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The Color of Sound, the Sound of Color; Sound and Light, Music and Art: Part III

March 13, 2013 - March 18, 2013 - Williamsburg, MA, most recently updated May 19, 2017, Easthampton, MA::


Interestingly, when I discussed the concept of sound-color correspondences with American artist Clifford Ames, now living in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, during a recent trip to that area, he immediately responded by saying that yes, of course, he associates colors with sounds, with red being the lower bass register, and blue the upper soprano one, and yellow in the middle. This would thus correspond more with Stanton Macdonald-Wright's wheel than with the Marratta/Taylor/Tudor-Hart and Rimington models, and it more or less inverts the lower and upper register colors perceived by David Hockney. However, Ames did not mention sensing any specific color-key signature correspondences.

The American painter Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956) went to Germany to study music (He was a violinist, and also composed some works later.) at the age of 16, but ended up in art school instead and subsequently knew some of the painters of the Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke groups, and later taught at the Bauhaus. He lived in Paris from 1906 to 1908, exhibited there in 1911, and knew the Delauneys. It is not known if he met Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell then; they had not yet exhibited any Synchromist paintings. Among his enormously diverse output that includes comic strips and political cartoons, graphic works, watercolors, small carved wooden toys and other pieces, and photographs (See Barbara Haskell [et al.], Lyonel Feininger At the Edge of the World, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, Montréal: Musée des Beaux-Arts, New Haven, CT, & London: Yale University Press, 2011; catalogue of an exhibition that covered all phases of his output, which I saw in Montréal in May 2012; and also: Ulrich Luckhardt, Lyonel Feininger, trans, from the German by Eileen Martin, Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1989.), he painted many works in which color is very prominent, some not unlike the works of the German Expressionists, and, beginning in 1912, others in a style he called "Prismism" that was in many ways similar to Synchromism, and also not unlike Whistler's focus on tonal harmony, albeit in a totally different style. He focused on the role of the spectrum and of the transition from one color to another as light passed through a prism. Examples are Clouds above the Sea I (1923), Cloud after the Storm, or "The Bird Cloud" (1926), and Sunset at Deep (1930). Many also feature architectural elements and buildings, for example The Green Bridge II (1916) at the NC Museum of Art [scroll down in the pictures shown in the left column to find it]; in some, colors contrast, in others they blend.

This style is also related to transparency, the appearance of one color seen through a light coat of another, a technique that he shared with Paul Klee, but in which he excelled perhaps more than any other painter, as in The Steamer, Odin II (1927) and Calm at Sea III (1929) [scroll down in the pictures shown in the left column to find it]. Like Whistler's works, all of Feininger's are representational; none are abstract, so they are not related to Cubism, but they are not too distant from the Delauneys' Orphism. Feininger exhibited 6 paintings in the Salon des Independents in Paris' Grand Palais in 1911, where Robert Delauney also exhibited; its 1,500+ entries were dominated by the Cubists (minus Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque whose contract with their dealer prevented their participation). Feininger never wrote anything about an association of color and music, but his works are inherently more harmonious than those of the German Expressionists in whose footsteps he clearly followed. He left Germany after the rise of the Nazis because his wife was part-Jewish and returned to NYC; his painting style changed dramatically after that uprooting.

Lyonel's German father Karl (1844-1922), raised in the US, was a professional violinist trained in Germany with an international career and reputation in his day, who settled in the US when he married Elizabeth Cecilia Lutz (ca. 1850-??), an American singer. Karl wrote An Experiential Psychology of Music (New York: August Gemünder & Sons, 1909), developing, in a chapter entitled "Mechanism," a theory (pp. 43-51) in which the minutest variations in colors correspond to gradations of vibrations in musical tones for which he, too, provides a chart that somewhat resembles a color wheel (p. 44), although not printed in color due to cost. The colors range outward from a red center in rings that correspond to musical tempi. He considers only the 7 colors of the spectrum, and also relates them to characters and/or emotions, moods, and temperaments and creates a second chart that is a spiral working out from its center to illustrate continuity.

It would appear, therefore, from this representative but not exhaustive survey that artists were much more numerous and more specific in attempting to establish direct correspondences between colors and musical notes or keys than were composers, and that in general, the direction is more often from color to sound than from sound to color, even for composers who make a connection. In a sense, this is curious, because most of them were seeking to make visual art more abstract, yet doing so by an extremely tight rationally devised concrete system that needed to be rigorously applied. On the other hand, this suggests that they were not synesthetes; none self-identified as such. Since the phenomenon had not yet been studied scientifically, some may actually have been; Kandinsky most likely was (Cytowic & Eagleman, pp. 59 & 98-99). Since many were working after the time of the pan-European synesthesia mania – it did not cross the Atlantic, they either were unaware of it, which seems unlikely, or did not give it much credence. We cannot know whether their works were produced by a process of careful conscious application of one of the various systems of analogous correspondences that were devised or by an innate personal per- or conception – because a painter devised a system does not mean that s/he religiously adhered to it. The pleasing harmony of many of the works themselves cannot, however, be denied, although, as with any art, some are more successful than others, and, of course, some will appeal to a given viewer while others by the same artist do not, and some will appeal to given individual viewers more than to others, just as is the case with musical compositions. It is clear that a synesthetic experience cannot be induced in a non-synesthete by a work that resulted from such a system of correspondences (although studies have shown that one can be induced by LSD, meditation, and certain types of brain seizures [Cytowic & Eagleman, pp. 217-18 & 220-24), or by a work that was created by a synesthete applying her/his own sensory perceptions.

Composers seem in general to have had greater success in using abstract tones to conjure up an image of something concrete than artists, with a few notable exceptions, in making concrete subjects and images into something harmoniously rather than jarringly or ruggedly abstract. On the other hand, those who attempted to combine music with colored light in performances have mostly had little success outside of theatrical works like ballet and opera. However, it is also clear that synesthesia is a real phenomenon for many people – between one-fifth and one-fourth of the population, and perhaps for more composers than artists – in spite of dictionary assertions of the impossibility of one sense being stimulated by something physically perceived by another, and one worthy of further scientific attention. I have not discussed the issue for performers, although I am fairly certain that it exists among them, or for listeners, but surveys of both populations might well be warranted. Perhaps you are one who sees colors when you hear music? If so, you might want to visit www.synesthete.org. The painting in the upper left of the Home page is the approximately left 1/5 of Kandinsky's Yellow-Red-Blue (1925). There is also an American Synesthesia Association with a web site for professionals.

Updated 6/25/14:

Now, in the 21st century, science and technology are adding new dimensions to the subject and offering some concrete substantiation for the existence of synesthesia and analysis of it. Perhaps the most remarkable instance of and contributor to this to date is the Catalan-Irish artist and composer Neil Harbisson, who was born with a genetic condition known as achromatopsia, the inability to perceive any color whatsoever. He has become a "cyborg," having had a chip inserted inside his skull to which an antenna with a sensor is permanently attached. The sensor detects a color and converts it to a sound frequency/musical tone. Like earlier synesthetes, he now associates through this technology specific notes and keys with specific colors. He says he now chooses his wardrobe according to what sounds good to him, which may or may not be something that appears good to someone else, but certainly creates interesting combinations and harmonies. The question thus arises about the objectivity and universality of his/these color-musical key correspondences, referred to as sonochromatism. He creates works of art using them, depicting works of other composers, such as Mozart's "Queen of the Night," and also composes music, both instrumental and choral, using them, and has conducted some works in concert. We need to stay tuned to see where this will go from here.

Addendum, Jan. 29, 2015: We might all be or have been at some point in our lives synesthetes. Here is a link to an article by a writer about science that discusses the various types of synesthesia: http://aeon.co/magazine/psychology/are-we-all-born-with-synaesthesia/.

Addendum 2, 15 November 2015: Text amended: the 3 paragraphs concerning Josef Albers were inserted in their appropriate place.

An exhibition at the Mead Art Museum of Amherst College, in Amherst, MA, curated by Chapel Hill native Vanja Malloy, Intersecting Colors: Josef Albers and His Contemporaries, in which the museum's copy of Albers' original Interaction of Color is displayed, is centered on this work. The exhibition catalog, also edited by Malloy, is the first publication of the newly founded Amherst College Press, (ISBN 978-1-943208-00-5, © 2015, $20.00 [paperback]); it is available free as a download: https://acpress.amherst.edu/intersecting_colors/?_ga=1.42471584.405094385.1443803256

You can also order a hard copy of it or read it online at this link.

(For Part I of this article, click here.)