Sight, Sound and Beyond

Fugue in Red by Paul Klee

While I was a graduate student at Purchase College, I had a meeting with a professor of mine on my final composition project for one of my classes.  For this particular class I was to write a piece for string quartet exhibiting one of the techniques we studied.  My piece was inspired by a painting by Paul Klee entitled “Fugue in Red” which later became part of a set of pieces call Images By Paul Klee.  To put is simply, “Fugue in Red” is a fugue but in a more modern sense.  With regard to the painting, my professor asked me:  “Why do you think this piece is called Fugue in Red?”

“Well,” I began “You can see how the images appear in layers and they look like one another.  This suggests imitative counterpoint, which you find in a standard fugue.  As for the color red, that, to my eye, refers to the tonality.  My fugue is not tonal in the conventional sense, but if you notice, I use the pitch A as a tonal center here at the beginning.”  I pointed to the repeated A’s in the head motive of my fugal subject.  I continued.  “I chose A because A is red.”

“Really?” she asked.

I nodded “Yes.”

“Says who?”

Uh oh, I shouldn’t have said that.  I forgot for a moment that my perceptions of music were clearly my own and no one else’s.  My professor obviously didn’t see what I see with regard to tonality or sound in general.  Perhaps she didn’t see tonalities at all.  Though she seemed fascinated by my perceptions I felt a little embarrassed after that particular conversation.  To many “normal” musicians the whole idea of seeing sounds sounded a little crazy.  I moved away from that topic and discussed with her my plans regarding completing the work.  I hadn’t finished it yet.

As far back as I can remember all sounds have images and colors.  I wish that people could experience the things I see when I hear music, a bird chirping, or even a person speaking.  I was surprised to learn that not many people experience this kind of phenomena called Synesthesia.  As a someone who plays piano, the keyboard has always been my pallet of paints and my fingers are what make the paints come together to create a visual masterpiece.  I conduct all the colors of the keyboard in the manner I feel makes the work most understandable to the audience.  Music looks like an abstract painting: blobs and splashes of colors move across the keyboard as I play.  The colors of music operate on two different levels: instrumental sonority and harmony.  That is how it works.  Generally speaking, the sound of a piano is silver, but the harmonies and pitch sonorities are what make the music come to life in color.  Piano sounds appear as metallic blobs to me and disappear as their sounds decay.

To understand what music truly looks like to me, look at the abstract artwork of Wassily Kandinsky.  There is nothing more sensational then playing piano and watching the music come to life before my eyes.  I had always wished to someday play a piano concerto with an orchestra.  Wouldn’t that be grand to mix the metallic timbres of the piano with the spectral hues of an orchestra?  I certainly think so!


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