Flash in the Pan

A Quarterly Posting at Tiny Lights

Hearing Colors

by Armand Gelpi

It was a Saturday night at Davies Hall in San Francisco. And the symphonic program included a piece by the young American composer, Michael Torke. This was a nine-minute production called "Bright Blue Music". And it was built upon traditional tonality and rhythms, but could be described as buoyant and celebratory—in keeping with its title. But of more interest to me, was the fact that two earlier works by the same guy were entitled "The Yellow Pages" and "Ecstatic Orange." So what's going on here, with this colored music?
Remembering your high school physics, you might also recall that sound, light, radio waves, x-rays, and cosmic rays all have one thing in common: They are all the result of particles in motion— repetitive, and at various frequencies, and in wave form. This could be compared to the ocean's surf, a metronome, or the ripples from a stone cast into a pond. So when you hear a tone in the key of C, for example, the sound is the result of air vibrating at a specific frequency. But, you probably do not recognize that this is the key of C. On the other hand, if you see a red traffic light at the intersection, you'll probably have no trouble recognizing the color. Many colorblind people can recognize distinctive colors, but have trouble with different shades of color or color blends. In any case, most of us cannot recognize a musical note as being a C or a D. But those who do—many symphonic conductors—have absolute, or perfect pitch.
Question is: To really enjoy music does one have to have something more than a "musical ear"? Does one have to have perfect pitch? Probably not. But the gifted few may be getting some of the added extraordinary sensations one might feel when seeing an exceptional sunset, a vivid painting, or a turquoise sea. Looking in the other direction, why is one person's music another person's noise? Is this a matter of preference—some would say, taste? Are there degrees of tonal deafness—that is to say, the inability to hear colors? Finally, is music appreciation based on multiple structural elements—instrumental sound, harmony, counterpoint, rhythm—besides just tone?
Which brings us back to Mr. Torke and his colorful music. It's just possible that this composer has pondered all of these things, and discovered to his own satisfaction—and that of his audiences—that not only do tones and harmonies have chromatic qualities, but whole compositions may be thought of as colored. And now, I'm on to something: Brahms' "Requiem" sounds purple to me. The music of Delius has a pastoral quality, and seems green. And the great, brassy "Sing, Sing, Sing" popularized by swing artist, Benny Goodman and his band in the 40s, just has to be golden-orange. So I'm wondering, what did W.C. Handy have in mind when he composed the St. Louis Blues?

Excerpt from a longer, unpublished original by Armand Gelpi, Sonoma, CA.

Fifth Flash

Hold by Barbara Spicer
Smell Of Rubber by Tony Johnson
The Sins Of The Father by Glenn Mccrea
Punctuation by Kate Willens
Drawn To The Light by Suzanne R. Thurman
Le Pilier (the Pier) by Julian Lindemuth
River by Leslie Curchack
Party Time by Viola Hargadine
Rules by Terry Law
New Moon by Diane Larae Bodach
We Don't Talk About It by Amy Zimmer

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