some thoughts on sound and color
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.”