Sight, Sound and Beyond

Archive for the ‘Color Hearing’ 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.

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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.

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!

Me, Myself and Synesthesia

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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