Adam John Williams is not your typical musician-turned electronic instrument inventor. A few years ago he sustained a brain hemorrhage which reorganized his brain. Prior to the injury he already had synesthesia (a neurological phenomenon where one sensory input triggers involuntary experiences in another sensory pathway) but afterwards, his synesthetic manifestations were drastically changed, inspiring him to create artistic experiences that are multisensory, blending the visual realm with the sonic. He has invented instruments and participates in Hackathons—24-hour competitions where individuals build instruments using a multitude of technological elements—he also has a map of the fourteen closest pulsars tattooed on his chest. I recently had a chance to catch up with
What was the nature of the injury you sustained?
I previously had an unknown neurological condition, after spending a great deal of time and money we found out that it was a congenital defect that had been there all along. In the space of about seven years I went from walking normally, to having a cane, to one crutch, then two crutches, eventually to a wheelchair. I then suffered a brain hemorrhage, and through the process of neuroplasticity, the language center of my brain was reprogramed and used for motion. So where I was wheelchair-bound, I suddenly lost the ability to speak conversationally, but regained my ability to walk. I also have synesthesia.
Had you been musically inclined prior to this ordeal?
I played guitar at a young age. The same way I retained some of my abilities to speak, I was able to retain my musical abilities. Things I learned at a much younger age I retained, but things I learned later in life went away.
How does your synesthesia manifest itself?
My particular synesthesia confuses color and sound. For instance I can hear the color of a sound, but it is also as specific as timbre. For instance C-Sharp on a harp and C-Sharp on a piano will be vastly different colors to me. When I had the brain hemorrhage, my synesthesia changed drastically. It was as though the order of the colors changed. Things like other people’s voices changed in my head. My own voice changed in my head. It sounded like someone else was speaking in my head. I was studying at the London College of Music when this happened, and I suddenly lost my comprehension and my ability to play, on top of that everything was being inverted in my mind. It sounds the same to my ears, but it looks completely different in my mind.
That must have posed a few challenges getting back into music.
I had to defer my studies for a year. What I was doing was video, loop triggering, visuals, and live audio synthesis. The idea was to get multi-sensory. Having gone through something that shifted my sensory inputs so much, it changed my whole angle on it. This made me reanalyze everything.
How did it change your performances?
I used to say I was, “much more of a musician,” and I’d make visuals to go along with that, but now I am trying to unify the experience and give people visual, audible, and as much information at once. I was experiencing things in such a new way, I wanted to cross over these things.
Do you think you would have incorporated three-dimensional images and other visuals into your performance had you not had this experience?
I probably wouldn’t have. I was always far more interested in the sonic aspect of the art-form. But having gone through this experience that was such a shock to my system, it made me start thinking differently. It’s not like seeing sounds or hearing colors as much as it is about experiencing things on a much more unified level, as if this is your whole experience. You take it in with every part of your body. While it is a terrible thing that happened, I am very thankful because I saw so many people in the hospital who were so much worse off than I. I was already in the wheelchair when I went into the hospital, and I left the hospital with more abilities than I had before. At one point it made me feel like a robot or a cyborg. It has only given me abilities. At points I feel as though I am watching my own life through someone else’s eyes.
Did it affect how you thought about identity, about self? Did it make you feel as though you are just a bunch of chemicals and electrical surges?
Yeah, I am quite fascinated with neuroscience and psychopharmacology in general. Everything you hear and see is being mediated through these chemical processes in your brain. This interconnectivity in my brain and the synesthesia allows me to take any data, process it in any way, and then turn it into a piece art. So I started to do some work with looking at the brain with music. The thing that fascinates me with this is if you took away the preconception of someone being a hipster or someone set in their ways, sit them down, play some music and put an EKG on their head to see what kind of music actively engages their brain. I’m trying to strip away someone pretending to like a certain music because it’s cool. The test subject was my own father who was in his 60s at the time. We scanned his brain and played him the sound of his own brain working.
Can you tell me about hackathons?
I went to the first hackathon in my wheelchair as a participant. The first year in 2012, I built a bass guitar. It was a fretless bass, with sensors for pressure, movement, and motion control. So people who have no motion control with the exception of their arms can still use an instrument. I won the prize from EMI the first year. The next year Cisco sponsored the prize for the best new musical instrument. I took an iPad, I mounted it into a guitar base midi controller. The quarter notes were already programmed, and you could strum on a touch-screen with a bank of oscillators, allowing a huge range that is not readily accessible to guitarists. Anyone who already played guitar could pick it up and they would know
the chord structures and they could strum the touch-screen and get sounds that previously you never would have gotten without learning programming skills.
-K. Winslow Smith