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Music Feature Print

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

January 26, 2019 - Easthampton, MA - updated May 28, 2019:

Two other artists, Hardesty Gillmore Maratta (1864-1924) and Henry Fitch Taylor (1853-1925), were also color theorists and published some of the fruits of their reflections and experiments. Maratta devised a system that assigned each color to a corresponding musical note. He then directed artists to combine colors at prescribed intervals, using “chords” to achieve a harmonious effect. Robert Henri (1865-1929, a member of the organizing committee of The Forum Exhibition who did not exhibit in it), and John Sloan (1871-1951) also seem to have followed this system, the latter having been introduced to it in 1909 by the former, who learned it directly from Maratta in that year, and followed it from then on, while Henri seems to have used it primarily in his portraits. George Bellows (1882-1925) was also a disciple of the system. Scroll down on the linked document to find Marratta’s color keyboard reproduced from The Maratta Scales of Artists’ Oil Pigments, 1916. John Weichsel Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., also shown here:


Hardesty G. Maratta’s color keyboard, from The Maratta Scales of Artists’ Oil Pigments, 1916. John Weichsel Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.


Maratta also published a diagram: “A chart for Finding Triads and chords” in 1909 (Scientific American Supplement, LXVII, Nov. 13, p. 311, referenced in Levin, p. 126), and Taylor published “The Taylor System of Color Harmony” in a February 1923 issue of the Color Trade Journal (XII, pp. 55-58, referenced in Levin, p. 126) that included “a ready reference chart of color Harmony”, also “attempt[ing] “to link a chromatic scale in music to one in color and stress[ing] major and minor triads or chords.” Both, like Macdonald-Wright, said their charts were superior to the standard color wheel (Levin, p. 42), and both started with red rather than yellow as middle C, so for them, the key of blue was G#/Ab.

Note the similarities to and differences from Rimington's Colour-Organ's keyboard, as shown in A[lexander]. Wallace Rimington, Colour-music, the art of mobile colour, London: Hutchinson & Co., 1912, Appendix, p. 177.


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]).

I audited a course at Mount Holyoke College (whose art museum also owns an original copy of Interaction of Color), in South Hadley, MA, in the fall of 2015, co-taught by the author of the catalogue's final essay, neurobiologist Susan Barry (wife of the astronaut Dan Barry, and author of a memoir about her strabismus, Fixing My Gaze, New York: Basic Books, 2009) entitled: "Art, Music, and the Brain." Its primary "textbooks" (neither is a traditional one) are Margaret Livingstone, Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, New York: Abrams, 2002, rev. & expanded ed., 2014, and Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. Livingstone makes some analogies between color and sound in her final Chapter 17. Barry knew Sacks, and was the subject of his New Yorker (June 19, 2006) essay "Stereo Sue"; they corresponded for about a decade. The other co-teacher was the chair of the music department, violinist Linda Laderach.


Addendum 3, 10 April 2018. I recently acquired a boxed set of the complete music for solo piano of Alexander Scriabin, the overwhelmingly largest single category of his music, performed by Maria Lettberg; Capriccio 49586, 8 CDs recorded 2004-2007 + 1 DVD (2007), © 2011. Lettberg wrote her dissertation at a German university on this music, compiled the notes in the accompanying booklet that include many quotes from Scriabin's notes and letters, and performs it superbly on a Bösendorfer grand, whose sound and tone suit it exceptionally well.

The DVD offers a c. 33 min. program of 6 works she selected that meshed with the composer's notes (words, not music) about his planned magnum opus, Mysterium, whose composition was not even begun when he died, that was to be what we would today call a multi-media event and experience, involving sound, light projections with colors, dance, architecture, aromas, chants, meditation, etc., that relates the creation of the universe and the cycle of life, to be performed over 7 days in the foothills of the Himalayas, and was intended to be transcendent, apocalyptic, even. Lettberg found an artist to create works and find images that meshed with the music and are projected along with it, sometimes transparently over the performance at the keyboard of the white piano.

This is followed by 2 interviews with Lettberg, in German with subtitles:

1) concerning the music for piano and her experiences and life with it; and

2) Scriabin's sound-color synesthesia and how what we know about it was obtained through Leonid Sabane(y)ev (See text in Part 1 above; He also writes about Mysterium in his tribute to Scriabin in Muzyka, No. 220, 26 April [= 9 May] 2015, pp. 266-269/[1-4 in this issue], after Scriabin's death [I have seen the original, in the collection of the Center for Russian Culture at Amherst College].), and the Mysterium multi-media project, its designer, Andrea Schmidt, and the abstract art, animation, and other images, realized using Scriabin's notes and his synesthesia as the base.

Sabane(y)ev wrote: "Когда его гроб стоял в том месте, где текла его жизнь, в том самом кабинете, в котором рождались его творческие мечты, где ещё так недавно он играл нам – и вокруг стояли преданные ему люди, его друзья, со свечами в руках – то мне представилось, что присутствую при первых звуках, не реальных, а духовных звуках той Мистерии, о которой он думал всю жизнь, первым аккордом которой была его смерть и продолжение которой не помещается в нашем земном мире. (="When his coffin was placed in that very place, where his life was going by, in that very study, in which his creative dreams were born, where he has recently played his music to us, now surrounded by people faithful to him, his friends holding candles in their hands – suddenly I imagined that I am present at the birth of the first, not real but spiritual sounds of that Mysterium, about which he was thinking during all his life, the first accord of which was his death and the continuation of which can't be accommodated in our material world." Translation by Nadezda Spivak of the Amherst College Center for Russian Culture)

This is the best product on the market for this music, and it is available at a bargain re-issue price from Arkiv Music.


Addendum 4, 15 March 2019. I just acquired my first CD whose works are chosen, organized, and performed by a synesthete, in an overt attempt to convey a sense of what it ‘sounds like’ even if you don’t, as she acknowledges is likely, share her form (among the many that exist) thereof or experience it. It is: (S)yn(e)sth(e)te (Note that the letters in parentheses spell a word.), Jenny Q. Chai, piano, (unidentified, likely a NY Steinway), MSR Classics, MS 1667, © 2017, TT 48:44. Except for the final one: Messiaen’s 14:31 “Cantéyodjayâ,” the works are all short, some of them, including 2 Debussy Études, well known; others, such as the 2 Études by Ligeti and the 4 titled works by Kurtág from Játékok, are less familiar, and some whose titles include names of colors: “Blue Inscription” by Scott Wollschleger, and “Karakurena (Crimson)” by Andy Akiho, are new. The booklet contains no traditional program notes, but features several artistic and imaginative b&w and color photos of Chai, and its centerfold is a reproduction of her colorful abstract painting (medium unspecified) inspired by Debussy’s Feux d’artifices (Études, Bk II/12). She devotes the first paragraph of her essay to describing synesthesia and her own experience of it, and the second to a summary description of her program and its goal.

I thank Oni Buchanan, founder and director of Ariel Artists in Boston, whom I met when handling “Will Call” tickets at a recital in Northampton, MA, on 10 March by one of her clients, who mentioned Jenny (another client) to me in a conversation after the performance. On 13 March, she sent me this link to a fine, frank, and open review of her performance, with projections of both color and b&w works of art, at UC Berkeley (CA) on 9 March. Its author, Allan J. Cronin, like me, does not experience the phenomenon, but is, also like me, fascinated by it and interested in understanding and being better able to comprehend and conceive it in spite of not experiencing it. Jenny’s CD helps out well: I can easily sense the ethereal transparency that she conveys through some of the sounds she creates with her clear, crisp, delicate, precise touch, and how it can reflect/represent colors and help you envision or imagine them, even if you don’t see specific individual ones or the connections/correspondences between the two sensorial stimulants. Try it, you’ll like it.

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

Addendum 6, November 10, 2022

(S)yn(e)sth(e)te, Jenny Q Chai, piano (maker not given, likely a Steinway, based on its having been "Recorded in 2012 at Joseph Patrych at Patrych Sound Studios in NYC [tray card]), Scott Wollschleger (b. 1980), Blue Inscription (2010), Claude Debussy (862-1918), Pour les quartes (12 Études, no. III), Pour les huit doigts (Études no. VI, 1915), Andy Akiho (b. 1979), Kartakurenai (Crimson), for prepared piano (2007\/2011), György Ligeti (1923-2006), Cordes à vide (Études, bk II, 1985), Disordre [misspelled as désórdre] (Études, Bk I, 1988-94), György Kurtág (b. 1926), Bells for Margit Mándy (Játékok, Bk V, 1997), Les Adieux (Játékok, Bk VI, 2000), Shadow-Play: Hommage à Somlyó György (Játékok, Bk III, 1979), Quiet Talk with the Devil (Játékok, Bk III, 1979), Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), Cantéyodjayâ (1948), MSR Classics MS 1667, © 2017, 48: ; $13.99, via Amazon.

I have known of this CD for some time, but only got a copy a few days ago. The 12-pp. booklet contains 7 photos of Chai (including both covers), with its centerfold being a full-opening color reproduction of a work of art by her, the track list with details of the works 7and timings on p. 3, and 2 pages of program notes, the first by her, preceded by a quote of praise of her playing by Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times in a 2012 review of a performance, and the second a bio of her by an unidentified author, perhaps herself? (pp. 10-11). The first describes synesthesia in general, with some specific examples, followed be details of her own synesthesia and its development (It was gradual and strikes me as perhaps changing), while the second describes different details about the works.

As I wrote above, she says: "For me, each composer has a highly individual synesthesia with each piece, introducing a different kind of association between sound and color. My wish is that the listener to explore this music and discover their own personal synesthesia." (p. 10) I find this statement somewhat confusing, because the work is by the composer, not the listener, so the latter needs to try to understand the composer's, not her/his own… It's not easy, when one is not a synesthete, for her/him to understand it completely let alone experience it. See also my article about Scriabin's 5th Symphony.

This is a program whose works work together well and show variety, but also go together well in spite of their differences in the time and styles of composition. However, I wanted her to have found yet more that also fit into it; it's a skimpy one, since CDs can have up to 80 minutes of music. I have her most recent one: Songs of Love, divine art, © 2022, 51:09, $12.75 via Presto. This, too, is a skimpy CD; it has only 3 works of different times and styles: the first by JSB, the second by Charles Ives, and the third, Robert Schumann's 8-movement  Kreisleriana, Op. 16, which has a special meaning for Chai; it's a tribute to her favorite teacher: Seymour Lipton (1903-1986), but is also a nice program and very well-played.