Sight, Sound and Beyond

Archive for the ‘Color and Sound’ Category

21st Century Piano Repertoire Workshops

excerpt from Sketches, “Daydream” for solo piano by Yours Truly

As promised, I am going to discuss the highlights of this we weeks workshops that Marvin and I both presented.  Okay, so it was Marvin’s workshops and I was more like his wacky side kick.  I say this because Marvin is a pro at this stuff and is like a walking encyclopedia when it comes to 21st century music.  I, on the other hand, am just getting started in terms of “getting out there” and still have lots to learn.  However, both workshops went extremely well and were a success.

Just to recap, Marvin and I presented two workshops: one was on Monday for his musical styles piano pedagogy class at Westminster Conservatory of Music in Princeton, NJ and the other was for The Bucks County Association of piano Teachers at Jacobs Music in Willow Grove, PA.  Marvin presented some selections of 21st century piano repertoire, which he intends to record on CD in the future.  The pieces he presented were intended to serve as an introduction to the vast amount of music that is available for both piano students as well as professionals.  He did a great job and gave some useful resources where piano teachers could find and learn more about the available repertoire.  Marvin introduced me as a living composers and his piano partner.  I had the opportunity to present a few selections of my original piano works and to discuss the importance of color in my music.  Marvin even opened both workshops with his performance of one of my early works, The Castle at Sunrise.  He uses the opening of this piece as his music theme for Classical Discoveries.  Furthermore, Marvin and I also presented some 20th/21st piano literature for one piano four hands.

We got a lot of positive feedback and had a great turn out on both workshops, especially the one we did in Pennsylvania.  I had the pleasure of finally meeting Joe Barron of Mongomery News in person.  After we finished our workshop for The Bucks County Association of Piano Teachers, Joe, Marvin, Beata (Marvin’s wife), and I all went out for a nice lunch together.  It was a great day and it was my first time ever visiting Philadelphia.  I was pretty excited about that.

I owe a lot to Marvin for helping me share my story with people.  Opportunities like that don’t come around that often in life.  He truly holds great esteem for what I do and I am very lucky to know him both as a music professional and friend.


Blind or Deaf?

Helen Keller (1881-1968)

I have been asked the following question many times: If you were forced to choose, would you rather be completely blind or completely deaf?  This recently came up in a conversation and has been on my mind ever since.  One of my mother’s friends commented that she could never cope with being blind and would prefer to be deaf.  Last night I googled: “Would you rather be blind or deaf?” and was amazed to learn that most people would prefer to be completely deaf rather than being completely blind.

Of course, I would not want to be either.  Since I have both a hearing and visual impairment I know firsthand how the loss of these senses can affect a person.  Of course for me, having both these senses impaired creates a whole new experience.  What do I mean by that?  Well, when a person is blind, they often depend on their hearing.  This helps them gather a sense of what is happening in the world around them.  Likewise, a person who is deaf will often depend on their vision to collect information.  As someone who has both a vision and hearing loss, what do I depend on more: my hearing or my vision?  I don’t depend much on either.  I often depend on touch and memory, especially when it comes to music making.  I guess you could also say I have a sixth sense at times and often go with my intuition.  I pay close attention, too, which is why it has been said that I am a very intense person.  I can really get focused on what I am doing.

If I were completely blind, I would not be able to see the beautiful colors of my two parrots, the beauty of nature and all the other things that people love to look at.  Without hearing, I would not be able to communicate through spoken language.  Although many learn to read lips, this is not the case for everyone.  I would not be able to hear my friends voices on the telephone or the calls of my parrots when they tell me they want to eat.  I would not be able to hear the sounds that are supposed to alert me of danger such as the sound of a fire alarm

While being blind would rob me of seeing many things, being deaf would rob me of staying in close connection with the people I love.  To me, there is something beautiful when it comes to the sound of laughter.  I love to hear laughter and I love when I say something that can send a person laughing out loud.

Of course, there are ways to overcome both blindness and deafness, but knowing what I know now and remembering what I have experienced, I will tell you that I have had more frustration when I could not hear something rather than when I could not see something.  Yes, I was frustrated to learn that I would never be able to drive, and I would feel left out in school when I was the only student in class who could not see what was written on the chalkboard.  However, I would become more frustrated and emotional when I could not hear what was said to me.  Also, when I was in college, I lived in a campus dormitory where there would be frequent fire drills at any hour of the day or night.  Whenever I took a shower, I would have to take my hearing aids out, and I would always worry that I would not be able to hear the alarm go off.  Also when I was a child, our fire alarm went off during the night.  There was not a fire.  The alarm was not working properly or something like that.  Anyway, it went off at 5am and everyone in the house woke up because they had heard it go off except me.  It didn’t wake me up.  What if there had been a real fire?

In my opinion, hearing and vision are both important senses and to choose one over the other is extremely difficult but if I were forced to chose, I would say I would rather be blind than deaf.  The great Helen Keller once said: “I am just as deaf as I am blind. The problems of deafness are deeper and more complex, If not more important, than those of blindness.  Deafness is a much worse misfortune. For it means the loss of the most vital stimulus – the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir, and keeps us in the intellectual company of man.”

Of course, the 21st century is an exciting time for anyone to be living because of the advances in medicine and technology.  There are more treatments to help deafness and blindness today than there were ever before.  I feel very fortunate to live in a time when I was able to receive corneal transplants in both my eyes to help improve my vision.  Yes, my vision is not 20/20, but it is better than before and I am happy with that.  I am also happy to be living in a time that has wonderful technology, which help me to be successful on a daily basis.  For vision, this includes my Closed Circuit Television (CCTV), my magnifiers, and telescopes.  For hearing this includes my digital hearing aids, my FM system and my sonic boom alarm clock which wakes me up through vibrations rather than sound.

I couldn’t be born in a better time period and so I end by saying “viva 21st century!”

Still Alive and Kicking

Vivaldi Summer – The Storm by Donald Rainville

Okay, so I know that it has been forever since I posted.  Let me tell why I took so long.  A small part of the problem was coming up with an idea of what my next post would be about.  I know that sounds really bad but sometimes, it helps when you get a little feedback from your audience.  So I am going to say to you now: “What would you like for me to talk about?”  Ask for my opinion on something.  Keep in mind, it should have some relationship with color or sound or hearing and seeing as this is kind of the focus of my blog.

However, my lack of imagination really is not the big reason why I have not been on here for quite awhile.  I have been totally busy!  Let me tell you the latest events going on in my life.  For starters, I put together a special event for a friend of mine, Marvin, from New Jersey.  He is a pianist, radio host, and educator (yeah, he pretty much does it all).  Anyway, I had been arranging for him to do a performance in New York near where I live (Westchester County) to celebrate Alan Hovhaness’ 100th-year Anniversary of his birth.   Marvin has been promoting the music of Alan Hovhaness for much of his life and was friends with the late composer.  So if there is anything you want to know about Alan Hovhaness, he would be a good source of information.   He is like a walking encyclopedia and also knows lots about contemporary music as that is what he presents on his radio show Classical Discoveries.  Anyway, Marvin’s concert was this past Sunday and let me tell you.  It was GREAT!  He was a real hit and had a great crowd and it was overall a very nice day.  I was very happy with how everything went.

Then, at the end of May, I started recording my first CD.  Yeah, I am serious!  Let me just say that I am very fortunate to be an alumna of Purchase College (I did graduate work there).  After I graduated, the music conservatory purchased a kiosk for students and alumni to use for recording.  It is actually pretty easy to use.  I am having it edited, mixed and mastered by Andrew Cardenas at his studio in Peekskill, NY.  Andy and I completing the editing phase and will be mixing and mastering the CD together this Sunday.  It is pretty exciting!

My CD is basically a collection of all my piano compositions.  I figure, they have not been available on recording to the public so I might as well be the first to do it LOL!  I hope all turns out well.  I am still keeping my fingers crossed.  It is going to be called Spectrum as it will include my piano piece with that title.  I would also like to think that I would have a nice variety of pieces, too.  Besides Spectrum, most of the pieces visual influences as well.  These pieces include: Conflicting Colors, Sketches, and The Castle at Sunrise.  Now that I think of it, they all have some relationship to the union of sight and sound.  Perhaps that will be the topic for my next post.  Hello, I’ve got it LOL!

So yes, in addition to work and my everyday life, these have been my two biggest projects.  And of course, Sunny and Nikki always keep things interesting.  It is breeding season now and though there are no male parrots around, the girls are still exhibiting hormonal behavior.  They can get a bit moody from time to time.  Today they were pretty good but occasionally they can get nippy.  There was also one summer when Nikki laid 5 eggs.  Even in the absence of a male, a  female can lay eggs.   Breeding season starts in May and lasts till the end of August.  The girls  usually get the most hormonal though in June and July though.  Once I pass mid July, things start to calm down.

So what are my plans for summer?  Well, I am doing Summit Music Festival and will be playing some chamber music this summer.  I will be doing some new repertoire for 1 piano 4 hands with Marvin too.  On Sunday, we played 3 duets at the Hovhaness concert: Child in the Garden, Ko-ola-u and Psalm and Fugue for String Orchestra (piano transcription).  I guess I will also be writing some music.  I don’t have any ideas or inspirations yet though so I have to wait for them to hit me.  You really can’t plan that stuff.  It happens when it happens.  I would like to write some poetry too.  Yes, I have been writing poetry since I was 10 years old.  I don’t know if I am particularly good but my great aunt always said that I was good so I guess I will take her word for it.

So here is to the weeks ahead!

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!

What is Synesthesia?

Broadway Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian

I have talked about Synesthesia in many of my posts, but I thought I would take the time to discuss the term in further detail.  Derived from the Greek syn meaning together and aesthesia meaning sensation, synesthesia can simply be defined as senses coming together.  The stimulation in one sense will trigger perception in another.  For example, a person may see colors in response to hearing speach, music and other sounds.  This is one of the most common forms of synesthesia known as Color Hearing Synesthesia or just simply as Color Hearing.

Synesthesia is a completely normal neurological condition.  It is considered to be abnormal because it is statistically rare.  One of the leading authorities on the study of synesthesia is Richard Cytowic.  When I began my research on synesthesia in college, I read many of his articles and even a book of his called The Man Who Tasted Shapes.

Synesthetic experiences usually begin during childhood and consist of what Cytowic refers to as “a parallel arrangement of two gradient series.”  These series may be emotions, tastes, odors, temperature or colors, which are paired with letters, words, numbers, pitches and tonalities.  Imagine what it would be like to taste words.  It may sound bizarre to you, but for someone who has this form of synesthesia, it would be strange for words not to have particular tastes.

Synesthetic perceptions must have certain characteristics in or order to qualify as true synesthetic experiences.  Synesthetic perception is projected rather than experiences in the “mind’s eye”  For example, a person with synesthesia based on tonalities literally perceives the individual tonalities in color in response to hearing them.  These experiences are not imagined and not created at will.  I don’t tell myself to have them, they just happen simultaneously with the sounds.  Synesthetic experiences are also durable.  This means that the cross-sensory perceptions remain the same and never changes over time.  To me, the tonality of A was red, it still is red, and it will continue to be red.  I can’t imagine it being anything else but red.

In addition, synesthetic perceptions are generic meaning they are not elaborate or pictorial.  Let me use Beethoven’s 6th Symphony as an example.  Most people may imagine themselves out in the country when listening to this.  If I tell myself to do so, I can imagine myself walking in a wide open field or something of that sort.  However, whenever I listen to Beethoven’s sixth, the work produces an abstract image to my eyes.  It is a a mixture of different colored blobs and lines that move to the music.   These blobs and lines are based on the instrumental sonorities as well as the underlining harmonies.

Bassoons are yellow ocher and flutes are a shimmering, light blue.  Even individual tones have colors.  The c major scale played one octave would look like this: pink, green blue, lavender, violet, red, yellow, and  pink.  Notes in high registers are shiny and bright while notes in lower registers are more faint and dull.

Besides Color Hearing Synesthesia, I also experience Grapheme Color Synesthesia in which individual letters and numbers are perceived in color.  This is how I learned my alphabet and how to count. The letter A is red and M is pink, for example.  Many of my friends have pink names because many of them have names that begin with the letter M.  As for numbers, if you count from 0 through 9, the numbers would look like this: gray, white, pink, yellow, dark blue, tan, purple, red, light blue, and light green.

Even days of the week and the twelve months of the year have colors.  This is known as Lexeme Color Synesthesia..  I don’t know how or why.  It’s just always been like that.  Tuesdays are red and Fridays are green.  June is a blue month while August is pink.

I could go on and on but perhaps we will save that for another post.  Until then, stay tuned!

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