Hansen: For Omaha violinist, every note has a distinct color, shape - Omaha.com
Published Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 4:18 am
living with synesthesia
Hansen: For Omaha violinist, every note has a distinct color, shape

An uptempo jazz tune comes onto the coffee shop's radio, and at my request, Kaitlyn closes her eyes for a moment and concentrates.

To me — to the vast majority of us — this sounds like a skilled trumpet player zooming through brassy notes. It is pleasant public radio background music as we drink our lattes, and nothing more or less.

But to Kaitlyn, this music has a shape. “Spherical, a lot of dots,” she says.

It has a color. “Yellow,” she says. “Really yellow.”

She opens her eyes and nods her head. To Kaitlyn Maria Filippini, this song looks like bright yellow dots.

Filippini is a renowned Omaha violinist who toured with Rod Stewart as a teenager and has a long-standing gig with Mannheim Steamroller. She's 24, and she is likely the only musician in the world to have played with crooner Michael Bublé and indie legend Conor Oberst and also remixed a song at the request of rapper T-Pain.

And that may be only the second-most interesting thing about her.

Filippini has synesthesia, a neurological condition — or maybe a neurological gift — that causes her sense of sight and hearing and her perception of color to smash into each other in a continual three-car pileup.

In her brain, every number she writes is a color, always the same color. Every letter she reads is a color, always the same color. Every sound, every note, has a distinct color and shape that she sees with her eyes, if they are open, or in her mind, if they are closed.

She plays songs, or she listens to them, and she sees great and wondrous oceans of technicolor, yellow dots swirling inside green waves, cresting and crashing above deep blue waters of sound.

“I have always felt like I was painting,” she says.

A growing body of scientific research suggests that if you herd 100 people into a room, three or four will be synesthetes. Maybe one of these people will see numbers and letters as having distinct colors. They will be able to tell you their color of “9” is navy blue. If you ask them a year from now, a “9” will still be navy blue.

Maybe another of these people will actually see numbers and letters with shapes and textures and even personality traits. The letter “P,” for example, might be shiny and sharp like glass while the letter “R” is as comfortable as an old T-shirt.

And then there will be people who see color in every letter and numeral and also see color every time they hear sound: The squeak of a sneaker. The hum of a refrigerator. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

That last person is Kaitlyn.

“I've learned not to mention this at parties,” she says.

Just like many other synesthetes, Kaitlyn grew up thinking that everyone saw sound just as she did.

Sure, her parents noticed she always drew her family with the same colors every time. Her mom, for example, was always a shade of pink coupled with a shade of blue.

Sure, she was a bit of a teenage outcast. She had few friends at Millard North High School — she will show you her junior year school photo, where she is geeked out in glasses and an animal-print vest that did not get her asked to the homecoming dance, and say, “Clearly, I didn't care about what other people thought very much.”

And, yes, she could play the violin like a prodigy, play it so well that she didn't get why others couldn't make it sing like she could.

She played it so well that she climbed onstage with Rod Stewart at 14. She sat before thousands of his screaming, middle-aged fans and she could see the color of her note before she played it. She could also see the color of every note on her sheet music and the color made by the rest of the band and the color made by the screaming fans.

She graduated from high school and played hundreds of gigs and studied music in Boston at the Berklee College of Music and started classes at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, still thinking this was normal.

She thought so until the last session of her last UNO music theory class.

That day, her professor told the class there were some people in the world who could see sound. And not in a metaphorical way. They could actually see sound.

“No way!” the class yelled at him.

“Whaaaat?” Kaitlyn remembers thinking. “Everyone doesn't do that?”

She felt suddenly adrift, and so for the next month, she researched the new-found condition her professor had mentioned, this thing called synesthesia.

She read about how neuroscientists believe that the disorder is genetic and how they may have isolated it to an abnormality on the sixth chromosome.

Having synesthesia seems to have benefited Kaitlyn Filippini as a musician. But there are drawbacks. For instance, she needs complete quiet to study. “Everyone says, 'I'm so jealous.' But you can't turn this off,” she said. Here, she plays at Joslyn Art Museum. KENT SIEVERS/THE WORLD-HERALD

She studied brain imaging tests, which appear to show that when a sound is introduced to an auditory synesthete, it triggers the part of their brain generally associated with color vision.

She got so interested that she became the first woman pursuing UNO's new neuroscience major, and graduated with a bachelor's degree.

She got so interested that she's now in UNO's computer science master's program, and for her thesis project she plans to design a Web application that can accurately test if someone has synesthesia.

She got so interested that two years ago, she flew to Nashville by herself. “Katy, don't talk to any weirdos,” her dad told her.

“Dad, I'm one of the weirdos,” she said.

She flew into Nashville and she stayed at a crummy hotel and she attended her first-ever national synesthesia convention, where those who have the disorder and those studying it converged on Vanderbilt University.

For the first time, she found herself asking people, “So what color is 'A' for you?” And for the first time, she found herself answering when others asked that same question.

“It's not like they are family or anything,” she says of her fellow synesthetes. “It's more like I finally found people cut from the same cloth as me, you know?”

Being cut from this particular cloth seems to benefit Kaitlyn musically.

A friend recently told me he once watched Kaitlyn, violin in hand, climb onstage in the middle of a rapper's performance at an awards show. She played so seamlessly alongside him that the audience assumed she was part of the act. Except Kaitlyn had never played with the rapper before. She hadn't even been invited onstage.

This story made sense, because hours earlier Kaitlyn had told me that improvisation isn't really improvisational for her.

“It's kind of like, I see green and I say, 'OK, I'll play green,' or something that goes with it,” she says by way of explanation.

There are drawbacks. Kaitlyn needs complete quiet to study. She can't help but see the sounds of other conversations, even as we are talking. And she has developed a dull ringing in her ears from so many years of standing beside amps.

She sees that ringing as two yellow and orange marks in her vision. They won't go away.

“Everyone says, 'I'm so jealous.' But you can't turn this off.”

You cannot turn this off, which is why Kaitlyn still remembers the first time she heard the song, “Such Great Heights” by the band Postal Service. (It became the first theme song for “Grey's Anatomy” and served as the soundtrack for a UPS commercial.)

The 2003 song begins with a now-iconic sound: a two-layered melody of electronic beeps, one layer soaring and one driving, that fades into a bass line and a drum machine before disappearing into Postal Service singer Ben Gibbard's first line: “I am thinking it's a sign, that the freckles in our eyes are mirror images and when we kiss they're perfectly aligned.”

Here is how it looks to Kaitlyn: The electric beeps are two teal-green spheres that “sort of pop in midair.”

When the drum machine and bass kick in, Kaitlyn sees a fuzzy purple circle that pulsates in the lower part of her visual field.

And then, with Ben Gibbard's first line, Kaitlyn sees his words in grayish brown. The green and the purple and other, new colors surround the gray-brown voice. They blend together. They spin and they flow.

Kaitlyn Maria Filippini squeezes her eyes shut, and for a moment she is surrounded by the sound and the sight of a swirling, pulsating, musical rainbow.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1064, matthew.hansen@owh.com, twitter.com/redcloud_scribe

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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