Hearing in Color

When musicians discuss timbre, they often do so using vocabulary that speaks to stimuli other than audial. Conductors will ask for a sound that’s “brighter,” “darker,” “warmer,” or “sweeter.” Teachers wonder if you can “color” a note, and coaches will suggest that a syllable or word could benefit from a “whiter” sound. We use these conflicting cues because we don’t have a good solid vocabulary for talking about sound. Hearing is nebulous for most of us; it’s something we do unconsciously right from birth.

But for some, hearing is also seeing. Or tasting. Or any combination of things. Synesthesia is a term meaning “union of the senses” and it refers to a condition in which a person has an atypical response to a stimulus. This can manifest itself in many ways. Someone can see colors and shapes when they hear a sound, or even experience taste sensations when they hear a certain musical note. Their numbers or days of the week might have certain “personalities,” or they may see colors and shapes when looking at alphanumeric letters.

I have a type of synesthesia where I associate certain colors with numbers and letters. For example, my numbers look something like this: 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

It is as trippy for me to look at black type and try to imagine I’m seeing only black, as it probably is for a person without color synesthesia to imagine seeing an array of colors.

For purposes of looking at timbre, I find sound/color synesthesia to be the most interesting. This is the type where people see colors (and colored shapes) with certain sounds. There have been many composers throughout history with this type of synesthesia, and I think it is particularly fascinating to look at their music with this in mind, as if offers a unique look into the way someone else perceives the world.  One particularly fascinating instance of synesthesia that was actually incorporated into a composer’s work can be found in the symphonic tone-poem, Prometheus, by Alexander Scriabin.

Scriabin was a Russian composer who lived from 1875 to 1915, and who is believed to have had synesthesia. Envisioned as a “symphony of sound,” his work Prometheus was also intended to be a “symphony of color-rays,” though it was conceived long before lighting technology had developed well enough to accommodate this. His was a revolutionary idea at the time and in my opinion, a brilliant one. Something that has always fascinated me about composition is the idea that we can hear sounds that these extraordinary composers heard in their minds before they immortalized them on paper. With Scriabin’s “color symphony,” we can not only hear what he heard, but also see what he saw in his mind’s eye.

There are (for obvious reasons) not a lot of great videos on YouTube that showcase both the audio and visual aspects of this work, but I’ve included a recording that originated as a graduate project on this work and it’s performance. The actual piece starts around 9:43.  I encourage you to watch and see how the lighting affects your perception of the piece!

I think combining music and lighting in this way an amazing idea, and that colors absolutely enhance the way one can perceive a piece of music.  Even though we are not all synesthetes, we all experience some degree of sensory-connectivity just simply in order to make sense of our world (imagine your surprise if a small cricket hopped out of the grass and instead of chirping, bellowed!). Performing music with specific colored-light cues could offer a whole new perspective on the piece. And taking any piece of music and having someone create a color-scape for it would prove an interesting collaboration that might draw people into the world of classical music. We already describe music in visual terms; could we use color to enhance/explain complicated music? Would it draw people in, or make them more receptive?

The Complexities of Simple Music

Philip Glass has been a major composer on the American music scene for quite a while now. He’s written in a number of different genres from symphonies to operas to film scores. The work I’d like to explore in this post is from his film score for Koyaanisqatsi, a 1982 collaboration with cinematographer Ron Fricke that juxtaposes slow motion and time-lapse videography of the natural world and civilization. The particular section in the work that I’d like to look at is entitled “The Grid,” and in the film, it plays over time-lapse footage of cities at night.
Glass’s music is perfect for discussing timbre because changes in timbre provide much of the the interest in his music. In fact, I find it easier to isolate particular sounds in minimalist music because my ear doesn’t have to worry about tracking the melody. This may also be why people find minimalist music repetitive and boring. It is repetitive, but the repetition in melodic and rhythmic material means we should be directing our attention elsewhere.

Screen shot 2013-02-21 at 9.19.29 PM
Here’s my breakdown of the first couple minutes:
The first two seconds of this work are purely white-noise. The white noise continues through the rest of the piece, but this initial isolation forces us to focus on it. Because of the accompanying visual to this work, I find myself interpreting the white noise as traffic or the wind whistling in the city.
The next 43 seconds are dominated by horn-noises (I’m going to call them horns, though they could be electronically manipulated) playing F, then C, then D and G together. This use of perfect 4ths is very archetypal and evokes a somewhat primal feeling. At 0:45, we start to hear a horn faintly playing above other horn. This then becomes even stronger at 1:00, and at 1:28, the lower horn starts to repeat the interval of a major second, “embellishing” it’s “melody.”
At 1:57, trumpets come in with an iterative pattern that is quite jarring. Due to the traffic theme, I hear them as horns honking or car alarms sounding, and they bring an urgency to the work. The next minute continues with much the same sounds, and its specific combination of timbres and sonorities sounds rather jazzy.
At 2:56, the trumpets really step up their game and give us much more dissonance and brightness (we can see this on the spectrograph, which unfortunately only goes up to 3:24).
Throughout this entire section, the horns are still playing their two-note repeating ostinato. If you ever find yourself getting bored in this work (or others like it), I suggest tuning in to the number of instruments and varying sounds that you can hear. Were you still paying attention to the backdrop of white noise by the 30-second mark?
At 3:24, we start to get a bright, frantic triplet pattern. This corresponds perfectly to the visual of time-lapse traffic. In fact in many sections, the videography and music each amplify the other’s effect. For example, listen and watch from 4:03 to the end of the YouTube clip. Do the cars appear to be moving at different speeds based on the meter of the music? I have watched this section with and without sound and the difference is striking in what the music causes me to see!
In general, I hear this work as a commentary on modern existence. Glass captures the repetitiveness of daily life, particularly travel, and the futility of going and going and going but never really getting anywhere.
I tried not to look up very much information about this work prior to analyzing it because I wanted this post to be about what I was hearing, not what someone else thought I should be hearing. And there are a lot of aspects I didn’t touch on. So if you hear other things, awesome! Let me know what they are!
Also, if you’re enjoying this music, or you want to see really cool costuming and sets, Indiana University is putting on Glass’s opera, Akhnaten this weekend. It will be an incredible production and though I am not in it, a lot of my friends are. If you’re interested, you can live-stream the opera here Friday and Saturday (Feb 22, 23) at 8pm ET: http://www.music.indiana.edu/iumusiclive/streaming/

Mozart and Singers

Due to the nature of the music I’m studying in various classes right now, I seem to be on a bit of a classical kick.  Up this week is Mozart!

Mozart uses timbre in so many ways, but the one I want to focus on is how he thinks about timbre with regard to singers. Mozart understood that the human voice is a very unique instrument, and that vocal classifications are a complicated business. Singers are divided into categories based on range, tessitura (where it’s easy to sing), weight of the voice, brightness/darkness, and relative mobility. Sopranos, for example, can be divided into classifications including coloratura, dramatic coloratura, soubrette, light lyric, full lyric, spinto, dramatic, and Wagnerian! So when he wrote for voice, Mozart took into account that every singer was different, and he accommodated them accordingly.

Singers during Mozart’s time had a LOT more say about what they performed than they do today. If they didn’t like what a composer gave them, they could refuse to sing it, or ask the composer for a rewrite.  (Singers don’t usually risk that today, as they’re highly replaceable!) Mozart even composed a few arias for singers to be used in operas written by other composers, if the arias written by that composer did not sufficiently show off the singer’s voice. We still sing these arias today: they are usually referred to as Mozart “concert arias.” In fact, I included one such aria, “Vado, ma dove?” (“I go, but where?”) on my senior recital this year. This aria was originally written for the singer Luisa Villeneuve. Displeased with the current arias, she asked Mozart to write substitute arias for her role as Lucilla in Vicente Martin y Soler’s opera, Il burbero di buon cuore.   (If you’re so inclined, a bit of shameless self-promotion: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2B2zLFk6FY)

Anyway, back to the point: Mozart was very interested in keeping his singers happy, and in writing music that specifically catered to their voices. This goes beyond specific voice parts singing specific roles: Mozart conceived roles for particular singers, and changed them with any casting changes. He knew exactly how he wanted his music to sound, and if one singer’s voice wasn’t exactly suited to the role, he rewrote it so that it was. An example of this can be found in his opera Le nozze di Figaro. This is one of my all-time favorite operas, both for the hilarious drama and the beautiful music.  Le nozze di Figaro had two premieres, first in Vienna and then in Prague. There was a different cast in each city and so Mozart altered the score to accommodate the new singers. This is very apparent in the lines of Susanna and the Countess, the two principal women. For many of the ensemble numbers, particularly in Acts II and IV, Susanna’s melodies have been switched with those of the Countess.  This was done because the Susanna in Prague did not have the high notes that Mozart was looking for, and they were better supplied by the singer playing the Countess. Because these two women sing in relatively the same range, nothing was disturbed contrapuntally by this swapping of lines. And the switch was probably not made because one of the women actually couldn’t sing those notes, they just probably didn’t sound as good, or didn’t have the sound Mozart was envisioning.

Interestingly, these changes have made it down to the manuscripts of this opera today: some scores have high notes for Susanna and others for the Countess. I think this requires that directors make a very careful choice when selecting singers and scores, because Mozart obviously really cared about this. If he was willing to rewrite his music to ensure it would be sung as beautifully as possible, the least we can do is attempt to cast his operas appropriately to come as close as possible to his intended sound.

Here’s an example of the Trio in Act II, one of the scenes affected by these changes.

 The actual trio starts at 2:19. In this version, the Prague score is being used, so the Countess has the higher notes. I wonder if Mozart would have left the parts this way for these specific voices. Kathleen Battle has a lighter and brighter voice than Carol Vaness, perfect for wafting the high notes, though the way it is, Vaness’s runs up to the high C sound beautiful.

Though I couldn’t find a good example of this, I honestly think the Viennese score is generally the more appropriate one to use today, because the Countess is almost exclusively cast as a heavier soprano voice. Allowing a lighter soprano the higher notes will ensure that all voices will be heard equally, as the higher notes will naturally cut through the texture. Otherwise, the Susanna may not be heard, if the Countess’s larger voice drowns her out! In any case, Figaro has a lot of really exquisite music, and I’ll end this post with a clip of the incredible Act II finale. Enjoy!

And there was LIGHT!

When scholars look at orchestration and concepts dealing with timbre, they often start with Berlioz. This makes sense, to a degree, considering that Berlioz was a huge innovator in these subjects. But earlier composers used timbre and orchestration in innovative ways as well. For example, Haydn.

Haydn, christened “father of the symphony,” composed during a time when the majority of musical instruments he called for would be used in performance. This was different than the music from composers of previous eras (think Middle Ages and even Renaissance), for whose works we have notated music, but no real idea of the instrumentation. This is a really important concept because it means he was definitely thinking about exactly how his works would sound as he was composing. In some works, Haydn even called for particular instruments that were unusual for orchestras of the day (like timpani and trumpets) and would have to be borrowed (from the military).

Haydn’s oratorio, “Die Schöpfung,” or “The Creation,” is a beautiful work that relies a good deal on timbre to convey its meaning. Composed at the very end of the 18th century, this work uses text from the Bible and Paradise Lost by John Milton to depict the creation of the world (as told in Genesis). The text and music are closely tied together, each building off the other to create a complete story.


 (feel free to ignore the graphics…)

The beginning of this work is intended to portray the world before creation; it is Haydn’s depiction of chaos. And he does this quite well; in fact, I would not guess him as the composer until at least 1:45. The chromatic, wandering lines he writes are far more typical of the Romantic Era, and he is more concerned with aural effect than melody or form.  In the Classical Era, this chromaticism and loose structure would have been interpreted as chaotic.

No 2.

This famous recitative section is absolutely amazing. Listen for yourselves through the first two minutes to the words and the way Haydn sets them. The most incredible moment comes around 1:44, with the words, “and God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Haydn sets the final “light,” on a fully orchestrated, triumphant C Major chord. The chord is so powerful for a number of reasons: its juxtaposition to the previous material, the pitch range used, the number of different instruments, and the contrast of the “darkness” and “brightness” of the instrumental sounds. To give you a visual, here is what the spectrograph captured from 1:45-2:20. The x-axis is time, the y-axis is frequency in Hertz, and the intensity of the color indicates the intensity of the relative frequencies.Screen shot 2013-02-07 at 7.20.30 AM

No. 3 

The music in this section, beginning at 0:41, depicts the newly-created “stormy seas.” Here, Haydn draws upon an idea now referred to as “Sturm und Drang,” or “Storm and Stress.” This encompassed a period in art, literature and music in which dramatic depictions of expression and emotion took precedence over the restraint of the Enlightenment period. Though Haydn would not have referred to this type of music with precisely that title, his use of this style was deliberate in painting an aural picture.  “Sturm und Drang” in music is associated with drama, driving rhythms, and minor keys, all of which we hear in this section. Listen to the first 20 sections a few times and see if you can pick out the different musical layers. Here is what I’m hearing:

  • low strings set a driving rhythmic pulse for the section
  • the middle strings play continuous runs, which I hear as rollicking seas or howling winds
  • upper strings have an angular melody, dramatic melody
  • winds have sustained pitches that cut through the sound because of their relatively high spectral centroid, or “brightness”