Audition Colorée (Synesthesia)

One of my favorite conductors in the country is Dr. Jim Rodde at Iowa State University, and whenever we work together we often find ourselves having an interesting conductor-composer conversation.  Let’s say I had written a piece in G.  I would show up to the rehearsal and something would just feel different.  It of course would sound amazing (they always there), but there was just some thing that tickled at me…  Ok, ok, I’ll let the cat out of the bag, I do not suffer the pains of having perfect pitch.  They had just sang the piece in Gflat.  And that is just it.  I don’t think I am innately gifted enough to hear the minutia of wavelength change when the foundation of the piece is a half tone different.  But!  I know I could feel it, whether by singing and embodying the sound myself, or just sort of feeling it in the air.  So…I don’t think this is synesthesia per se, or close to the composers below, but it is fun to think about in regards to your own brain and how it works everyday – for some current studies have shown that around 1 in 23 people have some version of Synesthesia.  (By the way, the reason Dr. Rodde would do the piece in Gflat is because he believes quite strongly that it is inherently easier to keep in tune.  It is fun to think about.)

Synesthesia originates from the Greek syn (together) and aisthesis (perceive), and refers to the phenomenon in which stimulation of one sense modality gives rise to a sensation in another sense modality.  For instance, if a musical note or sound “looks” like a particular color one day, then it will always appear as that color to that person.  The study of this phenomenon has contributed to the debate on sense organization in our brains.  The common view (modularity thesis) holds that humans possess five distinct senses, independently functioning, whereas the unitary thesis contends that humans possess one integrated sense organ with five ‘sub-organs.’  In a similar way, it has also contributed to discussions on Wagner’s idea of Gesmtkunstwurk (Total Work of Art), which assumed a single Gestalt experience that both auditory and visual senses were attuned to.

Interest in synesthesia was around since classical Greece, where some argued that color, like pitch, could be considered a quality of music.  Pythagoras suggested that colors and sounds could be related, following mathmatical rules.  Much later in the 16th century, experiments on the phenomenon picked up.   Arcimboldo (well known for his vegetables and fruit portraits) translated a grey scale value system to color hues and persuaded a musician in the court of Rudolph II of Prague to install painted paper stips on his gravicembalo.  Issac Newton attempted to establish a system of color harmony related to a system of sound harmony (or an integration of the two systems) by assuming that musical and color harmonies are related by means of frequencies of light and sound waves.  As technology improved, so did the possibilities of experimentation.  A harpsichord called a clavecin oculaire was developed in 1720. A gas-lamp organ called a Pyrophone, which consisted of 13 foil-covered gas jets that lit crystal tubes was created in 1870.  The first “color organ” was invented in 1893.

Psychological experiments also were particularly prevalent in the 19th century.  George Sachs published the first study of audition colorée (color hearing) in 1812.  Both he and his sister reported perceiving colors when hearing numbers, days of the week, letters and musical tones.  Others followed, but perhaps most interesting was Lawrence Marks’ meta-analysis of 35 studies of 400 people in 1978.  He published findings that did not recognize a system of rules governing the connection between color-letter or color-number.  But!  The dimension of “brightness” can be evaluated [bright letters: ‘i’ and ‘e’ — dark letters: ‘o’ and ‘u’]

Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915)

Scriabin is probably the composer most people associate with synesthesia.  Alternatively, I associate him with having the best mustache in music history.  Anyway, this guy was crazy, and fascinating.  He believed in a doctrine of religious philosophy and mysticism based on a version of human enlightenment called Theosophy.  His attitude towards this theosophy affected all workings of his system of color-hearing and light-hearing.  He based his synesthetic compositions around color-key correspondences rather than color-note.  “…color underlines the tonality; it makes it more evident.”  He distinguished “spiritual” tonalities from “earthly” and “material” tonalities and ended up ascribing certain characteristics to colors.  (i.e. red = “color of Abaddon,” blue and violet = “colors of reason”)  He did not believe these were personal associations though.  “It cannot be personal, there must be a principle, must be oneness.  A freak of chance – is a ripple on the surface, and the essential must be common.”

Scriabin’s system is perhaps more complex than at first thinking.  He was, by the time of composing Prométhée practically outside the framework of Western Music’s major-minor tonal system.  This system, at the core, is based on the “complexity” of tonalities and colors.  Color “complexity” could be related to its place on the color spectrum (colors at the red end are ‘simpler’ than colors on the blue end).

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

Messiaen regarded the terms “synesthesia” and “synesthete” with suspicion, yet he may have been the closest to a true synesthete of any recent composer.  His “seeing” of colors awakened the “inner vision,” conditioned by his mind and were clearer than those of Scriabin.  Claude Samuel said this: “Messiaen does not use the modes melodically, but as colors.  They are not harmonies in the classical sense of the word, nor are they even recognized chords.  They are colors, and their power springs ‘primarily from the impossibility of transpositions and also the color linked with this impossibility.  The two phenomena are simultaneous.'”

He wrote Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie (Treatise of Rhythm, Color and Birdsong), in which he detailed descriptions of some colors of various chords.  These descriptions range from the simple (gold and brown) to the highly detailed (blue-violet rocks, speckled with little grey cubes, cobalt blue, deep Prussian blue, highlighted by a bit of violet-purple, stars of mauve).  He said, “I believe in natural resonance, as I believe in all natural phenomena. Natural resonance is in exact agreement with the phenomena of complimentary colours. I have a red carpet that I often look at. Where this carpet meets the lighter coloured parquet next to it, I intermittently see marvelous greens that a painter couldn’t mix – natural colours created in the eye”

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Rimsky-Korsakov’s system had a spontaneous and natural character, and perhaps is more preferred to Scriabin’s because it is not as speculative or systematic.  Here is his:
Cmajor: white.
Gmajor: brownish-gold, light.
Dmajor: daylight, yellowish, royal.
Amajor: clear, pink.
Emajor: blue, sapphire, bright.
Bmajor: gloomy, dark blue with steel shine.
F#major: greyish-green.
Dbmajor: darkish, warm.
Abmajor: greyish-violet.
Ebmajor: dark, gloomy, grey-bluish.
Bbmajor: darkish.
Fmajor: green, clear (color of greenery).

There are other proposed synesthete composers:
– Jan Sibelius (1865-1957)
– César Franck (1822-1890)
– Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
– Pyotr Tchaikowsky (1840-1893)
– Franz Listz (1811-1886)
– Michael Torke (b. 1961)

Beyond question, there have been composers with this amazing and interesting genetic anomaly, and I feel quite confident that I am not a full on synesthete, although I have had distinct moments of “feeling” certain colors.  Christmas always feels Fmajor to me.  G always feels like plants (trees, grass, etc.)  Dflat is a warm, rich cloth.  These are examples.  That being said, I don’t use them prescriptively, although they are merely present in an organic way when I am composing.

I wonder if there is any way that this beautiful phenomenon could be used for the benefit of everyone.  Perhaps audition colorée is not the key, but “light-sound hearing” may be, which Scriabin actually thought was more important.  This may allow musicians to attain “effulgence” or “luminosity” in the music without real light.  Conductors already use light or dark metaphors and similes.  What are we talking about here? We are talking Timbre!  Timbre in German (klangfarbe) means: “color of sound!”  So perhaps there is a more easily recognizable mixing here: light and sound.  Another interesting possibility is mixing the sense of gravity and music.  Are there lightness/ heaviness/weightlessness properties in music?  Certainly.   ….interesting prospects.

Some further reading:

Berman, Greta. “Synesthesia and the Arts.” Leonardo, Vol. 32, No. 1 (1999), pp. 15-22.

Bernard, J. “Messiaen’s Synaesthesia, The Correspondence Between Colour and Sound     Structure in his Music.” Music Perception, Vol. I, No. 4 (1986), pp. 41-68.

Campen, Cretien van. “Artistic and Psychological Experiments with Synesthesia.” Leonardo,     Vol. 32, No. 1 (1999), pp. 9-14.

Galeyev, B.M.  “Evolution of Gravitational Synesthesia in Music:  To Color and Light!”      Leonardo, Vol. 36, No. 2 (2003), pp. 129-134.

Galeyev, B.M. “Farewell Prometheus Readings:  Light-Music in the Former Soviet Union.” Leonardo, Vol. 27, No. 4 (1994), pp. 351-352.

Galeyev, B.M., & Vanechkina, I.L.  “Was Scriabin a Synesthete?” Leonardo, Vol. 34, No. 4     (2001), pp. 357-361.

Harrison, J., & Baron-Cohen, S. “Synaesthesia: An Account of Coloured Hearing.”     Leonardo, Vol. 27, No. 4 (1994), pp. 343-346.

Messiaen, O. Musique et couleur.  Paris: P. Belfond (1967), pp. 41-45.

Poast, Michael. “Color Music: Visual Color Notation for Musical Expression.” Leonardo, Vol.     33, No. 3 (2000), pp. 215-221.

Samuel, C. Entretiens avec Olivier messiaen.  Paris P. Belfond (1967), pp. 32-56.


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