MYSTERIES OF CREATION Seeing sounds and hearing colours

05/17/2014 23:23

Finally! Swedish spring is here. The gloomy rainfall has ceased. Warmth awakens nature and makes it explode in fresh greenery. In beech woods´ lofty halls of tender leaves black birds are singing their arias, wood warblers are heard from the thickets, wheatears from moss covered stone walls and far away the cuckoo monotonously repeats his call. Light, colour and sound in overwhelming combinations. Can anyone interpret and condense such an experience? Creating convincing art out of it? After returning home from my morning walk I mull over sound and colour. Is there a connection?

In music we hear about chromaticism, a word originating from the Greek word for colour, chroma. The Italian word cromatico was during Medieval and Renaissance times referring to the fact that certain signs were coloured to indicate that a note had to be kept for a shorter time than a note designated by an uncoloured sign, eventually the term came to denote the chromatic scale, which consists of semitones.

Unfortunately, I do not play any instrument. As a boy I struggled with a violin, but had to realize that I would never become a violinist. However, I remember that a diatonic musical scale consists of seven notes and that a chromatic one is comprised of half tones. Just as you combine colours, scales can be mixed to create different harmonies. Robert Schumann wrote: "A trained musician can benefit from the study of a Madonna by Raphael, just as a painter might learn from a symphony by Mozart."

There have been some speculations about the relationship between colours and sound, painting and music. Goethe considered himself a scientist and assumed that in the future his colour theory would prove to be more appreciated than his poetry. Until recently I did not understand why Joseph Turner named one of his paintings Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) and adding The Morning after the Deluge ‒ Moses Writing the Book of Genesis. However, I have now read his explanation of the cryptic title. According to Turner, God is an unparalleled artist, constantly involved in a process of creating and transforming. As part of this creative process, God sent the Deluge and decided that Noah would survive it, afterwards he ordered Moses to write the Genesis, which includes the story of God crafting the world by means of words and light. Turner created  his painting to honour Goethe, who through his colour theory had been able to explain some of God's creative methods.

Goethe described colour as different forms of light. To him yellow was "light muted by darkness, while blue is darkness weakened by the light." Colour is the key to understanding God's creation. By establishing a relationship between colour and light Goethe searched for the meaning of darkness and light. Like Turner, Goethe was intrigued by the relationship between creation, light and water. Both of them must have been quite familiar with the creation process described in Genesis. A depiction of God as a creative artist:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.  And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.  And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.  And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.  And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.  And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.  And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

According to Goethe art makes use of contrasts between light and dark to create images of us humans and our place within nature's great diversity. There are laws governing how light and darkness can be mixed, how colours develop. Nevertheless, Goethe refused to link music and colour, although he assumed that music came from the same source as poetry and the visual arts.

Perhaps Goethe was not musically gifted enough. As a matter of fact, it appears as somewhat odd that an aesthetic connoisseur like Goethe did not appreciate Schubert´s music to his poems, instead he preferred the limited artistry of second rate composers like Zelte and Reichart. It may be that Goethe was frightened by Schubert´s music. The deep and tumultuous emotions it generate may appear as threatening the balance and harmony Goethe was pursuing through his art. This said, it must be admitted that Goethe was not at all insensitive to music. Like many wealthy upper class people of his time he played musical instruments, both piano and cello, and he occasionally stated that he could be engrossed by "music's immense power."

On more than one occasion Goethe met with Beethoven and described him as "more resolute, energetic and heartfelt" than any other person he had encountered during his long and varied life. Beethoven was fascinated by Goethe's poetry, but he considered the poet to be far too taken in by "the air of the courts" and tainted by an "unfortunate appreciation of ridiculous virtuosos." Accordingly, music may have been one of the few areas where Goethe might have appeared as somewhat insecure and awkward. Instead it was another genius, Isaac Newton, who managed to link colour and music. Through his experiments, Newton managed to break up sunlight into different colours and thus became convinced that there must be a connection between what he considered to be the seven colours that emerge when light passes through a prism and the seven tones of the diatonic scale.

Several painters have been searching for an integration of colour and music, for example Paul Klee, Robert Delaunay, Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko. Vasily Kandinsky did in addition to his abstract paintings create several “stage pieces” without dialogue, with names like Purple Curtain, Black and WhiteThe Green Sound and The Yellow Sound. In collaboration with the composer Thomas von Hartman, Kandinsky tried to convert music into colour and vice versa. The Yellow Sound consists of six tableaux in which a child dressed in white and an adult man in black represent life and death, there are also five "intense yellow giants (as large as possible)," and "slightly red creatures that somehow suggest birds".

György Ligety described his music as "light polyphony" and several other composers pursued the relationship between colour and sound, like Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Scriabin, Bela Bartok, Arnold Schoenberg, Olivier Messiaen and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Richard Wagner got there through Schopenhauer's mediation, the controversial composer's favorite philosopher had been engaged in profound speculations about Goethe's colour theory.

It is possible that some of those artists and composers were beset by a phenomenon called synesthesia, a hereditary neurological condition meaning that senses overlap each other. The mind of a person affected by synesthesia recreates sounds in such a way that instead of just hearing a symphony s/he perceives how colours are created by the instruments. It is said that musicians such as Billy Joel, Itzhak Perlman and Hélène Grimaud, as well as the English painter David Hockney,  have been diagnosed with synesthesis.

Synesthesia is probably a harmless condition. For some it may however manifest itself as an obsession, dangerously close to insanity. Colour occupied the mind of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin and he occasionally ended up on the wrong side of what might be called normal behavior, as when he raved:

I am freedom. I am life. I am a dream. I am boredom, but I'm also burning obsession. I am bliss. I am insane passion. I am nothing, I am a vibration ... I am a creative crescendo of tender embraces, which amaze, burn, destroy and animate. I am a violent gust of unfamiliar emotions. I am the final frontier, the highest crest. I am nothing.

Scriabin found "light in the music, intoxication, escape and a breathless happiness" and declared that he was unable to create merely music. What he wanted to achieve was mind-altering revelations, roads shimmering of light and colors, where every detail attended to a "cosmic dance". In Scriabin's Fifth Symphony, Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, every note had a color specified to it - C was red, an elevated C violet, D yellow, an elevated D like "glittering steel" E "pearly white and moonlight" F dark red , an elevated F was light blue, G “orange with red luster”, an elevated G was purple, A was green, an elevated A had the same tint as an elevated D, but with a different luster, H was "pearly blue".

Scriabin envisioned his death as part of an unprecedented spectacle, a sparkling fireworks display, a hurricane of colour and tones. The culmination of a life of heady creativity, combined with advanced hypochondria, germs and high anxiety connected with his fear of continuous aging and a wide range of strange manias, supplemented by compulsive seductions of women, which only ended when he left his wife and four children for a beautiful piano student. "I'm doing this as a sacrifice for my art," he declared to his abandoned family.

Scriabin claimed that he would die an unusual death - his breathing would cease during the ecstasy that would seize him while attending his final masterpiece, Mystery, planned to premiere by a mirror-like lake in the interior of India. A Gesamtkunstwerk complete with dance, music, fireworks, processions and sacred rites. But, instead of experiencing an outstanding death Alexander Scriabin suffered the painful agony of blood poisoning caused by an infected lip abscess.

Another extreme case of synesthesia was Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, who has become something of a national hero in Lithuania. Čiurlionis was a musical prodigy and occasionally an inspired and inspiring painter, but unfortunately several of his works oscillate between banal New Age reminding kitsch and exquisite abstraction.

When the boundaries between painting and music are exceeded, there is a risk of banality, as in Disney's Fantasia, which despite all its apparent flaws, nevertheless might be regarded as an unsurpassed masterpiece. Disney attracted apparent synesthetics like Oskar Fischinger and Bill Tytla to the big production team, which made this remarkable film possible.

Čiurlionis paintings have names like Sonata, Fugue and Prelude and several are graced by an audacity, balance and originality that seem to prophesize the coming of abstraction in modern art. However, like several other hypersensitive artists Čiurlionis succumbed to mental disease and was admitted to a mental hospital where he died of pneumonia in 1911, only thirty-five years old.

The connections between vision and sound are also made apparent by Sophie Calle. Her exhibition Les Aveugles, The Blind, displayed photographs of blind people, each portrait was accompanied by two framed paintings, one with a text through which the blind person described what "beauty" meant to her/him. For example, when a lady wrote that grass is beautiful, because it is soft and smells good and that people had told her that green is a pleasing colour, full of life, Calle exhibited a colour photograph of grass, as well as another photo of an ocean scenery when someone had written that the sea must be beautiful, or a fish when someone wrote that he believes fish must be most beautiful creatures of all because they were completely unknown to him, since he could neither touch nor hear live fish.

While I worked at Sida (the Swedish International Development Agency) in Stockholm, I had a blind colleague. His job was to transfer speeches, debates and other recorded material into Braille. One time while we travelled together in the subway I asked him if he used to read novels. He replied that he did so very often and then I asked him how he, who was born blind, imagined descriptions of people and landscapes. He explained to me that he imagined colours as music, or as degrees of hot and cold. He added that as impossible as it must be for a keen-sighted person to comprehend how it was like to be blind, just as incomprehensible it was for him to understand what is meant by concepts like “red” or “blue”. Music could perhaps be used as a kind of explanation. Music is said to be able to suggest landscapes, but landscapes do not play music. My blind colleague asserted that the landscapes he read about in novels and poems reminded him of music. He interpreted the sensations such descriptions created through his own reality, where everyday experiences were distinguished by a wide variety of different emotions such as irritation, sadness or joy, the texture of things he could touch and sounds, particularly sounds. He told me that people sometimes asked him if blindness was like living in the dark. But, how could he answer such a question? He had experienced neither darkness nor light.

I asked him what “blue” meant to him. Was it cold or hot? He replied that he imagined that blue had various degrees of cold and just like a string of musical notes could convey certain nuances or feelings a colour could probably have different shades, especially considering the context in which it appeared. He was apparently a musically gifted person and told me that he assumed the colour “blue” generally was akin to an H, a pretty high note, probably close to a high C, but that its hue could vary due to the context in which it appeared. When a novel describes a sky or an ocean, they are generally depicted in such a way that  different shades of blue can be discerned, just as certain combinations of notes convey feelings that are similar, but still nuanced.

He proceeded to tell me that the impression of a landscape comprised so much more than that which vision may provide us with. He knew how things that come from the sky felt, like sunshine and rain, or how grass and trees smell, also the scent of snow and wet pavement, of women and children, all such sensations were unified in his perceptions of different landscapes.

In her book, A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould 's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano Katie Hafner describes how the somewhat peculiar piano virtuoso Glenn Gould for years searched for the perfect piano. The remarkable thing is that he finally found it, a Steinway grand piano from 1944, forgotten and dusty in a department store basement in Toronto. However, Glenn Gould also needed someone who could reconstruct and fine tune his find. He actually found such a man, the nearly blind Charles Verne Edquist, who could "hear" the colours of music. Just like my blind colleague and Scriabin, Verne Edquist perceived H as a blue note. According to Verne Edquist C was "yellowish green", A was white, D was sand coloured and when he explained to Glenn Gould that G was orange (just like Scriabin had envisioned), "or something of the sort", the pianist replied: "Yes, I know". Like several of the artists I have mentioned above, Glenn Gould was by many perceived as too manic to be considered as “entirely normal”.

Robert Schumann (whose works Glenn Gould for some unfathomable reason did not want to deal with) walked into madness and encountered a tragic fate. It all started when he heard a continuous high A that prevented him from thinking and speaking. Then the tone ceased angels came and sang heavenly music for him. Sometimes Schumann succeeded to write down the heavenly tunes, but usually he was disturbed by yelling demons, in the form of hyenas or tigers, threatening to drag him down into Hell. Before he asked to be admitted to a mental hospital Schumann tried to kill himself. He suffered a lot and his beloved Clara lamented:

My poor Robert suffers immensely! The slightest noise, he says, sounds like music to him, a music more lovely and played on the most exquisite instruments that have ever been heard on earth! And of course ... he gets terribly upset by all this. The doctor says he is unable to cure him. The following nights were terrible - we could hardly sleep ... He tried to work during the day, but could do so only with an extreme effort. He often repeated that if this is not stopped , it would destroy his soul ... The disturbance of his hearing has increased to such an extent that he now hears entire pieces of music played by a full-sized orchestra, from beginning to end, and the final chord sounds until Robert's thoughts creates a new piece. Alas, and nobody can do anything to free him!

To conclude, after presenting some rather bewildering ideas about sound and colours I recap that  Newton proved that  light can be broken down into colours and we now know that each colour and its various hues have their specific wavelengths. Colour wavelengths correspond to sound frequencies that happen to be exactly forty octaves below the colour wavelengths, while alpha brain waves are forty-six octaves below. When I read this I had no idea what an alpha brain wave was. I have now found out that brain waves are the results of the electrical activity that occurs when nerve cells communicate with each other. There are several variations of brain waves. Alpha waves are those that dominate brain activity within a relaxed adult.

Everything is connected. The undulations of light, sound and human brain activities are only a small number of the links that connect us with the entire universe. Would artists someday be able to combine these frequencies and maybe thus discover a new art form that may harmonize our mind with the universal dynamics and make us aware of the fact that we are an integrated part of something immense and hitherto unknown? Are we finally going to realize that the Universe is alive and quaking in every creature? As some Hindu philosophers have said: Tat twam asi तत् त्वम् असि - It's you.

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