Synaesthesia – What Music Can Tell a Painter: Music Of Astor Piazzolla And Manuell De Falla As It Translated Into The Canvases.

Problems and Development of the Professional Education at the Times of Social Reforms. Collection of Articles from the Fourth International Conference on Education. Saratov, Russia. March 2007.
By Anya Gerasimchuk

Most of us enjoy the simple pleasures of looking at a nice painting or listening to a beautiful melody. Have you ever enjoyed a sight of a sunset and a song of a bird – or a movie scene with your favorite song at the background? The visual and auditory sensations seem very natural and delightful. Even from the times of ancient people when chanting or dancing were combined with painting geometric forms or bright colors on the bodies or walls of the sanctuaries, we see the natural tendency of humans to combine auditory and visual.

The conscious attempt to tie together music and color started with Plato, when he first began investigating tone and harmony in relation to art. Later, the idea of color harmony based on the rainbow “scale” appeared in the writings of Pythagoreans in ancient Greece, Aristotle, Leonardo Da Vinci, Father Athanasious Kircher and many others.

In the 17 th century Sir Isaac Newton first analyzed the color properties of sunlight and divided the naturally-occurring spectrum of rainbow colors into seven colors, one for each note of a musical scale. The phenomena of light and sound were thus united in the one mathematical Matrix. In his color wheel Newton used the color red (the color that is least “reflangible” – with the lowest degree of refraction) next to D, the note with the lowest frequency.

Later, in the 19 th century, Hermann von Helmholtz, the leviathan of natural sciences, constructed his own color-music scale. He supplemented a traditional set of the primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) with the additive ones (red, green and blue-violet). The pairs of complementary colors, such as red and blue-green, were isolated in the spectrum – Helmholtz considered their combined effect harmonious, and likened them to consonant musical intervals. He also demonstrated that any such pair, of its own, could reconstitute white light, when painted on a spinning disc.

Helmholtz was in an excellent position to evaluate the color music, being himself a pianist, and whose father was a painter. “Running up the scale from G to g, the white notes of the piano would align approximately with deep red, red, orange, yellow, greenish-blue, indigo-blue and ultra-violet.” So, the major chord of A scale, A, C# and E most closely matched his additive primaries of red, green and blue-violet.

Attempts to regulate the use of our senses resulted in the creation of the first color-music instruments. In 1725, the French Jesuit scientist, Louis-Bertrand Castel, built an Ocular Harpsichord which actually linked each key on the musical scale with a specific color of the rainbow progression. In his later device it simply raised colored pieces of paper into view when the corresponding keys were struck.

When his ocular harpsichord was exhibited in London in 1757, the instrument was reportedly a remarkable object to behold. Its scale alone suggests physical grandeur – at twelve octaves, it was nearly twice the size of a grand piano, with each of the 144 keys operating individual shutters over identical square apertures containing color-coded panels of tissue paper. The instrument worked with a complex system of pulleys, levers, and shutters and, as each color on Castel's machine demanded an individual candle, this” behemoth”, as a contemporary pamphlet described it, must have dazzled when lit [9].

In 1893 Alexander Rimington and Bainbridge Bishop built the Color Organ. The instrument overlaid the projected individual colors into specially set-up spaces, merging the color across large screens in an abstract, painterly fashion [9] . The color organ's keyboard was compared to a large palette.

The invention of electricity allowed many artists in the 20th century to experiment with colored light, from the dancer Loie Fuller to color-organ composers including A. Wallace Rimington, Mary Hallock Greenewalt, Alexander B. Hector, Thomas Wilfred, and Anatol Vietinghoff-Scheel. Composer Alexander Scriabin created another device to project color for his Prometheus to express his perceptions of the color-harmonies. In Germany experiments to combine music and visual art made by such painters and composers as Kandinsky and Schoenberg, Alexander Laszlo and Oskar Fischinger, and the Bauhaus theater performances, culminated in four Color Music Congresses (1927, 1930, 1933 and 1936) with dozens of artists and scientists assembled by Dr. Georg Anschutz at Hamburg University. The color harmony theories proposed by all those people differ considerably.

As a close-up example, the performer of Scriabing's Prometheus, Loie Fuller, had made a sensational debut in Paris in the early 1892. “Though considered a dancer, she primarily created color phenomena by whirling drapery through various light sources. She patented a dozen devices that contributed to her color art, including a glass floor and platform that allowed her to be lit from beneath and seem to float in the air, as well as special wands to make her veils flow more supplely, and various projectors that could cast variegated colors and shaped light beams. She quickly became the queen of Paris - painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, sculpted in bronze and marble, photographed and filmed with hand-tinted copies. But none of these representations completely capture her magical time-based fluid color-music, which inspired Schmitt to compose the complex Tragedy of Salome for her to perform, and which continued to thrill audiences throughout full evening performances for 35 years” [2, C 34].

If some artists and scientists deliberately experiment with combining two senses together, some people don't need any experiments because of the natural ability to experience and appreciate sounds, colors or words with two or more senses simultaneously. Some neurologists believe that such ability is linked to a slight abnormality in the human brain: an accidental cross-wiring in the brain that is found in one in 2,000 people, and in many more women than men [9]. The scientific term for this condition is “synaesthesia”.

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Synaesthesia is a blend of the Greek words for together (syn) and sensation (aesthesis). 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 color scarlet when he heard the sound of a trumpet. Skeptics have dismissed synaesthesia as nothing more than subjective invention, like a bad case of metaphor affliction - after all, anyone can feel blue, see red, eat sharp cheese or wear a loud tie.

Recently, however, a group of neuroscientists has been able to prove that synaesthetes do indeed "see" sound. A series of brain scans showed that, despite being blindfolded, synaesthetes showed "visual activity" in the brain when listening to sounds. Now all that is left is to find the gene that may be responsible [8].

One of the many bright examples of synaesthesia is an example of the pianist Laura Rosser who hears colors when she performs. Each note has its own associated hue. Stimulation of one sense thus produces the sensation of another. Laura said one of her great fears is that she will somehow lose the ability to hear color.

Several composers are thought of having this condition and among them Franz Liszt, Alexander Scriabin, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Some are arguing if such composers as Beethoven and Schubert were real synaesthetes. Beethoven called B minor the black key and D major the orange key, and Schubert saw E minor as “a maiden robed in white with a rose-red bow on her chest”[3, C.8]. Claude Debussy was another composer who drew connections between music and visual art.

Some research suggests musical synesthesia is more likely to come with perfect pitch. And each synesthete has his/her own unique system of associations. Some associate D-flat with purple, some with green [11].

Synaesthisia became such an evident fact that many societies were formed. One of them is American Synesthesia Association (ASA) . It was created in 1995 by Carol Steen and Patricia Lynne Duffy to provide information to synesthetes and to further research into the area of synesthesia. The ASA Inc.'s mission is to foster and promote the education and the advancement of knowledge of the phenomena of synesthesia, and to promote and provide means for the people who experience and/or study synesthesia to be in contact with each other. The Association has regular conferences which meet at such prominent universities as Rockefeller University, New York, University of California, San Diego, Princeton University, University of California, Berkeley, University of South Florida St. Petersburg, and University of Texas.

One of the synaesthetes was considered to be Vasili Kandinsky. In his case, colors and painted marks triggered particular sounds or musical notes and vice versa. Throughout his work he was preoccupied with the correlation between sound and color. He recalled hearing a strange hissing noise when mixing colors in his paint box as a child, and later became an accomplished cello player, which he said represented one of the deepest blues of all instruments [8].

Music “provided him with both a point of orientation and a yardstick in his observations on the “sounds” of colors”[3, C.8]. For him music was the most independent and free mean of expression, and he even attempted to establish what he called a “theory of Harmony for painting” comparable to that of music – an internal discipline which colors and forms were to obey.” [3, C.8].

Very often he compares colors or features of landscape or cityscape with the sounds of different instruments: “The sun dissolves the whole of Moscow into a single spot, which, like a wild tuba, set all one's soul vibrating…” [3, C.8].

Later, listening to Wagner's Lohengrin, the sounds of the orchestra painted before his eyes, the colors of that Moscow evening: “I saw all my colors in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me." H e saw and heard the sunset hour he so longed to paint and realized that “painting could develop just such powers as music possesses” [3, .8].

In 1911, after studying and settling in Germany, he was similarly moved by a Schoenberg concert and finished painting Impression III (Konzert) two days later. The abstract artist and the atonal composer became friends, and Kandinsky even exhibited Schoenberg's paintings in the first Blue Rider exhibition in Munich in the same year.

A synaesthetic experience seems to be immediate and spontaneous. Thus, the work of art based on the synaesthetic experience can be easily done as a quick improvisation, which either later or immediately can lead to a profound work. Once the idea behind the future art work is conceived, it is the matter of artist's skill to “dress” it into the appropriate form. That can be the reason for Kandinsky's fast pace of work, as we saw with his Impression III, created in only two days, or Composition VII, his largest work, which he finished in just three days.

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Being the founder of abstract painting, Kandinsky reduces recognizable details of the natural world into calligraphic lines, and large areas of vibrant color “to stimulate emotions associated with classical music and to provoke responses which the considered use of specific colors could lead to” [3]. In abstraction, Kandinsky felt that he had discovered a spiritual reality which was more powerful for not being tied to the outside world – an alternative music for the senses [3].

The exhibition of Kandinsky at Tate Modern in England in summer-autumn 2006 shows how the artist used his synaesthesia to create the world's first truly abstract paintings.

Another exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum presented the exhibition of Visual Music in 2005, with more that 90 works, by more that 40 artists, ranging from abstract paintings and experimental films to color organs and contemporary installations. The exhibit featured artists who blend musical analogy and synaeshtesia and included the works of Wassily Kandinsky and Stanton Bacdonald-Wright (1890-1973). Works such as Mikhail Matiushin's Painterly-Musical Construction (1918) and Georgia O'Keeffe's Blue and Green Music (1921) even had musical titles.

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Benny Shanon, Professor of cognitive psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, does not want to base his findings on synaesthesia on any neurological data or on the brain function. Synaesthesia, according to him, conceptually presents a cognitive view which is radically different. He looks at it from the context of his study of the Metaphor. Metaphor is a “cognitive mode affording a new way of looking at things” [9]. As an example, he sites the abstract from Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1988) Love in the Time of Cholera [5]. This text not only presents wonderful metaphor but also a case analogous to synaesthesia: “ Once he tasted some chamomile tea and sent it back, saying only: “That stuff tastes of window”. Both she and the servants were surprised because they had never heard of anyone who had drunk oiled window, but when they tried the tea in an effort to understand, they understood: it did taste of window” [5, C.221-2].

Who would even have thought of associating taste with a windowpane? Yet, the metaphoric expression is meaningful. “In fact, as described in the novel, it is the drawing of the metaphoric relationship that makes the individuals at hand view the world in a new way, one in which the metaphor is accepted as a proper description of reality.” [9]. Thus, Shanon draws a clear parallel between the linguistic phenomenon of metaphor and the sensory one of synaesthesia. Metaphoricity is not simply the product of “expanded association”, but rather a “cognitive mode pertaining to a state of mind or a perspective in which certain semantic distinctions are not made.” He looks at synaesthesia from the same perspective, as a mode of perception that disregards standard differentiation between sensory modalities. Metaphoric expressions and synaesthesia are much more common with children: very early in their lives children routinely exhibit cross-modal associations. For instance, after hearing a pulsing tone, infants preferred to stare at dotted rather than an unbroken, line, and vice versa following a continuous tone [9]. Similar findings were reported with respect to loud sounds and bright colors.

Shanon also encountered synaesthesia in his study of non-ordinary states of mind, specifically under the influence of ayahuasca, a powerful psychotropic brew that for millennia has been used by tribal cultures of the upper Amazonian region. The brew is famous for the non-ordinary visual effects that it induces. The most common synaesthetic effect is color and form associates to music.

“As a rule, ayaguasca is consumed in the context of rituals; in this music plays a pivotal role. Many informants reported to me that they felt music to guide their visions. Specifically, they indicated that the tempo and rhythm of the music was reflected in the visions. Drinkers also feel that the chanting of shamans using ayahuasca directs the course of the visions and determines their general flavor and coloring. “ [9].

Auditory-to-visual synaesthesias are the most common ones, although other patterns occur as well. More then that, in most cases synaesthesia occurs from a non-visual modality to the visual one. Dr. Shannon finds it unclear if there is synaesthesias from vision to another perceptual modality or from one non-visual modality to another.

The phenomenon of synaesthesia as well as the ordinary metaphor, “can be regarded as various aspects of a more fundamental relaxation of boundaries in cognition: boundaries between words, between meanings, between semantic domains, between percepts, and sensory modalities.” [9]. This relaxation leads to Novelty – novelty for the child as he embarks upon the voyage of live, or the intentional novelty for the artist who sets him/herself to create something new.

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After giving a very short summary of the human search for relationships between music and visual art, I want to briefly describe my own findings in that sphere.

I don't have synaesthesia, but the topic of Music and Visual art has always been a matter of a deep interest in my own artistic career. Being a graduate of a music school in Russia, class piano, and continuing my studies as a pianist on my own with an instruction of a Conservatoire graduate, and being a painter, museum docent, and an art teacher gave me a tool of appreciation and understanding the two arts on a level good enough to do my own search of the connection between sound and vision.

Once, as a piano student and performing Liszt's “Impromptu-Fantasia”, my teacher asked me if I visualized anything while playing the piece. My immediate answer was “yes” – always the same picture of storm on the Volga River, my still favorite place to be, with lots of small islands, birch and pine trees leaning under the pressure of the wind, sand flying in the air, white foam on top of the waves. The picture was not abstract, rather it was quite realistic – a physical place which I knew very well.

Twelve years later I was doing an International project “Sound on Canvases” with a well-known composer of Ukraine, Mikhail Shukh.

“Mikhail, a member of the Russian/ Ukrainian Composer's Society and director of the well-known Christian Orthodox Festival, whose work includes symphonies, masses, cantatas, choir, chamber ensembles, and music for theater and cinema, describes his music as coming from philosophical and religious ideas, giving them a meditative quality. Anya's oil paintings and watercolors are also meditative; the synergy between visual and audio are designed to create a peaceful and contemplative fluidity in the audio-visual experience. The paintings within this body of work are to be exhibited with earphones such that visitor can listen to the corresponding composition.…Anya and Mikhail will be exhibiting the work in September in Anya's home country of Russia at Saratov State Art Museum and in December 2005 at the Composer's House in the Ukraine. She hopes to eventually bring the exhibition to the US.” (University of Cincinnati, DAAP on-line publication, 2005).

My work with Mikhail was the first attempt to understand what I “see” in music, how I want to express it, should I use realistic images, or abstract combination of color, lines and objects to express my emotions.

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Now I truly indulged myself in a really passionate, “down to earth”, breaking the rules music of the Argentinean composer Astro Piazzolla, known as the most important tango composer of the latter half of the twentieth century . Piazzolla revolutionized the traditional tango into a new style termed nuevo tango , incorporating elements from jazz and classical music . Parallel to that, I am working with music of the Spanish composer Emanuel DeFalla, whose music I find similar to Piazzolla's in its passion and visuality.

The music of Piazzolla left me in the most confusion: the classical Tango elements and bewildering melodies were giving birth to the most realistic images of people, places, dancers…. But the jazziness and untraditiality led to abstract combinations of lines, color, untraditional use of paint and canvas… I need to say that Piazzolla started as a Tango composer playing in night clubs and bars, and later left his Tango compositions and continued as a classical composer. His talent was discovered by his teacher, legendary French composition pedagogue Nadia Boulanger . Piazzolla recorded: “When I met her, I showed her my kilos of symphonies and sonatas. She started to read them and suddenly came out with a horrible sentence: 'It's very well written.' And stopped, with a big period, round like a soccer ball. After a long while, she said: 'Here you are like Stravinsky, like Bartók, like Ravel, but you know what happens? I can't find Piazzolla in this.' And she began to investigate my private life: what I did, what I did and did not play, if I was single, married, or living with someone, she was like an FBI agent! And I was very ashamed to tell her that I was a tango musician. Finally I said, 'I play in a night club .' I didn't want to say cabaret . And she answered, 'Night club, mais oui, but that is a cabaret, isn't it?' 'Yes,' I answered, and thought, 'I'll hit this woman in the head with a radio....' It wasn't easy to lie to her. She kept asking: 'You say that you are not a pianist. What instrument do you play, then?' And I didn't want to tell her that I was a bandoneon player, because I thought, 'Then she will throw me from the fourth floor.' Finally, I confessed and she asked me to play some bars of a tango of my own. She suddenly opened her eyes, took my hand and told me: 'You idiot, that's Piazzolla!' And I took all the music I composed, ten years of my life, and sent it to hell in two seconds'[1].

That's how the nuevo tango was born, incorporating elements from jazz and classical music . That's what I try to tell in my canvases: traditional elements combine with high contrast patches of color or lines, which seem to move on the canves in a fast rhythm.

Piazzolla is either fast or slow, bursting with passion or melancholy. His music is a fusion of “folkloric beauty and contemporary tension”. He took the music of the great tango masters “ripped it away from the velvet-walled concert hall and the soft-cushion drawing room, and slapped it down on the pavement of Buenos Aires” [1].

One of his reviewers said about his music: “These are raw, vibrant, often visceral pictures of romance unadorned, sexually explicit sonic portraits of life and times on the streets of Argentina.”[1]. His music speaks directly of love and lust, pain and passion.

His melodies translated themselves as recognizable objects on my canvases: dancers, lovers, real places, like scenes of Buenos Aires, ships, sales, houses, famous neigbourhoods like LaBoca, where Tango originated. There was no way for me to depart from the representation of the recognizable images and dive only into abstract. Directness of his tango rythms and charm of his folkloric melodies had to find at least some resemblance to the real world. But I couldn't be traditional in my translations as well – my dancers are transparent, some works combine several perspectives, traditionally painted scenes are partially covered by the flow and leaks of a pure paint, by abstract patches of color and lines.

While listening to his band's performance one hears “t he breath of the bandoneon, the shuffling scrape of the bow on the cello, the shriek of the violin, the moan of the bass, the incessant rhythm of the piano” - each instrument is a character in a play, each member of the quintet grabs the listener, demanding its side of the story be heard. The music is even violent at moments, harsh and outrageously passionate, rhythmic - this led me to use contrasting, very harsh colors in my later series of works and immediately associated with black color. Black color became a contrast and a mean of intensifying the very bright open colors. I used black in both larger flat areas and as harsh stripes, zig-zags. Just as each instrument in his band is an individual character, so is each line in my later works is a character. Just as the review said that ” Enchantment, heartbreak and pure unadulterated sex are played out on string and reed in a pas-de-deux of dark and light”[1], so I never wanted to blend colors listening to his Tangos – only pure, open, primitive combinations of contrasting colors, and always together with black.

I found justification in my use of black when I discovered another invention on the color-music: the COLORCUBE – a recent invention designed to help visualise color relationships within the three-dimensional color space, also can be used as a visualization tool in mapping the color of music.

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Music is divided into styles: Jazz, blues, Rap, Classsical, Heavy Metal, Celtic, pop, Tock, Country, Easy Listening, Muzak, and so forth. According to COLORCUBE, we could map melody, rhythm, harmony onto cyan, magenta, and yellow – and talk about music in terms of its color, and describe the relationship between different styles as differences in color. For example, “sound without melody, harmony, or rhythm is known as white noise. Speech, or the sound of someone talking, takes on the equal attributes of melody, rhythm and harmony, and extends along the gray line within the interior of the COLORCUBE. Chimes, which are harmonious, without melody or rhythm, map to the color yellow. Classical music, with melody and harmony, but without the hard driving rhythm of rock, is appropriately green in color. Pop music, with lots of melody, but without complicated rhythm or harmony is cyan in color. A simple melody with hard driving rhythm gives you the Blues. Jazz, with lots of rhythm, some melody, and some harmony, is predominantly purple in color. Rap music, with lots of rhythm and some harmony, but little melody, is red in color. And finally, take a song with lots of rhythm, harmony and melody, and you've got Black Music, Man! “ [7].

So… Piazzolla's passionate always-changing rhythms, his heavenly harmonies and enchanting melodies all led me to necessary Black in my paintings!

In contrast with Piazzolla, DeFallas pieces are more classically written. According to color cube, classical music is greener in color. I never based the use of color in my paintings on the COLORCUBE, since I found out about it much later, but I did indeed use a lot of green in my square DeFalla abstracts. Classics seem to employ a more abstract interpretation – while splashes of more traditional Spanish elements, like Flamenco, lead me to incorporate familiar images like skirts, hands or organic forms together with abstract …

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The discussion on the connection of music and visual arts can go on forever, involving the phenomena of synaesthesia, metaphoric associations, and new ways of employing senses. The evidence of the “evocative” power of music is abundant, but it seems that that there is a certain extent to which music must have such an evocative power. As poet Baudelaire said: ”In music, as in painting and even in the written word… there is always a gap which is completed by the imagination of the author.” The listener, or the interpreter plays a vital role in the translation and we must agree that each translation might be imprecise and true only to that particular listener's imagination. Therefore in my findings about Piazzolla and DeFalla I do not attempt to prove to have the only and the best interpretation of the music. It will always be mine, subjective emotions in the form of visual canvases. I even believe that with time these emotions might change into a totally different interpretation.


1. ASTOR PIAZZOLLA Love Tanguedia (Tropical Storm, 4100 West Alemeda Avenue #206, Toluca Lake, CA 91505)

2. Color Harmony/Color Music. Dr. William Moritz. Originally published in El color en el arte mexicano. (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autonomica de Mexico), 1994, 34-36.

3. Kandinsky. 1866-1944 The Journey to abstraction. 1994 Benedikt Tashcen Verlag GmbH, p7

4. Kandinsky. The Path to Abstraction. Exhibit overview. Tate Modern Museum, 2006. )

5. Love in the Time of Cholera . Garcia Marquez, G. (1988), (New York: Alfred A/ Knopf).

6. Metaphorical mapping in young children. Wagner, S. Winner, E., Chicchetii, D. & Gardner, H. (1981), Child Development, 53, pp. 728 – 31.

7. The Color of Music.

8. “ The Man Who Heard His Paintbox Hiss . Ossian Ward. Oct. 2006.

9. Three Stories Concerning Synaesthesia. Benny Shanon. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10, no3, 2003, pp.69-74

10. The Scale and the Spectrum. James Peel. Cabinet Magazine Online, Issue 22 summer 2006

11. Where Science Meets Art . Joan Hamilton. HPR Stories. February 24, 2007.

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