Portrait

Romy Ash meets master of sound Michael Winslow By Romy Ash.

Hearing colour

Credit: Jay Hynes

Bingbong. It’s the sound of a call button. Bingbong.

“Shall we call the captain?” He says like a perfectly uptight English woman.

“I don’t know. He’ll get mad,” he says in a different English accent.

Sitting across the table from me, he plays these two flight attendants, alternating from accent to accent.

“There’s nothing wrong.”

“We– we’re going to get sacked.”

“Maybe the light’s out? Maybe one of the light’s burnt out in one of the panel buttons?”

“Shall we pull the panel down, get the flight engineer to come out?”

“No, no, don’t do that.”

In his real voice, his warm American voice, Michael Winslow, who is most famous for his role as Larvell Jones in the Police Academy films, says, “They couldn’t find anything for 20 minutes. They thought there was something wrong with the panel. They checked every seat. They checked every light. They kept looking around the corner, looking at the panel.”

Unseen by them was Winslow, imitating the sound of an aeroplane call button. “It’s illegal now,” he says.

Even amid the high jinks of Police Academy, Jones was called on for comic relief, and it’s a character close to Winslow’s own. He’s always been his personal comic relief. “I mean, I really was pushing my luck. It’s wrong. I’ve learnt my lesson. I don’t cause disruption in public anymore. Not anymore. I learnt my lesson. I’ve stopped.”

This is a refrain he repeats: I’ve learnt my lesson. He says it so often I get the distinct impression that he has not learnt his lesson.

“I started a dog fight,” he says. “It was at a traffic light.” He explains there were two pick-ups and a dog in the back of each. “And I was in a car and I went bark bark bark.” These barks don’t sound like a human making a barking noise, they sound exactly like a dog.

“The first dog jumped in the bed of the other truck. And the owners were like, ‘You get your damn dog–’ Bam bam bam, screech.” He makes the sounds of a car accident: the engines, the brakes, the metal hitting metal. There are the sounds of the two men fighting, of fists hitting skin, and interspersed within all that are the sounds of the dogs, the barking, growling. The noises are so vivid. I can see the saliva stretching between the snarling dogs’ mouths.

“I made one dog think the other dog said it. I don’t know what I said, but it was pretty bad. A chain reaction. I’ll never do that again. I’ve learnt my lesson.”

He lifts his shoulders up, and gives me a gritted teeth smile.

“Be careful with these tools, with these gifts that you’re given. I learnt my lesson – I’ll be good now.”

For a moment he’s serious. Leaving his silliness, he leans in, and I lean in, too, because it’s noisy in here and he’s speaking quietly. “I learn a lot by listening. I mean I’m talking a lot, but I’m also listening. This place, it’s an orchestra to me.”

I look around the café. It’s one of those places where everything is shiny, even the waiters’ faces are shiny, and there are mirrors that reflect the tables and chairs ad infinitum. It sounds shiny too, there’s a constant clashing and clanging from the kitchen. Every noise amplifies and bounces off the surfaces.

“Sometimes it’s almost overwhelming. Just the sound of the ocean, just the sound of water alone is enough. Sometimes too much is too much, and sometimes almost nothing is more than enough. If it’s a very noisy place I learn how to tune it out. It’s a synaesthesia thing for me because I can hear colours.”

Synaesthesia is a neurological phenomenon where stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to the involuntary stimulation of another: hearing colours, smelling numbers, tasting sounds.

He points to a bunch of lights hanging from the ceiling: “See those bright lights, those huge lights, they are just – there’s a sound with that light, and I hear it – but I just tune it out. I learn how to tune it out. Red has a different sound to black – much cooler.”

I try to imagine what it would be like to hear not only the cacophonous sounds that emerge from the kitchen and bounce around the café, but also the layering of sounds that, to him, colours make.

“It’s hard – I’m still – it’s still a work in progress. I have to think of something else to try and block it out. Sometimes silence can be deafening. Even silence has a sound.”

A sound that feels like the world is sucking back into itself, turning inside out. Winslow makes this sound, sucking his cheeks in, sucking in the world. It crackles a little, and then there’s just the sound of a heartbeat. It’s a thick and heavy sound. It’s familiar, but disorienting to hear. The sound of silence is as loud and overwhelming as a cacophony.

“It’s a little strange,” he says. “It’s a little disquieting for some folks.” Winslow looks tired. He’s just a jet-lagged man wearing a bowler hat. But in the next moment all seriousness and weariness  are gone. He deals with the constant onslaught of aural stimulation with the sensibilities of a teenage boy.

Winslow squeaks in a high, old lady voice, “The bill, please.” The waiter flings his head around, and Winslow waves him over. To me he says, “See, in a noisy place like this, they don’t hear you if you talk in a regular voice.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 19, 2014 as "Hearing colour". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.

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