Dev Hynes on Synesthesia

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For those who’ve tracked the career path of Devonte Hynes, you’ll see that now is really his time. His second album as Blood Orange ’Cupid Deluxe’ received the acclaim its predecessor deserved. He’s got the girl of most human dreams (Samantha Urbani of Friends), and he’s looking cohesive as fuck in his overalls/all-white/leather-cap ensemble. He’s also a super human who sees colours under auditory stimuli.

For the thickos out there, synesthesia is basically a neurological condition whereby your sensory pathways get all lost and linked to another sense or cognitive pathway. So if you hear a C major chord for example, you actually see streams (according to Hynes) of yellow.

I think it’s fair to say that his writing and production credits on THAT Solange track and Sky Ferreira’s only good song have really thrown the spotlight on Hynes. One collaboration I wasn’t aware of was his film score to Gia Coppola’s “dark teen drama”, Palo Alto. In November, I attended a lecture from Hynes at New York University about involvement of synesthesia in composing the film’s score.

Despite being a synesthete from birth (sorry, you can’t learn this shit), it has taken a while for Hynes to give it a place in his music. Harking back to the Lightspeed Champion days, Hynes detailed the song writing process as far more mathematical: checking off lists and working with more conventional structures. It wasn’t until his early work as a producer that he allowed a little more colour in. I’ve read mixed reviews of Palo Alto, but what I heard of the score from the lecture was pure optical and auditory bliss.

The snippets I heard were made up of sharp tinkering blips, backed by shifting piano chords and those smooth synths, straight out of Losing You. It didn’t immediately sound like a Dev Hynes production, granted it’s a film score, but it was far more in the vain of Philip Glass than R&B pop producer. However, there was one specific scene and accompanying track Hynes talked about, whereby a girl recounts what I understood to be an assault one night at a party.

He talked a lot about the sentiment, the emotion, about “plucking out each note and colour on acoustic guitar” and using Samantha Urbani’s vocals as the main melody. But rather than sounding compelling and genuinely touching, it did come across as a little more mundane and cheesy.

Hynes’s intrinsic link between sound and colour really became apparent in the way in which he detailed his songwriting process. There was lots of talk of canvases, palettes, textures, shades and splatters of paint. For him, the starting point is always building a “palette” of colours and sounds to be used for the backbone to his music. Through adding different shades of notes, rather than tones, and “flirting with dabs of colour”, eventually “a chord sequence and melodic lead comes to mind”.

From performing the whole lecture behind a projector screen, Dev finally emerged, expecting and hoping that there wouldn’t be a Q&A. There was. A question I asked was of the nature of the visual elements (such as album art and music videos) that accompany his work as Blood Orange, and whether he feels they have to adhere to his synesthesia. After a rather convoluted reply, I gathered that no, sometimes it’s nice to break away from the synesthetic confines and create a new visual palette. Though he did say the video to Champagne Coast is pretty spot on in its synesthetic representation.

Irrespective of Dev’s psycho synesthetic abilities, the music he makes isn’t necessarily colourful or indicative of innovation. Rather he makes the type of music that is built on palette of sounds we always knew existed, we just hadn’t mixed together.

marcus thaine


Words by Marcus Thaine. You can also read this article in Hand Games Zine 2.