Sight, Sound and Beyond

Archive for May, 2011

My First Experiment with Synesthesia

Abstract Symphony in Blue and Green by Vicky Brago Mitchell

When I was a sophomore in college, I made my first attempt at painting music.  I don’t know if I was very successful, but the experiment went like this.  In my theory class, we had to write an example of a tonal modulation.  We had to begin in the key of E minor and modulate to one of the other 5 related keys: G major, C major, D, major, A minor or B minor.  I ended my example in D major by using an E minor chord as a common chord.  The example was about two measure and was written in four voices, like you would find in a Bach four-part chorale.

I showed my musical example to my freshman academic adviser, Randy.  He is an art professor, but I had him for the freshman seminar which all incoming freshman were required to take.  I asked Randy if he would help me make my two measure example into a painting.  He agreed and we began our experiment.

Creating my visual masterpiece took a few attempts, but here is what I ended up finally doing.  I took a large piece of water color paper and painted 2 thirds of it blue to represent E minor and painted the remainder of the paper green to represent D major.   These visual representations were based on my own personal perceptions of these two keys.

Now how did I represent the notes in the chorale and their durations?  Randy gave me a book that consisted of color samples.  He told me to cut the colors out that best represented the notes in the example.  Shorter notes were cut closer to the shape of a square while longer note values were cut more in the shape of a rectangle.  It was not an easy task to do as matching up the colors to my own perceptions was very challenging.  Therefore, I had to chose the ones that were as close to the original as possible.

I arranged the “notes” on the panted paper in the same manner as it appeared on the staff.  The example moved from left to write and the voices were arranged in their conventional order: bass, tenor, alto soprano.  Once the notes were glued in their respectful places, the work was finished.  It turned out to be pretty cool and I titled it From E Minor to D Major.

Once I finished the work, I gave it to Joyce, the professor of the theory class in which I had done the initial assignment.  I had given it to her as a Christmas gift.  Joyce became my academic adviser in my Sophomore year.  It was that same year that I became interested in composing music and began studying composition with her as well.  Even after all these years, I still have close ties to both Randy and Joyce.  I don’t know if Joyce still has the painting, but I am glad we still have our friendship.  That’s more important.

The Bringers of Color Music

Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind by Heinrich Füger, (1817).

The one thing I love about keeping this blog is that I can talk about things that I normally find difficult to discuss with most people.  Very few people that I come in contact with find my topics of discussion to be interesting.  Hey, you can’t please them all right?

This past weekend I found myself thinking about color music.  It is exactly what it’s name suggests.  Color music involves a music accompanied by different colors.  One I was about 10 years old, I went to my first laser light show that was held at my school.  The show was one of the many different events that were held during Science Discovery Week.  I absolutely loved Science Discovery Week because it was a time that satisfied my curiosity of how things work.  I am not sure how the Laser Light Show fit into the schedule of events but you know, there is a science to everything.

Anyway, the show consisted of different colored lights projecting on a large  screen while techno music played.  The different lights moved around the screen rapidly, creating all sorts of cool designs.   I was with my mother who wasn’t all that impressed because “it’s just a bunch of lights dancing all around.”  I found it quite fascinating to watch though because it featured two of my favorite things: color and music.

I have always wanted to attend an event that involved the use color organs.  These instruments produce different colors when different keys are depressed.  Imagine sitting in front of a keyboard playing your favorite tune while seeing all these different colored lights flash before your eyes as you play.  That would be totally wild wouldn’t it?  I became interested in color organs when I started studying Scriabin’s 1910 Symphony called Prometheus.  The piece is scored for large orchestra, mixed chorus, piano, organ and color organ, which is better known as the tastiera per luce (keyboard for light).  Scrabin’s vision of this work was that while the music was being performed, different colored lights would “flood” the concert hall, thus creating the ultimate synesthetic experiences.  Prometheus was the Greek Titan who defied Zeus by giving fire to mankind.  Scriabin saw himself as a kind of Prometheus of some sort.  Just like Prometheus was the bringer of fire, Scrabin saw himself as the bringer of this new kind of musical experience.

Although, Scriabin played a major role in the history of color music, it is important to know that color music and color organs existed long before he did.  One of the earliest color organs invented was created by Louis Bertrand Castel.  I love how his last name is so close to mine!  Okay, I know I am getting off topic.  Sorry!  Back to Castel.  A French Jesuit priest and mathematician, he built what is known as the Ocular Harpsichord around 1730.  Since electricity didn’t exist in the 18th century, Castel’s modal operated by the use of levers and pullies.  Candles stood behind different glass colored windows.  The winders were covered by curtains which would briefly lift up when the performer struck a key.  I imagine that it was quite remarkable invention since German composer, Georg Philipp Telemannhad traveled to France to see it and from what I have read, he even wrote some pieces for it.  I wonder what some of my piano scores would sound like on the Ocular Harpsichord.

If Scriabin and many other color music enthusiasts lived in the 21st century they would have felt like they were in paradise.  Look how far technology has come?  I have to admit that I would love to be able to play one of my pieces on a color organ and splash the concert hall with different color lights.  It would be much more grand than anything I could possibly imagine and about a million times better than the laser light show I attended when I was a kid.

Here is a cool youtube video I found that can give you some idea of what color music is like.

What Does Sound Look Like?

Composition VII by Wassily Kandinsky

There is nothing more pleasing to the eyes than the colors of a symphony.  To put it simply, an orchestra contains lines and blobs.  The bowed strings contribute to the linear designs while the winds contribute the roundish blobs.  That is why the winds add body to the overall orchestral sound.  Unlike the linear design of the strings, the blobs created by wind instruments expand in all directions.

The individual colors of the orchestral instruments are marvelous: The strings are brownish-red and brass sounds consist of varying yellow hues.  However, the trombones are gold and carry a regal appearance to my eye.  The percussion contributes various highlights to the scene with their colorful specks and splashes.  However, the woodwinds are the icing on the cake because of their variety of colors.  Bassoons are yellow ocher, while oboes are a warm chestnut brown, clarinets are metallic dark brown and flutes are a shimmering light blue.

In December 2007, I sang in the Purchase College Choir, which performed Mendelssohn’s choral symphony entitled Lobgesang (“Hymn of Praise”).  Having the earth tone colors of the human voices mixed with an orchestra is something you cannot imagine, and to be on stage, standing in the middle of it all is even more amazing because the colors are all around you.  I stood in the alto section with bass and tenor voices to my left, sopranos to my right and the orchestra in front of me.

Voices appear as blobs just as the wind instruments do.  Bass voices are a sandy color, while tenor voices are brown.  Altos are light green, and sopranos are an ocean blue.  Mix that with your colorful orchestra and the colorful harmonies of Mendelssohn’s symphonic cantata and you really have something to talk about.  The fugal sections of that work are especially fun to watch as they run past you in varying colors and hues

Tonalities have color, instrumental sonorities have colors, and individual pitches have colors, especially when heard on piano.  Human voices have colors even when they are just speaking.  This is very interesting because when a person’s emotions changes so does the hue or shade of color of his voice.  Everything I hear appears as a line, speck or blob with some kind of color.  High sounds have brilliant, shimmering colors while low sounds are more faint and dull.  Images flash, splash, or even flicker (like when a telephone rings) before my eyes.

Animals create colors when they vocalize.  I was surprised and shocked when I heard one of my parrots, a Sun Conure, squawk for the first time.  She is a brightly-colored bird with a predominantly yellow plumage.  I nearly jumped out of my chair when her high pitched squeak produced a speck of dark blue.  Nikki’s call is a little less surprising as it is a greenish brown blob.  It is funny is funny when the two of them squawk back and forth because the color splatter all over the place.  However when they speak the colors appear much lighter.  Sunny has a low, scratchy voice, which is huge contrast to her high pitched call, so her speech is yellow in color while Nikki’s is tan.  Unfortunately, the colors of their voices are not nearly as beautiful as the colors of their feathers.  Oh well, you can’t have everything!

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