Color experiments and creative activation

Synesthesia is defined as “a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.”  In one form of synesthesia people associate sounds with color; an animal sound or an F major arpeggio can illicit strong coloristic impressions for musically sensitive synesthetes, and several composers such as Messiaen drew tremendous creative benefit from this experience. 


I have always been fascinated by the idea that the human senses can collaborate to create heightened artistic moments.  As a child I spent many hours painting with watercolors or drawing while I listened to music and audio books.  My visual art experiments were a joyful way to express myself at home, and I looked forward to this solitary time everyday.  I also loved practicing the violin, but it was the visual art time that more immediately stimulated my creative impulses.  After inspiring trips to art museums and art lessons with a painter, I seriously considered becoming a visual artist because the act of creation was so freeing for me; I had yet to activate the same kind of experimentation in my musical life.


When I was 14 I had a formative experience that forever changed the way I thought about the relationship between visualization and sound.  That summer I was at Greenwood Music Camp, playing barefooted chamber music all day with my friends.  One of my chamber music coaches, violist John Ziarko, had decided that I needed to learn how to play the viola.  I was skeptical of this assignment, but I borrowed a viola and headed out to have an introductory lesson with him. 


When I arrived at the lesson he put Elliott Carter’s “Elegy” on the stand and said, “Play green.”  I was surprised enough to be asked to play in viola clef for the first time, but I also didn’t understand what he wanted me to do.  I muttered something like “what do you mean?” but he just repeated the command.  So after I had figured out what the first note was, I played the opening phrase “green.”  “Good,” he said.  “Now, play it red.”  So I played it red.  Then yellow, then grey, then purple, and so on. 


I was absolutely shocked by the way this simple phrase was significantly transformed with each color.  I wasn’t consciously trying to do anything, just putting myself into a place of trust and using my imagination to create a sound that corresponded to a color for me.  Obviously this exercise translated into real technical differences in execution, but that was not the point.  That could be figured out later.  The point was that my green was unique to my understanding of that color, and I had finally been shown how to explore a deeper creativity in my musical world.


Since that time I have been striving to find more color in my own playing as well as help others to find it in theirs.  I enjoy assigning “color projects” for students who want to open up their palette, try new vibratos and densities of sound, etc. but don’t know where to start.  By literally painting their music in specific ways, using the score as a canvas to try out new colors for the same passage or movement each day, they are able to find their way out of old habits and ways of making sound, thereby unleashing newfound creativity.  I love seeing the pride on students’ faces who might not have picked up colored pencils in five years; at their lesson they reveal beautifully transformed copies of the score to a Beethoven slow movement, as well as a fresh set of ideas for their music-making.


I am grateful to that formative Greenwood summer, and to John Ziarko for helping me to discover a way to access my strong visual intuition when playing music.  I am not a synesthete (or a violist, as it turns out), but the more I let my visual vocabulary challenge my sound vocabulary, and vice versa, the more glorious the collaboration can be.