visualising music - introduction

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And introduction to the ideas of synaesthesia and it's influence in visualising sound


  • Synesthesia Synesthesia (also spelled synsthesia or synaesthesia, - from the Ancient Greek (syn), "together," and (aisthsis), "sensation" harmless condition that allows a person to appreciate sounds, colours or words with two or more senses simultaneously. The involuntary ability to hear colour, see music or even taste words results from an accidental cross-wiring in the brain that is found in one in 2,000 people, and in many more women than men. People who report such experiences are known as synesthetes. Imagine what it would be like to taste a triangle, to hear the color red or to see sound.
  • "The painting represents the opening of the concerto for four violins. I listen to the music while I paint. First, the music gives me an optimistic, happy feeling and I perceive red, yellow, and orange colors in a great variety with little contrast. It looks like a field of these colors. I perceive the color field as a musical chord. You can compare it with the colors of a blanket or cover made of autumn leaves." Anne Salz, a Dutch musician and visual artist, perceives music in coloured patterns. She describes her painting inspired by Vivaldis Concerto for Four Violins: "The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure and, finally, for the supernatural The brighter it becomes, the more it loses its sound, until it turns into silent stillness and becomes white." "Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings." Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky (1866 - 1944)
  • The earliest recorded case comes from the Oxford academic and philosopher John Locke in 1690, who was bemused by "a studious blind man" claiming to experience the colour scarlet when he heard the sound of a trumpet. The idea that music is linked to visual art goes back to ancient Greece, when Plato first talked of tone and harmony in relation to art. The spectrum of colours, like the language of musical notation, has long been arranged in stepped scales. it is still unclear whether or not Beethoven, who called B minor the black key and D major the orange key, or Schubert, who saw E minor as "a maiden robed in white with a rose-red bow on her chest", were real synaesthetes.
  • The Colour Organ Inspired by Newtons theory of music-colour correspondences, Sir Benjamin Thomas, Count Rumford (1753- 1814) inveted the "optical harpsichord" (clavecin oculaire) over 200 years ago. His idea was to have a colored light triggered to turn on when the keys of the harpsichord were pressed. The invention of the gas light in the nineteenth century created new technical possibilities for the color organ. In England between 1869 and 1873, the inventor Frederick Kastner developed an organ that he named a Pyrophone. The British inventor Alexander Rimington, a professor in fine arts in London, documented the phrase Colour- Organ. Inspired by Newtons idea that music and colour are both grounded in vibrations, he divided the colour spectrum into intervals analogous to musical octaves and attributed colours to notes. The same notes in a higher octave produced the same colour tone but then in a lighter value. Around the turn of the century, concerts with light and musical instruments were given quite regularly. As most technical problems had been conquered, the psychological questions concerning the effects of these performances came to the fore. The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin was particularly interested in the psychological effects on the audience when they experienced sound and colour simultaneously. His theory was that when the correct colour was perceived with the correct sound, a powerful psychological resonator for the listener would be created. His most famous synesthetic work, which is still performed today, is Prometheus, Poem of Fire.
  • Musical Paintings In the second half the nineteenth century, a tradition of musical paintings began to appear that influenced symbolist painters. In the first decades of the twentieth century, a German artist group called The Blue Rider (Der blaue Reiter) executed synesthetic experiments that involved a composite group of painters, composers, dancers and theater producers. The aims of the group were focused on three goals: the unification of the arts by means of Total Works of Art. Kandinsky's theory of synesthesia, as formulated in booklet On the Spiritual in Art (1910), helped to shape the ground for these experiments. He described synesthesia as a phenomenon of transposition of experience from one sense modality to another, as in unisonous musical tones. Kandinsky was not the only artist at this time with an interest in synesthetic perception. A study of the art at the turn of the century reveals in the work of almost every progressive or avant-garde artist an interest in the correspondences of music and visual art. Modern artists experimented with multi-sensory perception like the simultaneous perception of movement in music and film
  • Automatic Drawing Automatic drawing was developed by the surrealists, as a means of expressing the subconscious. In automatic drawing, the hand is allowed to move 'randomly' across the paper. In applying chance and accident to mark-making, drawing is to a large extent freed of rational control. Hence the drawing produced may be attributed in part to the subconscious and may reveal something of the psyche, which would otherwise be repressed. Examples of automatic drawing were produced by mediums and practitioners of the psychic arts. It was thought by some Spiritualists to be a spirit control that was producing the drawing whilst physically taking control of the medium's body. Automatic drawing was pioneered by Andr Masson. Artists who practised automatic drawing include Joan Mir, Salvador Dal, Jean Arp and Andr Breton. The technique was transferred to painting (as seen in Mir's paintings which often started out as automatic drawings). Pablo Picasso was also thought to have expressed a type of automatic drawing in his later work, and particularly in his etchings and lithographic suites of the 1960s.
  • Kadinsky Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky (1866 - 1944) was a Russian painter, printmaker and art theorist. One of the most famous 20th- century artists, he is credited with painting the first modern abstract works. Kandinsky is believed to have had synaesthesia, In his case, colours and painted marks triggered particular sounds or musical notes and vice versa. Kandinsky achieved pure abstraction by replacing the castles and hilltop towers of his early landscapes with stabs of paint or, as he saw them, musical notes and chords that would visually "sing" together. blue or a silent, black void. He wanted to evoke sound through sight and create the painterly equivalent of a symphony that would stimulate not just the eyes but the ears as well.
  • It is clear that all I have said of these colours is very provisional and general, and so also are those feelings (joy, grief, etc) which have been quoted as parallels of the colours. For these feelings are only the material expressions of the soul. Shades of colour, like those of sound, are of a much finer texture and awake in the soul emotions to fine to be expressed in words. (Kandinsky concerning the spiritual in art. P 41)
  • Charles Baudelaire The influential French poet and chronicler of modern life displayed synaesthetic sensibilities in his 1857 sonnet "Correspondances": "Perfumes, sounds and colours answer each other." In addition to his frequent writings on Richard Wagner's music, Baudelaire was intrigued by sensuous experiences, especially of the body within the city. He also experimented with hashish in order to enhance the intermingling of the senses. Baudelaire's countryman and fellow poet Arthur Rimbaud had synaesthesia, too. Vladimir Nabokov The Russian author famed for his English novel of 1955 Lolita, developed his "freakish gift" of synaesthesia during childhood when he complained to his mother that the colours on his wooden alphabet blocks were "all wrong". Synaesthesia is now recognised as a genetically inherited trait, and the Nabokov family was full of synaesthetes; his mother, wife and son Dimitri all had the condition. "The confessions of a synaesthete must sound tedious and pretentious to those who are protected from such leakings," wrote Nabokov. Olivier Messiaen The acclaimed French composer and organist claimed that his complex chords and rhythms came to him in "coloured dreams" in which he saw blue, red and green spirals moving and turning with the sounds. "When I hear music, I see in the mind's eye colours which move with the music. This is not imagination, nor is it a psychic phenomenon. It is an inward reality." He composed many synaesthetic works such as Chronochromie-Strophe I (1960), and was also heavily influenced by birdsong. David Hockney Hockney's stage sets for performances of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, Mozart's Magic Fl