Thursday, February 3, 2011

Symphony in Magenta

Turn on your stereo/mp3 player/radio/computer.
Close your eyes.
Turn on Philip Glass’s “Metamorphosis 1.”
What do you see?
Mixed Media-Representational-Synesthesia
Painting by Steve Kilbey
I suppose some responses would be “Kafka,” or “water,” maybe even intangible things like “changes” and “existentialism.” But for people with synesthesia, waves of purple might invade their sight if told to listen to Glass’s compositions, or anything else, for that matter.
"A painting of Tchaikovsky"
 
“Synesthesia,” or the more European spelling “synaesthesia,” from the ancient Greek words syn, meaning “together,” and aisthēsis, meaning “sensation,” is a neurological condition where sensory pathways are connected to each other. For example, someone with synesthesia, or a synesthete, might uncontrollably see letters as colors, or certain linguistic sounds might leave tastes in their mouth. A synesthete might even assign specific personalities to months or days of the year. Synesthesia is entirely involuntary, often hereditary, and can occupy one’s life. No two synesthetes see the same. 
I began becoming interested in synesthesia after reading Oliver Sacks’s book Musicophilia. Sacks, a neurologist, psychiatrist, and music lover, writes of cases he was involved in with anomalies who respond neurologically to music—Alzheimer’s and music, amnesia and music, musical therapy—the book is loaded with stories like these, including stories of synesthesia. Another of Sacks’s books even inspired Michael Nyman’s opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
Synesthesia-inspired artwork by Stanton Macdonald Wright

Synesthesia is a common inspiration for artwork, but it has also had its say in music over the years. Olivier Messiaen was a synesthete, and his condition deeply influenced his music. Messiaen even described one of his chords in color: “Blue-violet rocks, speckled with little grey cubes, cobalt blue, deep Prussian blue, highlighted by a bit of violet-purple, gold, red, ruby, and stars of mauve, black and white. Blue-violet is dominant.” Messiaen’s music is influenced by middle-eastern color too, which can be seen in his “Quartet for the End of Time.” Synesthesia most likely would have been an advantage in composing, being able to create lush sounds with golds or greens, but also a disadvantage to being a member of the music community. If Messiaen were to listen to the music of his peers, like Boulez or Stravinsky, he might cringe in discomfort if the notes didn’t line up with his acceptable colors.
A strong member of the pantheon of 20th century jazz musicians, Duke Ellington, was also a synesthete. “I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it’s one color. I hear the same note played by someone else and it’s a different color. When I hear sustained musical tones, I see just about the same colors that you do, but I see them in textures. If Harry Carney is playing, D is dark blue burlap. If Johnny Hodges is playing, G becomes light blue satin,” Ellington said once. Jazz, with all its textures and layers, is the perfect canvas to cover.

Leonard Bernstein had synesthesia as well. “Like when we sang the "oo"-sound like an organ, I immediately saw the color blue, and when we did the humming it seemed darker and warmer, like a sort of red. And when we did "takata", I always see fiery orange for this brass sound. I don't know if you see colors when you hear music, but lots of people do. I know I always do. So with all these millions of colors to choose from, the composer really has a tough job,” said Bernstein.  Other apparent synesthetes were György Ligeti, Franz Liszt, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Jean Sibelius.  
Even though synesthesia is a clear condition that is specific to the people who have it, I hypothesize that we all have a tinge of synesthesia here and there. It may not be protruding, but when I listen to minimalist music, white and blue come to mind. When I listen to Beethoven, red is the main tint. I’m no synesthete like Messiaen or Ellington, but it’s difficult not to be flooded by all different kinds of emotions and sights when listening to music.
Turn on your stereo/mp3 player/radio/computer.
Close your eyes.
Turn on Philip Glass’s “Metamorphosis 1.”
What do you see?



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