Interview with a synaesthete: Daniel Liam Glyn

Interview with a synaesthete: Daniel Liam Glyn

'Changing Stations' is an album based on the 11 main lines of the London Underground map. Now being re-released by composer and synaesthete, Daniel Liam Glyn, every track has been transformed into an eclectic mix of Electronica, Ambient House, Nu Disco, and Drum & Bass. 'Changing Stations: Derailed' injects a new lease of life into the original classical piano compositions, with the tracklisting being re-arranged to form a new 'journey' on the London Underground. We wanted to know more about Daniel, his motivations, and his synaesthesia.

Tell us what form of synaesthesia you have?

I have both grapheme-colour and spatial-sequence synaesthesia. 

How did you find out you had it? 

After watching a documentary about grapheme-colour synaesthesia, I was met with the possibility that I had it. I was sixteen or seventeen, and up until that point, I just assumed that the way I would envisage numbers, letters and words was just how everyone did. From a young age I associated ‘September’ with the colour yellow, the number ‘4’ was green and the letter ‘E’ was pink. I’d ask people if they thought the same way in which I did – but they’d often be puzzled. 

I was known for having an expansive long term memory such remembering anniversaries of certain dates, even occasions with no real sentiment attached. Sometimes I would look at the date on the calendar and test myself with how far back I could remember, week by week working backwards until I managed a full year.  It was only until around 3 years ago when I researching into the condition further when I realised that I also had Spatial Sequence Synaesthesia. Along with assigning colours of the months of the year, I also visualise them as a celestial map of space. Each month is depicted as a planet with a designated colour, illustrated in an uneven circle where I move from day to day, gliding through the map. When the circle is complete, it leads onto a new year and the orbit begins again. 

Every time I need to remember something from a past event, my mind takes me to the map in space. All my random life events and memories would be sitting in their rightful positions depending on what time of year they were featured – rather like a peculiar filing cabinet. 


Have you found your synaesthesia has caused you any problems?

A lot of the conversations I had during the Changing Stations campaign focused on how wonderful having synaesthesia is. Yes, it’s completely fascinating how it enables me to perceive the world in a different way to others, and I’m lucky that it inspired me to utilise it within my musical compositions. However, like most things in life, the stuff that is a blessing can also be a curse. There are times where I do see it as a hindrance. 

It’s so hard to describe because synaesthesia isn’t something that is tangible; it makes little sense, sometimes even to the person with the condition. When I think about the Spatial Sequence part of my synaesthesia, I break it down, and see that my brain has involuntarily connected two things together. When that happens the outcome is usually permanent, which is how I then perceive things going forward. This means it can sometimes leave a mark on certain events in my life. 

I can begin to associate several numbers, weeks and months with a bad memory, which can then encourage me to think too much. My mind focuses heavily on time frames, which becomes difficult when my brain connects a present life event with one from the past. Inevitably, it can have an effect on my mood and also hold me back from moving forward from experiences. Due to the past being so clearly mapped out in shapes and colour, my ability to ‘see’ into the future is rather vague. A lot of my synesthetic associations with ‘time’ are mapped out in the past.

What makes you so drawn to the London Underground map?

I have been mesmerised with the London Underground map for as long as I can remember. I think it was the amalgamation of the busy and complex structure of the map along with the assigned colours on each line that captivated me. The structure reminded me of my own brain – immaculately designating the different colours to different sections. The lines all cross over one another, connecting stations at intersections that take you from one place to another. I love the history and the evolution of its design, plus it can also be quite similar to synaesthesia – difficult to understand!


Tell us about the eureka moment when you knew you had to use the map to inspire your music?

In 2009, when I had finished university and was pondering with the idea of moving to London, I sat awake in bed one evening and somehow decided to look at my Underground Map leaflet that I’d picked up on a recent trip to the city a week earlier. I looked at all the different stations and places, imagining how interesting it would be to get to know the Underground system a bit better. 

It wasn’t until I moved to London when I started to properly consider the idea of working on a music project that would lend itself to the characteristics of the tube lines. I wanted something that would represent the different journeys, commuters, and speeds of the trams – something that was unique and special to me, but without alienating the listener by being too complicated.  

During a journey home from work one evening my synaesthesia was triggered, and it was then when I felt the scope for a major project had been widened: connecting together journeys and colour with music. 

I felt that working on a collection of pieces that would eventually form a 'series' would also be a respectful nod to “The Planets” suite by Gustav Holst. My dad had this particular orchestral work on vinyl, and it was one of the first classical pieces of music that I was introduced to. Each movement of the suite is named after a planet of the Solar System along with their corresponding astrological character (as interpreted by Holst).  At this point, I felt that all of these ideas that were coming together for 'Changing Stations' was like the planets aligning. What started as a simple idea eventually grew into 11 pieces for piano – each based on the 11 main lines of the London Underground. My grapheme-colour Synaesthesia dictated the way the tube line was composed, and the key signature it was composed in.

Do you have a favourite tube line? 

Of all the questions, this is the most difficult! They are all quite unique, yet so strangely familiar and uniform.  I loved the rush of the Central Line – the places it would take you and the atmosphere on the carriages. The Victoria Line would also remind me of all the times I would visit friends. With that said, I think I’ll have to go with the Northern Line. This is the first line I would come into contact with when I arrived at Euston station, which would then take me to my flat in Kentish Town. Along with this, black, to me, is a strong colour. It’s bold, it’s deep and it’s substantial. 

This particular piece is written in D major – one of my favourite keys to both play and listen to, and I have many personal connections to the tonality of the music that is written in this key signature. Subject to much popular belief, travelling on the Northern Line for me felt rather simple. It was consistent and reliable. This line to me symbolises ‘home’, which it why it’s entitled ‘Abode’ on the album. 

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Follow Daniel: @DanielLiamGlyn