the yelling reaction

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some thoughts on sound and color

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Collage by Alexis Anne McKenzie | More here

I am thrilled as pie (is that an expression? pleased as pie? yes) about my avant garde music class at Paris VII. Recently we’ve been talking about Messiaen’s work and I’ve been taking copious notes a) because I bought a fountain pen and love watching it write and b) because talking about his color-based theories for composition could not fit more cozily into the niche of things I try to wrap my brain around whenever it’s feeling flexible. We spent a good hour talking about the way he, because of his synesthesia, heard color in music – he describes chords with adjectives like “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.” (If any of these remind you of words you’d use to describe the colors of a bird, there’s a reason: his music theory treatise was called Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie [Treatise of Rhythm, Colour and Birdsong]). The treatise apparently manages to prove that color is not a decorative element of music, but instead absolutely ingrained in its fundamental structure.

Olivier Messiaen – Préludes I. La Colombe

Olivier Messiaen – Préludes II. Chant D’extase dans un Paysage Triste

The first track above  was written with orange in mind, and the second, a deep blue.

I’m so interested in the relationship between music and color, suddenly. Taking the term “chromaticism”, in its musical context, it might seem that color and music have always been associated with each other, but the word proves to be a bit of a red herring, if you will: it shares the same origins as coloration, or the medieval system of the coloring in of notes to indicate duration. The ties between the frequency of electromagnetic radiation (that is, color) and the frequency of sound still seem indisputable, however: lower frequencies are so fixedly matched in our minds to equal degrees with deep colors and deep sounds, and higher frequencies with brighter colors and higher sounds. I am hesitant to pretend I know more about science than I do, or to tentatively posit ideas that I am sure have been investigated in volumes already, but I find them to be so pertinent to things I think and write about that I can’t help but unpack them a bit for myself.

Messiaen’s use of color as a tool for the hearing and writing of music reminds me, as so many things do these days, of making a map: of using the parameters of one field both to define, and in so doing, to create, another. (Here we could also consider the colors used to indicate height and depth in mapmaking, and in linking these colors to pitch, consider the potential similarity between a musical score and a topographical map.) In thinking about Messiaen’s additional work with palindromic rhythms, I am reminded of mirrors and their central role in so much literature, philosophy and art. One could say that Messiaen’s work is a good indicator of the most basic desire humans seem to have to represent one thing with something else – put simply, to make art.

It is the indelible stamp of process – of distance between the real and the rendered – that gives art, as an act of transposition, its deeply human element. Mirrors, then, are appealing to us like anything that is untouched or otherwise without signature: as producers of no more or less than a copy, they present us with the purest form of parallel; with a result too perfect to be human. In Messiaen we sense this aesthetic gap both growing and shrinking: his representation of color through music is rooted in the fundamental fissure defining human art, while his fascination with the perfect, with the mathematical, with the mirror reminds us of the deep-seated longing we have to close this divide.

“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”


Written by bellaheureuse

February 17, 2010 at 10:50 pm

4 Responses

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  1. I believe the expression is “Happy as pie”–not to be confused with “pleased as Punch.” The origin of the former is hazy, but “pie” probably isn’t a baked goodie, but a bird–as in “magpie.” As for the latter: “Punch” (which should always be capitalized when using this expression) refers not to a drink, or a blow, but to the puppet character Mr. Punch of the Punch-and-Judy shows that were features in Victorian England. (Mr. Punch is also the character who gave his name to the English satiric humor magazine, Punch.)


    February 18, 2010 at 4:55 am

  2. M remembers that her deep and automatic association of color, sound, and temperature was ramped up to the point at which she could not function during the time she was carrying around a certain person within. The whole range of blue-greens dropped her own temperature several degrees and frequently made her nauseated; the red in meat blared like a car horn and threw heat in her face, and bright yellows struck her retinas like blades of light and, yes, sounded too shrill to bear.

    While she was ultra-sensitive before, the blue range has only recently become acceptable again–20 years later.

    M wonders whether that person, whose joint chemistry created such a ruckus, retains a memory of those months, and whether she is drawing up on it as she studies and writes.


    February 18, 2010 at 5:25 am

  3. Another synesthete? Nabokov, who was also very interested winged creatures. Strange!

    (Although I don’t know the extent of Messiaen’s interest in birds.)


    February 18, 2010 at 4:44 pm

  4. […] all sides, cut open and taste like a pomegranate. I’ve been pretty into color as a subject recently, as something that exists so concretely in the natural world but which has so many manmade […]

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