Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Synaesthesia

Many's the listener for whom a musical experience conjures visual images. For some, however, the experience is involuntary: different pitches and chords consistently give rise to specific colors, a phenomenon known as synesthesia. Alexander Scriabin, Olivier Messiaen, and Michael Torke are among the composers who have reported these correspondences, and it has inevitably influenced their music.

This Friday (Feb. 11) at 8 pm at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, the Center for 21st Century Music is co-sponsoring a concert by A Musical Feast, titled "Sensory Crossovers: Synesthesia in American Art." The program includes Robert Muczynski's Gallery: Suite for Unaccompanied Cello; Kreisler's Coat by Jonathan Golove for cello and piano; Sequence pour un hymne à la nuit by Alain Margoni (1979); Ruth Wiesenfeld's stories still for cello and pre-recorded tape with voice; and Kodály's Duo for violin and cello. Golove, Fang Hew, and Carter Enyeart perform (in different pieces) on cello, while Claudia Hoca plays piano, and A Musical Feast's founder, Charles Haupt, joins in on violin for the Kodály.

While none of these pieces are by synesthetic composers, nearly all of them are inspired by visual images. Muczynski's Gallery was suggested by Burchfield's watercolors; a recording of Carter Enyeart playing the piece has recently been issued on the Centaur label. Golove took his cue for Kreisler's Coat from a description by E. T. A. Hoffmann (of the eponymous Tales) of a character who wore "a coat the color of C-sharp minor with an E-major colored collar." French composer Margoni was a student of Messiaen; Golove, who performs the work, finds echoes of Messiaen's "color chords" in it.

An enigmatic image - "a rotating lamp, illuminating for a moment only what happens to be within its beam of light" - spurred Wiesenfeld's piece, which makes use of a text by Samuel Beckett. Full program notes are available here.

Kodály's Duo completes the program, and while it doesn't have any specific visual genesis, it's always worth a listen. Here it is in a fine performance by violinist Kurt Nikkanen and cellist Daniel Gaisford.

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