October 13 and 14, 2018
By Chris Morrison
“Black A, white E, red I, green U, blue O – vowels,
Some day I will open your silent pregnancies…”
– Arthur Rimbaud, Vowels
Synesthesia is a phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic experiences in another. Oliver Sachs, in Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, defines it as “an immediate, physiological coupling of two sorts of sensation.”
There are over sixty varieties of synesthesia. In grapheme-color synesthesia, one of the most common forms, letters or numbers are perceived with an associated color. In number-form synesthesia, numbers, months, or days appear as physical presences. In misophonia, negative emotions like anger and fright are triggered by specific sounds. There’s lexical-gustatory synesthesia, where words have tastes, and ordinal-linguistic synesthesia, where letters have personalities. And, of course, music-color synesthesia or chromesthesia, in which sounds or musical notes are associated with colors.
No one really knows how synesthesia develops. It may happen as young children are engaging with abstract concepts for the first time. Or it might be genetic; women and left-handed people are apparently more likely to be synesthetes. Or it might be physiological: adjacent brain regions may accidentally grow too many neural connections between one other – hence the common grapheme-color synesthesia, as the areas of the brain responsible for processing language and colors are right next to each other.
While many synesthetes share reactions – for instance, grapheme-color synesthetes tend to associate the letter A with red – there are also wide variations. Some who experience synesthesia don’t perceive their condition as unusual until they find out otherwise. Some want to keep it a secret. Neither does anyone know for certain how common synesthesia is, although one study suggests that about 4% of the population experiences one of the nine most common versions of the condition.
Vladimir Nabokov wrote about synesthesia in several of his novels. Vincent van Gogh, Wassily Kandinsky, and David Hockney are among the visual artists who were synesthetes. Among musicians, Franz Liszt, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Leonard Bernstein, Olivier Messiaen, Duke Ellington, Billy Joel, Itzhak Perlman, and Pharrell Williams (one of whose albums with N.E.R.D is titled Seeing Sounds) have all identified themselves as synesthetes.
Although he is among the most famous of synesthete musicians, Alexander Scriabin may or may not have actually had the condition, as his color-tone system seems to have been derived from Isaac Newton’s Opticks and Goethe’s Color Theory. In a way, however, the ultimate synesthete, Scriabin, in his unfinished multi-media work Mysterium, explored the idea of performance as mystery, seeking to redeem humanity through a combination of sound, light, color, and scents which would bring the listener to a state of ecstasy.
Jean Sibelius felt slightly ashamed about his condition and tried to hide it. As Karl Ekman recounts, “For him there existed a strange, mysterious connection between sound and color, between the most secret perceptions of the eye and ear. Everything he saw produced a corresponding impression on his ear – every impression of sound was transferred and fixed as color on the retina of his eye and thence to his memory.” However, “he only spoke of this in the strictest confidence and under a pledge of silence. ‘For otherwise they will make fun of me!’”
Michael Torke feels his synesthesia is not only unremarkable, but not that relevant to his music. “I experience color when I hear music. I hear it in keys and pitches … Whether it is a hyper-association I developed at age four or five when I first started listening to music or whether it truly is a physiological phenomenon of truly mixing up the senses, I don’t know … Sometimes in my interviews, I put down the whole notion of synesthesia because how it informed my music is very different from what the scientific and musical community who want to talk about synesthesia think … if D major is blue, and I want to write a piece in blue that never modulates, then what you’re doing is you’re celebrating the non-modulation, so you can call it Bright Blue Music as a way to say something about the form … the actual physiology of it is of no interest at all.”
Born: September 22, 1961, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Hailed as a “vitally inventive composer” (Financial Times) and “a master orchestrator whose shimmering timbral palette makes him the Ravel of his generation” (New York Times), Michael Torke has created a substantial body of works in a style that might be described as post-minimalist, combining the repetitive structures of the minimalism of the 1960s and 1970s with sounds and techniques from the classical and pop traditions. Torke pursued musical studies at the Eastman School of Music and Yale. His career highlights include Color Music, a series of orchestral pieces that each explore a single color; Javelin, a “sonic olympiad” commissioned by the Atlanta Committee for the Olympics in celebration of the Atlanta Symphony’s 50th anniversary season; Four Seasons, an oratorio commissioned by the Walt Disney Company to celebrate the millennium; and Strawberry Fields, whose Great Performances broadcast was nominated for an Emmy Award.
Duration: 15 minutes
Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, clarinet, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, trumpet, timpani, synthesizer, strings
While Torke was at Yale, he started on a series of compositions that would, in his words, “celebrate without modulation a single color.” The works in Color Music – Ecstatic Orange (1985), Bright Blue Music (1985), Green (1986), Purple (1987), and Ash (1988) – were all conceived separately and don’t have an established order. Ash was first performed on February 3, 1989 by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra conducted by John Adams. The Los Angeles Times described Ash as “…an ingenious homage to Beethoven, a quarter hour of trickily juxtaposed shards of melody, rhythm and (mostly) two-chord fragments, a gallop in search of a bolero.”
Torke writes, “In trying to find a clear and recognizable language to write this piece, I have chosen some of the most basic, functionally tonal means: tonics and dominants in F minor, a modulation to the relative major (A-flat), and a three-part form which, through a retransition, recapitulates back to F minor. What I offer is not invention of new ‘words’ or a new language but a new way to make sentences and paragraphs in a common, much-used existing language.” The entire work is based on a single melody, heard, fast and propulsive, in F minor at the beginning of the piece. That tune is tossed about the orchestra, both single instruments and ensembles, over an insistent rhythm. In the middle section, calm descends as the melody moves into A-flat major. But soon the momentum builds again, and with a switch back to the minor, the mood of the opening section returns.
Born: January 6, 1872, Moscow, Russia
Died: April 27, 1915, Moscow, Russia
Scriabin’s early career parallels that of Sergei Rachmaninov – they both had piano lessons with the famous teacher Nikolai Zverov, and both attended the Moscow Conservatory. Scriabin won the Conservatory’s Little Gold Medal in piano performance, and he soon became an internationally-known virtuoso. His early compositions were heavily influenced by Chopin. In 1898 Scriabin became a professor at the Moscow Conservatory, but in 1903 he abandoned his professorship and wife and embarked on a six-year tour of Europe. With visionary works like the Poem of Ecstasy, Scriabin came to believe that his music could have a cosmic impact. This was especially true of Mysterium, left unfinished at Scriabin’s death (caused by septicemia from an infected boil on his lip), which proposed to fuse all the arts in a seven-day performance that “would herald the birth of a new world.” As Donald Garvelmann has written of Scriabin’s music, “Its large range of expression – anger, fear, heroism, darkness, mystery, evil, light, fire, flight, intoxication, languor, love, six, ecstasy – is the very connective tissue of his life and thought.”
Piano Concerto in F-sharp minor, Op. 20
Duration: 28 minutes
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings
On graduating from the Moscow Conservatory, Scriabin embarked on a busy concert schedule that started in Russia, but soon extended throughout Europe as well as Great Britain and the United States. Many of his performances were solo recitals, but he also wanted to have something to perform with orchestras. In the fall of 1896 he started work on the Piano Concerto; the initial sketches were done quickly, but the orchestration took him until May of 1897 to complete.
Odessa was the site of the Concerto’s first performance, on October 23, 1897, with Scriabin as soloist and Vasily Safonov conducting. Reaction to the Concerto was mixed in Russia, but the work was embraced elsewhere as Scriabin toured with it. One British critic wrote in The Musical Times after a successful performance at Queen’s Hall in 1914, “Here there are no harmonic problems to embarrass the uninitiated. Much of the music makes its immediate appeal to anyone sensitive to beauty.”
The first movement starts unassumingly but builds quickly, with big Romantic gestures from both the soloist and orchestra. Minus the big tunes, one might mistake this music for an unknown concerto by Rachmaninov. The orchestra takes on great prominence, and occasionally the piano becomes an accompanist for orchestral soloists. The second movement is a set of five variations on a gentle, wistful theme presented first by muted strings. The synesthete Scriabin associated this movement’s F-sharp major with “bright blue” (years later Scriabin conceived of the “clavier à lumières” or “light keyboard,” which would emit colored lights based on the notes played). Variation 1 gives the theme to the clarinet, the piano providing lovely decorations. After a fast-paced second, the third variation takes the theme to the pianist’s left hand, echoed by strings. Variation 4 turns the theme upside down, and after a short piano cadenza, in the final variation the theme is heard over an anchoring bass note and delicate embroidery from the piano. Combining sonata-allegro and rondo forms, the Finale is based on two themes – the first with an ascending arpeggio that climbs to the highest part of the piano, the second lyrical. Violent outbursts, particularly from the brass instruments, occasionally interrupt the relaxed flow of the music, and an extended coda brings the work to an exciting finish.
Born: December 8, 1865, Hämeenlinna, Finland
Died: September 20, 1957, Järvenpää, Finland
Jean Sibelius was the first Finnish composer to attract international attention, and became a major figure in the establishment of his country’s artistic identity. He showed early talent on the violin – he once auditioned for the Vienna Philharmonic and thought for a time of pursuing a career as a violin soloist. But composition always attracted him, and he created a sensation in Finland with the premiere of his Kullervo Symphony in 1893. Supported by a lifetime pension from the Finnish government, Sibelius quickly became famous, his works – many inspired by the literature and landscape of his homeland – performed across the globe. After completing his Symphony No. 7 and a few other works in the mid 1920s, Sibelius retired into what has been dubbed the “silence from Järvenpää.” For the remaining three decades of his life he composed practically nothing, although reports of an Eighth Symphony (apparently destroyed) became legendary. In 1955 his ninetieth birthday was celebrated worldwide.
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82
Duration: 32 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings
Sibelius was commissioned to write the Symphony No. 5 by the Finnish government, in recognition of his fiftieth birthday. That birthday, December 8, 1915, which had also been declared a national holiday, saw the premiere of the first version of the work, with Sibelius himself conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic. They also gave the first performance of the Symphony’s final revision, the version most commonly heard today, on November 24, 1919.
Sibelius completed his first draft of the work in 1915, then revised the score in 1916, and again in 1919. His diary of that time was filled with pessimism and depression over the loss of life in World War I, his inability to travel, and, more pragmatically, lack of access to his German music publisher. He kept solvent by writing short trifles for Finnish music houses. All the while he was struggling with what eventually became his Symphony No. 5. At one point Sibelius wrote of the work, “It is as if God Almighty had thrown down pieces of a mosaic for heaven’s floor and asked me to find out what was the original pattern.”
The poor reviews that greeted Sibelius’s austere, darkly-colored Symphony No. 4 in 1911 had precipitated a bit of a crisis for him. The first version of the Fifth Symphony had some of the angularity and dissonance of the Fourth. But Sibelius softened some of the work’s edges in his revisions. As he put it, “I wished to give my symphony another – more human – form. More down-to-earth, more vivid.”
The first movement was originally thought to be intended as two separate movements, but Sibelius eventually chose to link them. Opening with a soft call from the horns that provides much of the basis of the rest of the movement, overall the movement is somewhat ambiguous in form, a Sibelius trademark. There seem to be two expositions of the main themes, with different key relationships and accompaniments. After this, the melodies are developed further, with the bassoon exploring some very unsettled territory. At this point, the Scherzo section begins, as chirping woodwinds take over and the tempo accelerates to Allegro moderato. Later, variations of the previous themes are heard as the tempo builds to a breathless conclusion.
The relaxed second movement is a set of variations on a theme that is first played by the flute and pizzicato (plucked) strings. Strings take over for the first two variations, although the boundaries between the variations are, again, ambiguous. An oboe dominates one section, and another in the strings takes the music in a more romantic direction. Eventually, the movement comes to a restrained end.
A rushing melody played tremolando by the violins and violas opens the third movement. After focusing on this melody for a time, another very important motif appears in the horns. This bell-like theme in a swaying triple-meter was said to have been inspired by the calls of swans. “Today at ten to eleven I saw 16 swans,” wrote Sibelius. One of my greatest experiences! Lord God, what beauty! They circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the solar haze like a gleaming silver ribbon … Nature mysticism and life’s angst! The Fifth Symphony’s finale-theme: legato in the trumpets!” Donald Francis Tovey, on the other hand, likened this theme to Thor swinging his hammer. Along with this idea, Sibelius superimposes another distinctive melody in the winds and cellos. After these are examined further, the horn theme eventually returns majestically, leading to Sibelius’s final gesture – separated by different lengths of silence, six powerful concluding chords.