Synesthesia: a podcast opera

    Synesthesia is a condition in which different senses are linked, often to colors. The letter A might be orange; the month of April might taste like pie. For Patrick Hockberger, a Bienen graduate, it was the perfect name for a podcast opera.

    Hockberger said that in storytelling, audio is often seen as a “handicap.” His goal for the podcast is to make people “feel all senses with only audio.” The stories on the podcast, which began in January and is now in its tenth episode, are all told over opera music Hockberger composed. The series was originally going to be about the Wright brothers, but last October, Hockberger found a very different subject.

    Hockberger read an article in the Washington Post reporting that people were shot by toddlers on a weekly basis in 2015. This was the first time he had heard of it.  After working with a children’s choir for five years, Hockberger thought this kind of tragedy could be better expressed through music, and his podcast opera was born.

    He began contacting police to gather reports to form his stories. He also began to search for musicians. The first season’s finale was recorded by the Chicago Q Ensemble. For future segments, Hockberger is working to recruit musicians from the towns where the accidents happened. An upcoming segment will feature a saxophonist from South Carolina, where three shootings occurred. A Houston series will feature a singer/songwriter from Texas; another season finale will be sung by a children’s choir.

    The serialized format gives Synesthesia a chilling immediacy; each episode is released exactly a year after the moment the gun went off in each incident. Its haunting tagline is “43 guns, 43 toddlers, 43 episodes.” Of the incidents, several remain under investigation. Thirty-one toddlers shot themselves; others victims included parents, grandparents and siblings. Fifteen of these accidents were fatal — 13 toddlers, one parent and one younger sibling.

    Each episode’s title is the model of a gun. Episode titles include Smith & Wesson SD9, Glock Pistol and Kahr CM9 Pistol. Often this information has been redacted from the police report, but Hockberger said it is essential. Knowing the gun means “knowing what you can do to make it safer,” he said. He added that manufacturers are often not held responsible for gun violence. This is particularly frustrating with toddlers, because installing safety features could prevent tragedy.

    During the podcast, Hockberger’s voice breaks as he reads the police report. The Aurora, Illinois native said his work with children has made the episodes more personal for him. Hockberger teaches music and voice lessons to children as young as 5; he has met with his students every week for about 5 years. Though the subject of accidental shootings is not frequently a part of the conversation on gun violence, he strongly believes it should be.  Accidents involving children are tragic, but Hockberger said they are one of the most preventable types of gun violence.

    He also said the NRA should not be part of the discussion.

    “The NRA exists to be a punching bag to draw attention away from manufacturers,” he said. He added that they are paid to be scapegoats for the manufacturers and sellers.

    Already, Hockberger is planning to take the series further. His segment for February and March is a four-part series breaking down Obama’s recent gun control speech. The segment pairs Hockberger’s haunting opera music with a recording of Obama’s speech.

    Hockberger said the inclusion of the speech makes Synesthesia “part of the national conversation.”  It is a powerful reminder that the 43 children are only a small fraction of a larger tragedy.

    Hockberger hopes to “take [Obama’s] message and present it [so that] people will start to listen to it and sit through the whole thing.”

    Hockberger’s next segment will detail his correspondence with the Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and the investigation behind a Houston shooting. Hockberger said he hopes to give listeners a look at how these cases are released to the public, and to encourage authorities to be more transparent about the types of guns used.

    Hockberger said he thinks that the unconventional format of Synesthesia will bring gun control issues to a wider audience. In the future, Hockberger said he hopes to run Synesthesia as a series of diverse topics.  He said he is not sure how many seasons will be released, but only the first one will cover accidental shootings. He will continue to use the serialized format to the fullest; he wants to tackle the problematic system behind the NFL by releasing an episode each Sunday of next year’s football season.

    He said he will eventually cover lighter topics, such as the Wright brothers, though these will be “very different” seasons. He hopes to make Synesthesia an outlet for his voice and a way to connect music, activism and education. After six episodes, Hockberger surpassed 1000 subscribers.

    “I like to think you would follow my podcast the way you follow Kanye West on Twitter,” Hockberger said.

    Hockberger, who plays trombone, guitar, and piano in addition to singing and composing, stresses the importance of delivering a message through his music. He chose Northwestern over a music conservatory, he said, to expose himself to ideas beyond music. He said having a message to deliver inspires him to compose.

    “It doesn’t matter how talented of an artist you are,” he said. “That means nothing if you don’t have something to say.”


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