women.

We’ve bounced our voices off the surface of the moon, and we’ve created new musical instrument interfaces for people with disabilities. We have a research symposium, five-day innovation labs, 24-hour hack camp, a Trackathon for music producers, a playground of music tech, and importantly, both a showcase stage and an interviews stage, and that’s where this podcast comes in. So at MTF Stockholm this year, we had over 50 interviews with pioneering artists and industry leaders. We also had back-to-back presentations and showcases by people with amazing things to show and tell.

And so we hit the record button and that’s become the basis for the MTF podcast. I’m going to take you straight into it and introduce from the stage at MTF Stockholm, the first of our MTF podcast guests, LJ Rich.

LJ  So hi, I’m LJ Rich. I’ve got something called synesthesia where your senses are mixed together. It means that music for me is like my assembly language, everything else filters back to sound. So if I eat something, it tastes of music. If I hear something, I kind of add other sounds to it. If I’m walking along a station, for example, and the acoustics are there, in my head, I’m feeling in this sort of orchestral, extra beautiful, this sort of performance around pretty much everything. So bright colours or what people sound like and I hear this sort of musical symphony that follows me everywhere. And it sounds amazing, and in some ways it is. And in other ways, it’s incredibly overwhelming. And for many years, I thought that everybody had this, but they just simply dealt with it better. I thought, “How can they have all of this input and not feel overwhelmed?”

So I felt that I was completely like strange for not being able to deal with this. And it was only really a few years ago that I found out that actually I’ve got this condition, for want of a better word. And that was part of the way to accepting it and then being able to utilise it in composing. So originally it was going to be Emil making a cocktail. I was going to drink bits of it and play you what it tasted like. And as Emil can’t be here today, I thought I do this the other way round. And I would play you some music that you all know and tell you how it will taste and, hopefully, give you an experience of synesthesia as well.

So I’m going to give you a rough idea and I’ve made a few notes because I just want to make sure I cover a few things and then I will open up to questions and, probably requests, if you have any musical requests. If they’re really obscure, just make sure you’ve got it on MP3 so I can hear it once and then I can play it. Okay. But like a lot of other songs, I’m just going to be able to know because it sort of goes in and out. So here’s an example. I will hear something like, oh, what should I do? I don’t have a pedal. So I’m slightly, what’s the word?

So that’s Debussy. Yeah. Oh, why is that? That’s like an extra octave there. Weird. Should I just turn it off and on again? That’s the best way. There you go. That’s better. That’s a bit better, isn’t it? Okay. Okay.

So classical music like this. What colour do you think it is? It’s a kind of blue-green colour like a turquoise colour. Now, a lot of people might have that in their consciousness somewhere. And I truly believe the more that I’ve spoken about this, that we’ve all got this innate synesthesia somewhere. It’s just a question of reaching out for it. So then you get a bit weirder, coffee sounds like this. Oh yeah. The weird thing about coffee is it sounds like this. Quite calm.  It doesn’t make you calm though.

So should I just move this a bit closer? There we go. This is what happens when you don’t sound-check. Lucky I’m relaxed in all this. Okay. So let me just think of a few other little examples. Gospel music, that has a particular taste to it. There are certain cords.

That’s like a vanilla, a dark vanilla kind of honey kind of cake and, oh, it’s just so sweet. Why does gospel music taste sweet? And the weird thing is is that when you take that into pop music, pop music has this strange saccharin quality that borrows from gospel, but obviously, it borrows from other things. So you kind of have this.

It sounds quite kind of, you know, like you’re eating sugar. It’s sometimes… it’s pleasant a little bit, but it’s also like, “I am actually quite bored of this sugar now. I quite like the idea of having something savory or something different.” So given that idea, do we have any musical genres or any musical people or artists that you dubstep.

Now the weird thing about dubstep, I mean, it’s kind of difficult to do on a piano. I mean, I probably need a… let’s see. I mean, the thing about dubstep is I adore it. There is something really satisfying about it. And dubstep tastes like if you get a thick slice of white toast with too much butter on it, and then you slather it in seedless, raspberry jam, and then you eat that and then eat a chocolate bar afterwards. So it’s kind of this rich-tasting impossible thing.

And the thing is, in inside my head, this synesthesia has the archetypal perfect flawless version of the world. And I had to step down almost to real life. So some of the things that I’ve described like plainsong, for example, you know this kind of…

That sounds like you know the salad leaves, the rocket salad leaves, if you were to freeze-dry them and then encase them in crushed ice and then bite them, that’s how plainsong sounds. It’s kind of pure, but it’s also muddy in a really strange way. So yeah. Any more genres or artists?

Participant Breakcore.

LJ Breakcore. So how many of you listened to breakcore? It’s kind of like the Ritalin of music. It’s like 180 to 220 BPM. And I listened to quite a lot of it and I still do actually. That is a really odd one because it’s made out of cut-up pieces of lots of other pieces of music. Those of you who haven’t of breakcore, if you imagine throwing two drummers off a cliff with their drum kits and a string section of an orchestra and a few opera singers, and then firing machine guns in the air as they’re falling off the cliff, that’s probably an accurate rendition.

And so breakcore to me is a bit like if you were to eat a Sunday lunch and finish it with Japanese teriyaki. So yeah, kind of pleasant, but not for everybody. Okay. Any other avenues?

Participant 70s jazz funk.

LJ What kind of like… I should get rid of that reverb. There we go. That kind of thing. Okay. So that kind of feels really odd because you’d imagine that it would be quite carbohydraty, but it’s not. It’s like this weird…it’s like the middle of a fried egg when it’s just right. And you’re like, oh yeah, I like this egg. Yeah. And this is the thing, it’s so sort deeply laden in. So the other side is that I can hear a piece of music and the reason I can just play it once I hear it, is that it split into colours like a massive IMAX screen in front of me. And all of the orchestration and all of the instruments just go…and then I can scroll forward and backward in time. I can move it. And I can zoom in a bit like Minority Report. I can zoom in and out and I can query the data almost because it comes into my head and it turns into colours and sound and textures, which I can then sort of play.

And yeah, I didn’t realise that wasn’t normal. It turns out not to be. Okay. Any more musical genres?

Participant Bossa nova.

LJ Bossa nova. Okay. So that’s a bit fast, isn’t it? It’s kind of like that…

I mean, that’s kind of weird because Bossa nova reminds me, for some reason, of those very strange cakes that you get, that are home-cooked in a shop, but they don’t quite taste as nice as they look. Because, for me, there’s something missing from Bossa nova. It just feels like it’s all full and there’s no space for you to think around it because if you listen to other rhythms and Samba or polyrhythms and things, there’s aeration and Bossa nova is like a stodgy cake. Sorry.

Okay. Any more?

Participant Reggae.

LJ Reggae. So like…I mean reggae is a weird one because minor-key reggae and major-key reggae actually taste, feel different. Okay. So your minor-key reggae…I’m cheating a bit because I need a drummer at some point, but minor reggae is a bit like… this is great for me, by the way, because I never get to do this normally. I normally say this in my head, and if I say it out loud, I get looks like pity mixed with some words sort of strangeness. Whereas here everyone’s like, oh, what about this one? Tell me more. So this is lovely. Thank you. Okay. So reggae tastes like a kind of savory wafer that’s in one of those, you know when you have a terrine and it’s got like a little crispy bit in the middle of like a fish terrine or something, it’s not unpleasant. I quite like it. And major reggae kind of tastes like if you were to get mashed potato, cover it in breadcrumbs and then fry it in butter. So it’s kind of like really quite, quite dense.

Participant Welcome to Sweden.

LJ Oh, thanks very much. I love Sweden. And, you know, I really miss my pedal. The other thing is, is that you can extrapolate this to chords and chord progressions and things. So one of the things that I learned when I was doing my music degree was the idea of the evolution of sound. So you start with octaves being nice to listen to and then as you go further on through the centuries, more things become harmonic. And there’s a point now where even sort of distortion sounds okay to our ears because we’re standing on the shoulders of so many other sounds, right? What I think is fascinating is that the food appears to have taken that parallel journey where we’re getting into situations where things are more and more delineated when you go to eat. And there’s all these like deconstructed things.

So I’m expecting this strange musical leap back to natural instruments after this age of autotune that we are currently having to suffer through in the same way that we’re experiencing this sort of move towards vegan, raw, sort of unfettered cuisine. So I’ve always felt that there is this incredible parallel between, you know, life, music, politics, and food and having synesthesia means I naturally conflate all of these things together. Timing-wise, I’m aware that we are running late. So I’m going to just ask for one more request before vacating. Any…?

Participant  ABBA?

LJ  What does ABBA sound like? Oh, well, like kind of…

I mean everyone wants to sing along, don’t they? I don’t want to…it’s too low that one. So Abba is fab because it’s harmonically complex and melodically simple. So everyone can sing along to it, but it’s quite hard because if you…you’ve got these kinds of…

I mean, when you even listen to that, it’s…I can’t believe I’m playing Abba in Sweden. I never thought that would happen. So if you listen to it, you’ve got this kind of augmented… and then these sevenths… and then it kind of does these jumps. And you’re like, “Where does that even come from?” It’s got these suspended things and then, wow, all these cadences. And, you know, when you start breaking it down and analyzing it, it’s incredibly insanely complex, but here we are happily singing along to it. And it’s because it’s kind of…

Now, the reason I’m going off on one about Abba is that they do this harmonic jump that makes things so catchy because you got…

And it’s like Lalalala, Lalalala, wherever I decided to… this is why the music is easier than the singing. So that’s why it’s so catchy. And for Abba, the weird thing is, is it feels like a meal. And it normally when you listen to ABBA, you have this… it’s kind of like you know when you’ve eaten and you’re quite full, but there’s a cheeseboard on the menu and you think, do you know what? I’ll have the cheeseboard. And then after you eat the cheeseboard, there’s just enough room for dessert. And it’s at that point when you take the first bite of your dessert, that’s what ABBA sounds like.

So very satisfying. I’m going to just close by thanking you all for your attention. And I really enjoyed this actually. For me, it’s a real pleasure to talk about my synesthesia. It does give me superpowers, but it also gives me some amusing fatal flaws like I can’t recognise people very well. And I can remember many, many things, but if I walk through a doorway, sometimes I’ll miss, but I’m able to have this little encyclopedic… encyclopediac? Encyclopedic knowledge of music, which I can use to entertain people. So I hope I did that tonight. And thank you very much.

Dubber Hey, thanks so much for listening to the MTF podcast. If you liked it, please subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts, tell your friends, share on Facebook, Twitter, screenshot your phone and post it to Instagram. Let people know. Much appreciated and talk to you soon.