The seemingly-out-of-nowhere drum break in Phil Collins’ first solo single, “In the Air Tonight,” jolted listeners and catapulted both the artist and the song into the pop culture stratosphere.
But for Sage Reiger, the song’s sound is fragmented steaks of orange, a cascade of purple, swirls of green, and punctuations of black. Music is Reiger’s muse for vibrant abstract art, derived from the strokes and splashes of color he experiences when he listens to it.
Reiger, a videographer and editor at Nebraska Public Media, has synesthesia, a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to automatic experiences in a second sensory pathway. Some with the condition have described tasting shapes or a crawling sensation from smells. Reiger’s synesthesia produces a perception of color from hearing any sound.
Growing up in Fremont, Nebraska, Reiger thought his experiences with sound were normal. He never gave it too much thought. But as a cross country runner at Hastings College, he met another student, Brady Achtemeier, who also has synesthesia, and he started to realize his sensory experiences of sound are very different from most people around him.
“I’ve had this for the longest time, and I didn’t know it was synesthesia,” he said. “I thought it was something everyone else experienced themselves. I learned I had chromesthesia — when I hear sounds or listen to music, it develops colors in my head subconsciously.
“Sound creates a color response in my brain, and it’s always consistent. A saxophone will always be orange, no matter how many times I’ve heard it.”
It can be distracting in day-to-day life, Reiger said, and he learned early on how to maintain focus and concentration, even with the booming sounds of a full sports arena around him, which he encounters often in his work.
“There can be so much noise going on, and my brain is responding to that, even when I try to stay hyper-focused on filming the players during the game,” Reiger said. “That’s probably the biggest disadvantage to my form of synesthesia.”
But the advantage has been developing a creative outlet, turning music and the colors he experiences into art. Using the digital design program Procreate, he’s produced dozens of eye-catching abstract pieces.
“All my art is digital. I’ll listen to a song over and over and identify the many distinct colors within that song,” he said. “I pinpoint them out first, and then I take those colors and create them into forms that represent the song itself, and what I’m feeling as I listen.”
It’s led to commissioned works from some and gifts for others, as well as a collection of favorites framed and hung in his office and home. It also motivated Reiger to produce a book, with the purpose of attempting to explain the experiences of synesthesia to a larger audience.
After confirming he had the condition, Reiger set out to learn more. Synesthesia has been documented for two centuries, and is estimated to affect up to 4% of the population, but research into the condition is just now gaining steam. Reiger began collecting everything he could find, and writing down everything he’d learned.
Working together with Achtemeier, the duo self-published a book, “Feeling Different: Understanding Synesthesia Through Art,” that’s part memoir, part reporting on the latest research, and full of artwork each have produced based on their synesthesia. While Achtemeier chose to leave most explanation for her art out of the book and allow readers to project their own feelings onto it, Reiger included a playlist for his included pieces, and attached QR code to each page that takes readers to a recording of the song via YouTube.
“You can go through all of the all the songs in order if you want to, so it’s a really easy way for people to be able to locate the song and then connect the pieces together,” Reiger said.
The playlist is as varied as the artwork it inspired, from metal to jazz and electronica.
“I listen to a whole variety of different genres — pretty much whatever catches my mind,” Reiger said. “Different genres use similar instruments, so diversifying what I listen to helped me see different kinds of color combinations. I like to branch out.”