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Concert Program Synesthesia

When you see a concert program, do you associate it with colors? It’s a strange kind of faux-synesthesia, but one I experience in full blown form. I see works and composers on a program and I associate them with colors or color combinations and, to a lesser extent, with shapes, linearity, clearness, and purity. One look and I see whether it fits (according to my perfectly subjective prejudices and tastes, of course).

If I were to devise a concert program, the colors and shapes of the music (or more precisely my impression of the music’s ‘reputation’) would be my primary organizing principle, consciously or not. It’s also my short-cut to judging a program of a concert I might attend, and how much it appeals to me.

It’s an intuitive response that I haven’t yet consciously mapped, but a few elements stand out: Most of Bach is white light, containing all colors and combinable with almost everything else. Romantic composers tend to be heavier, and warm colors; early music—pre baroque—pale, cooler colors, in classical music it varies greatly from composer to composer and from piece to piece. Modern and contemporary music is as unpredictably diverse in this scheme as the compositions themselves.

A specific example from the concert I was at last and will review next, and how it looks like to me:

The Munich Philharmonic (in and of itself tendencies of heavy, brownish-red) conducted by Thomas Dausgaard (lots of white and translucence with individual strands of red and blue) with soloist Leif Ove Andsnes (a chameleon of sorts, who blends in with the music’s colors without adulterating them much, if at all).

György Kurtág: “...quasi una fantasia…” for Piano and Orchestral Groups op.27/1

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.1, op.15


Antonin Dvořák: Symphony No.6, op.60

It starts with Kurtág, a sparse white with gray markings, not unlike certain monochromatic Cy Twombley paintings… the more intricate ones among those that look like chalkboards… except inverse and very much on the light side. (Despite the massive, powerful, uber-Shostakovichean third movement of “…quasi una fantasia…”. Touch of Giacometti.

Then Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, perhaps the epitome of classical Beethoven, a manifestation of clarity, beauty, and cogence. Light blues and dark blues mix in long lines, perhaps on white or very light gray. Simplicity reigns. I imagine something that Barnett Newman might have done, but horizontal.

Dvořák, finally: On paper a considerable break with the scheme so far. Fall colors, leaves turning orange and brown and red. Golden hues shine through (the impression was altered by the performance, which added very pale, long golden filaments). Like one of Mark Rothko’s many paintings in those colors, with very fuzzy edges.

The composition of the program then makes up a painting of sorts itself… a Newman, Rothko, or a Sean Scully which I can subjectively judge at a glance and react to like I might in a museum before such a picture… with a more detailed with the ingredients and their order to follow that glancing impression.

Cy Twombley picture inverse of original


Unknown said...

Oliver Sacks writes about sound-vision synesthesia in Musicophilia. You might like to take a look at it. What you're describing is pretty similar.

jfl said...

Sound-vision synesthesia is apparently a reasonably common synesthesia (as far as synesthesias go) and moreover real (i.e. clinical), if involuntary. Sibelius, Messiaen, and - though perhaps exaggerated or outright faked: Scriabin. I don't know about 'concert-program synesthesia'... which is something I imagine, rather than something that happens to me. Yet more likely it's a parallel associative thing, where similar feelings about colors are mirrored in the feelings I have about reputation of repertoire and performers... married to associations most people have in common about colors and their associations.

About 'realy' Synesthesia we've written here:

Synesthesia and Visual Music

Visual Music - Musical Vision

21st Century Consort