Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Color and Music

'The Harmony of the Birth of the World' (Harmonia Nascentis Mundi), represented by a cosmic organ with six registers corresponding to the days of creation (from the Glasgow University Library, Special Collections Department).

According to the Oxford English Dictionary syn├Žsthesia (often spelled synesthesia) is the “production, from a sense-impression of one kind, of an associated mental image of a sense-impression of another kind.” Put more simply it is a response of one sense by a different sense organ. One of the most discussed forms of synesthesia is the perception of music as color.

The ability of color and music to move the emotions has been recognized for millennia. Ancient Greek philosophers drew parallels between color, music and the planets which were not replaced until the 18th century. Many terms in music can also be used to describe color and art: composition, tone, chromatic, harmony, key and texture. Artists have been fascinated with the direct emotional appeal of music.

As far back as the 1870s musicians and artists have tried to fuse color and music through the use of “color organs,” a crude version of “Laserium.” In his work Prometheus: a Poem of Fire, Aleksandr Scriabin created a color “score” to be played simultaneously with his music score.

(from Poem Of Ecstasy and Prometheus: Poem of Fire by Alexander Scriabin (Dover Edition))

American artists Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell created the Synchromist Movement based on treating colors like notes in an overall composition. They believed that in order to represent a color scale, the colors could not be blended since the mixed color no longer exists, but should be set next to each other like a musical chord – these notes are still present.


Synchromy in Green and Orange, 1916 Stanton Macdonald-Wright (image source: Walker Art Center)

For some people with synesthesia the connection between color and music seems to be buried deep in the psyche. Those who have this condition experience a neurologically based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. Duke Ellington, Amy Beach, and Jean Sibelius experienced the sound-color version of synesthesia where, as the listener heard a sound he or she would also see a color.

The Colour Amour exhibit will be continuing on the 4th floor of the Main Library through March 26, 2009.


A Reading List for Color and Music

“Artistic and Psychological Experiments with Synesthesia” by Cretien van Campen. Leonardo Vol. 32, No. 1 (1999): pp 9-14.

Color, Myth, and Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Synchromism by Will South. (North Carolina Museum of Art, 2001).

A Great Russian Tone-Poet: Scriabin by A. Eaglefield Hull. (K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1916).

“Instruments to Perform Color-Music: Two Centuries of Technological Experimentation”
by Kenneth Peacock. Leonardo Vol. 21, No. 4 (1988), 397-406.

Kandinsky: Compositions by Magdalena Dabrowski. (Museum of Modern Art, 1995).
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Morgan Russell by Marilyn S. Kushner. (Hudson Hills Press, 1990).

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and The Brain by Oliver Sacks. (Knopf, 2007).

Paul Klee: Painting Music by Hajo Duchting. (Prestel, 2004).

Sweet Man, The Real Duke Ellington by Don George. (Putnam, 1981).

Synchromism and American Color Abstraction by Gail Levin. (G. Braziller, 1978).

Synchromism and Color Principles in American Painting, 1910-1930 by William Agee. (M. Knoedler & Co., 1965).

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