Apr '03 [Home]


Composer Michael Torke and the Color of Musical Keys

Chapter 6 from Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens:  How Synesthetes Color their Worlds
(Henry Holt & Company, 2001
by Patricia Lynne Duffy

ISBN: 0-8050-7187-3 pp. 172 $14

If man is a being afloat in an ocean of vibrations, then all
vibrations are possible. Why not a synthesis? Why not a
transposition of the neurons?—Maurice de Fleury
. . .

'When I started composing Green Symphony," says Michael Torke, who writes music for the New York City Ballet, "there was green all around because a lot of the tones are in E-major."

'He clarifies:  "An E-major chord is a bright powerful green because everything gravitates to the note E" (which is also green, he says, but a far less vivid green than that of an E-major chord). "In Green Symphony," Torke says, "I wanted to celebrate E-major, which meant celebrating green."

He tells me that another of his color pieces, Ecstatic Orange, was named for the predominance of orange G-sharp in its scale. As he tells me this on a late Sunday afternoon, a flaming orange sun setting over the Hudson River outside my Chelsea apartment makes a perfect backdrop to his description. In writing the ballet music, he says he literally indicated different shades of orange in different sections of the score "to capture the orange feelings of the music." As he explains, "One part of the score is called 'burnt orange,' another 'orange sun-kissed,' and so on." The G-flats n the composition are yellow-orange. The musical composition for the three-act ballet contains other colors too:  The first act is called Purple (in the purple key of C), the second Blue (in the blue key of D-major), and the third the Ecstatic Orange of the work's title. "The first movement of Ecstatic Orange ended with this big fireball burst of orange in the back of the ballet stage. It was very dramatic, and very effective in terms of the ballet—but it was not the orange that I saw when I wrote the music." [Illustration]

Anyone expecting that such works or words would come from the mind of a quirky eccentric would be very much on the wrong track. Torke is serious, straightforward, self-assured, and also searching. One senses that his music is manifested in a mysterious part of himself that he's always trying to grasp. Torke's musical compositions received acclaim early in his career (he was born in 1961, and the color ballets were produced in 1987). His color music stirred the imagination of New York City Ballet Director Peter Martins, who choreographed "color ballets" for Torke's "color music."

In his clear, confident, no-nonsense voice, Torke says that he has always heard musical keys in color from as far back as he can remember. "I started taking piano lessons when I was five years old, and I remember thinking to myself, 'Today I have to practice that blue piece.'" That "blue piece" was in the blue key of D-major—and was perhaps a very early influence for one of Torke's later color music compositions called Bright Blue Music. Bright Blue Music, along with Green Symphony and Ecstatic Orange are among the pieces that appear on a 1992 CD called Michael Torke's Color Music.

Torke became concerned that "color music" might turn "gimmicky."

And what was the public's reaction to having color made part of their experience of music? The composer was bowled over by the overwhelmingly positive response to his pieces.

"Suddenly everybody—choreographers, conductors, critics—couldn't get enough of this color music," Torke says.

This response was not only surprising, but also worrisome. "I wondered, were people really appreciating the music? Or were they just charmed by the idea of color music? And was the idea of color distracting listeners from the music's formal complexity?" Torke became concerned that the whole notion of "color music" might turn superficial and, as he says, "gimmicky."

It struck me that in a society that often equates vivid color with frivolity, Torke's concern was understandable. Can color music be regarded as "serious" music for long? Certainly the color music experiments of Scriabin and Messaien had often been dismissed by mainstream audiences as eccentric. And even the scholarly Grove Dictionary of Music takes an uncertain attitude towards color music, saying that some of its experiments "relied too much on special effects." Still, I wondered whether Torke's initial motivation for writing his color pieces came from a need to share his music's color dimension with the audience.

The impetus, Torke tells me, came more from the desire to experiment with a certain musical form for which the single colors—although perceived quite literally by him—also acted as metaphors for exploring different musical keys. "In writing music," he says,

you start by establishing a "room." Then you move out of that room into different musical spaces. But in writing the color music, I wondered what would happen if I just stayed in one room and didn't leave it. I thought, what happens in life when you don't want to leave a room? When you go to a really great party, for example, you don't want to leave—you want to stay and celebrate that room. So I decided to do a composition in the "room" of E-major—which is a powerful green—and to celebrate that bright green "room" for all it was worth.

The audience doesn't need to know the colors of my music.

But in "celebrating green," he later wondered whether he'd inadverently placed the music into a context that limited it for his audience."Color is so powerful for people, so finite, so there,, Torke says. "There's a risk the color can compete with the music, distract from its complexity." The colors, he feels, should not be taken as the deeper "meaning" of the music. "My music is about emotional truths," Torke says. "The audience doesn't need to know the colors of my music in order to appreciate it." So while the "colors" of music remain an inevitable part of Torke's own creative process, he's no longer sure he sees a value in sharing them with his audience.

Neurologist Dr. Richard Cytowic makes a similar point about the French composer Olivier Messiaen, who described the colors that inspired in writing such pieces as Les Couleurs de la Cité Céleste (The Colors of the Heavenly City) and Chronochromie (The Colors of Time). Messian described perceiving the upper range of C-sharp as "the color of rock crystal and citrine, the lower range, of copper with gold highlights. D-flat is orange with stripes of pale yellow, red, and gold, while the inversion of D-flat moves through pale green, amethyst and black." Cytowic points out in his book The Union of the Senses that "the idea has no importance to the listener.  . . . Nonetheless, it permits the musical interaction and transformation to take place as a result of that synesthetic perception."

While composer Messiaen seemed to have wanted his audience to see the color dimension of music, many other synesthetic artists do not make their process part of their product. Certainly, novelist Vladimir Nabokov didn't think his audience needed to know what his letter-colors were in order to appreciate his writing (and wouldn't the charm of reading a novel written totally in a synesthete's colored alphabet wear off after about a page?). Nabokov's novels, like Torke's musical compositions, have their own levels of meaning to be explored. Yet while synesthetic colors may not be a clue to the deeper meanings of either Nabokov's novels or Torke's music, they are, undeniably, a major feature of both artists' interior landscapes and the creative processes generated there. In his autobiography, Speak, Memory, Nabokov describes his inner landscape as a "veritable Eden of visual and tactile sensations." Certainly, his detailed and sensuous description of his alphabet ("a evokes polished ebony . . .y and u  . . . I can only express [as] brassy with an olive sheen  . . . m is a fold of pink flannel . . .v . .  [is]  . . .perfectly matched with rose quartz") indicates an intense sensual/visceral connection to words, his medium of expression. Similarly, Torke's ecstatic orange, symphonic green, and bright blue music indicate an added sensual connection to music. Do the visual/aesthetic properties artists perceive in their mediums create sensual bonds to those mediums? At the same time, do those added sensory properties supply the mediums with added ways to explore them?

In speaking with Michael Torke, it becomes clear that he perceives a visual and even tactile dimension to music so vividly that he sometimes "catches" himself assuming that his audence perceives it too. "When I orchestrate a piece," he tells me, "besides the colors, I also make use of those dimensions of music everyone sees, like its shapes." He draws a circle in the air as he continues. "There is the round sound of a French horn, and,"—pecking the air with his index finger—"the pointed sound of a trumpet, and"—rubbing his fingers together—"the cottony sound of a flute, and"—moving his fingers over an imaginary smooth surface—"the sleek sound of a clarinet, a sound like a panther's fur." I remind him that, although many would appreciate his descriptions as metaphors, most people don't actually perceive a French horn's sound as round, or a flute's as cottony, a trumpet's as pointed, or a clarinet's as a panther's fur. "Oh," says Torke, "I suppose I always feel they do—because I do." Then, with a laugh, he continues, "Well, maybe that's why I don't feel a need to so deliberately show my music's colors to an audience. A part of me keeps believing that the audience must be seeing them too."

O'Keefe:  Telling the music of the sky—with charcoal.

To a person with visual/musical synesthesia, such manifestations of sound as sight and texture happen automatically. But perhaps these automatic manifestations also serve a function:  to create sensual links between artist and medium, while also creating multiple means of exploring those mediums. While such "multiple means" come unbidden to those with developmental synesthesia, many creative people, consciously conjure them up by deliberately setting one medium in the context of another. In their book Sparks of Genius, the Root-Bernsteins call this conversion of one medium to another the technique of transforming, which sometimes works to reveal hidden dimensions and possibilities of the medium being studied.

Artist Paul Klee was not a synesthete, yet he created a visual system to explore polyphonic music. He represented musical notes of different lengths and in different relationships by drawing intersecting lines of different lengths. In so doing, Klee discovered "hidden" relationships in the visual representation that could not be found musically. He then "translated" the visual relationships he'd discovered back into intriguing musical forms.

Painter Georgia O'Keefe also employed transformational techniques in exploring her art and was moved to translate music into "something for the eye." While I've found no evidence to suggest that O'Keefe was a synesthete, her series of color-music paintings suggest a wish to explore music in the context of her own visual medium of color, shape and texture, as she did a series of "music paintings" like her 1919 work Music, Pink and Blue. In a letter to a friend, O'Keefe refers to her inspiration to draw music:  "I'm going to try to tell you about the music of . . . the sky tonight . . . with charcoal. . . ."

Arithmetic progressions as musical scales—and DNA as sound patterns.

Techniques of transforming have been employed not only by artists, but also by scientists wanting to "think outside the box," approaching their complex work from fresh angles in order to make new discoveries. Physicist Richard Feynman, was a synesthete for whom mathematical equations had color, but he also consciously practiced the technique of transforming. He very deliberately and imaginatively translated mathematical equations into sound. As the Root-Bernsteins write in Sparks of Genius:

[For Feynman] arithmetic progressions (1,2,3,4,5…) became a steadily ascending, continuous musical scale. Geometric progressions (1,2,4,8,16…) became accelerating whoops. [Feynman] hummed, tapped and moved about, correlating ideas about the physical world with phyical sensations he could perceive and manipulate.

In his review of Feynman's Character of Physical Law, physicist Alan Lightman wrote of how Feynman put "great value on seeking different formulations of the same physical law, even if they are exactly equivalent mathematically because different versions bring to mind different mental pictures and thus help in making discoveries."

The Root-Bernsteins go on to describe how converting data from a visual form to an auditory one also allowed genetic researchers to better understand the sequence of certain genes together with their protein structures. Skidmore College researcher Phillip Ortiz transformed the visual representation of DNA into sound signals, thereby creating "DNA music." By transforming the visual DNA model into something that could be listened to rather than looked at, both the sequencing of the genes and their protein structures could be apprehended simultaneously, rather than one at a time. The reason such simultaneous apprehension is possible with an aural model—but not with a visual one—is because the ear is capable of perceiving two sound patterns at the same time, while the eye can see only one visual pattern at a time. So, it seems the ear can sometimes "see" a fuller picture than the eye can (to describe it in synesthetic terms!).

So, while synesthetes experience a spontaneous "transforming" of one medium to another, creative people often employ the technique deliberately. In both cases, the new sensory propoerties of the "second" medium can illuminate creative possibilities of the first. . . . From long past right up to the present, human beings have transformed their range of experiences into imaginary environments and mythical characters to facilitate sensual/emotional links to those experiences.

A brain process that is normally unconscious becomes bared to consciousness—Baudelaire's "landscapes of lace."

Imaginary dimensions have as their bulding blocks colors and forms, both of which figure prominently in the experience of synesthesia. Are synesthetes more "in touch" with those parts of their brains that are the repositories of color and form, the building blocks of the mind's imagery? Is the experience of synesthesia a conscious experience of the mechanics and mental materials that construct mental images? In The Man Who Tasted Shapes, neurologist Richard Cytowic says that developmental synesthetes are more consciously aware of the creative processes that remain unconscious in most:  I believe that synesthesia is actually a normal brain function in every one of us, but that its workings reach conscious awareness in only a handful. . . . In synesthesia, a brain process that is normally unconscious becomes bared to consciousness." And what causes this creative process to be bared to consciousness in the population's synesthetic minority? Cytowic says, "Putting it as plainly as possible, parts of the brain get disconnected from one another (as they do in release hallucinations), causing normal processes of the limbic system to be released, bared to consciousness, and experienced as synesthesia."

What makes parts of synesthetes' brains become "disconnected" from one another? Cytowic explains that a synesthete's regional brain metabolism responds very strongly to the particular stimulus to which she or he has a synesthetic response. In his view, this causes cerebral circulation to halt momentarily, "causing an effective disconnection and a release of synesthesia [from the limbic brain's hippocampus] to consciousness." Why this happens to just one in two thousand people remains a mystery, just as, Dr. Cytowic says, why only some people get migraines remains a mystery.

Unlike some other neuroscientists whose research suggests that the brain's recently evolved cortex is the "seat" of synesthesia, Cytowic indicates that activity in the earlier evolved limbic brain could be the source of the phenomenon. More specifically, activity in the limbic brain's hippocampus, which resides in the temporal lobe, triggers the synesthetic response. Cytowic writes that the function of the hippocampus is key in subjective experience. When people who are not normally synesthetic experience certain types of seizures that originate in the hippocampus, they sometimes report accompanying synesthetic perceptions while their seizures last. In his novel Lying Awake, Mark Saltzman describes the synesthetic experiences of a nun as she listens to a mass during a temporal lobe epilepsy seizure:

When [the priest] began chanting Mass  . . . [h]is voice was a rich sienna, the color of reassurance.  . . . Sister John heard each of her Sisters' voices as if they were chanting alone:  Sister Christine sounded as if her throat were lined with mother-of-pearl, while SisterAnne's voice had more texture, like a bowed instrument. . . . Mother Mary Joseph's voice was mostly breath, forming a kind of white sound that helped blend the others.

Cytowic also points out that nonsynesthetes can sometimes report synesthetic experiences while under the influence of psychoactive drugs, which are known to produce their effects by stimulating the temporal lobes and hippocampus. Certainly, in the literature of hallucinogenic drug reports, we find many accounts of sounds, smells, and tastes suddenly taking on synesthetic dimensions of color and shape. In his book Artificial Paradise, the poet Charles Baudelaire describes perceiving in certain music "landscapes of lace."

'Cognitive fossils' with a bird's-eye view of time.

Cytowic drew many of his conclusions about the cause of the synesthetic response from the study of his subject, Michael Watson, a synesthete for whom taste had shape. Dr. Cytowic measured Watson's cerebral brain metabolism during Watson's synesthetic "experiencing" and inferred an increased activity in the hippocampus. From his study of Watson and from interviews with a great number of other synesthetes, Cytowic concluded that greater activity in their limbic brain put those with synesthesia more in touch with the "building blocks" of perception. Cytowic indicates that, somewhere along the evolutionary trail, most human beings lost their capapcity for synesthetic perception. For this reason, Cytowic refers to synesthetes as "cognitive fossils."

I never imagined I'd have anything in common with a composer for the New York City Ballet, but I think, here we are, Michael Torke and I—alike in being two "cognitive fossils." I muse over this repository of colors and forms that release themselves from our respective brains at the sound of music or words, and I wonder in what other ways these may manifest in our synesthetic minds. I ask Michael Torke a question. "If I say to you, let's meet next Tuesday, what do you see in your mind?" Torke says he sees himself on a kind of colored trail with a colored spot that is Tuesday. "It's kind of like a long pathway," I say, "right?" "Yes," Torke says, "but because I'm on the pathway, and Tuesday is up ahead of us, a little bit in the distance—It's smaller."

And the Friday before is back there, behind you, right?" I ask. "Yes," Torke says, "it's back there, and the days before become smaller the farther back I look."

As we describe our respective "time landscapes" to each other, Torke and I are pointing all over the place, in back of us, ahead of us, to indicate where the days are in our internal space, which is quite a vivid "environment" for us. It is the same if we talk about our hour or number "landscapes."

I remember the words of Scottish researcher Roger Watt of the University of Sterling, who said, there is a place in the brain, normally well adapted for spatial orientation, which in synesthetes, is taken up with mental imagery. Watt observed that synesthetes often had poor sense of direction and postulated it was because their mental imagery had blurred out their navigational skills. I tell Michael Torke that I have a poor sense of direction and he tells me he does, too. I ask him whether he can draw his week for me and he says, "Yes, but it won't really be what I experience; it won't be in perspective."

"Yes," I say, "I know what you mean—what you draw can only be a kind of aerial view."

"Yes! That's it!" he says, laughing. "This is fun. I've never had a chance to talk about these things before." I smile and know exactly what he means. For a while, we sit on the sofa together like two children, drawing pictures for each other. We make pictures of respective number lines, months of the year, and days of the week. I am talking to a composer for the New York City Ballet, and although I know next to nothing about music, I know exactly what he means now as he describes his internal calendar as a trail, a meandering pathway, a place one goes to. "What about numbers?" I ask him. "What do they look like?" Torke draws an interesting geometric pattern which goes straight up, "but then," he says, "it makes a sharp right turn," he says, "like this"—he indicates the part of the drawing that makes the trail square off into a forty-five-degree angle, then continues slanting upward into the thousands. It strikes me how in synesthetes' internal landscapes, as in a work of art, everything has its place, although unlike a work of art, a synesthetic landscape or response cannot be changed at will. It remains as it is, forever frozen in its mysterious muti-sensory code. I ask Torke more about his number landscape. "Do the numbers have colors?" I ask. He tells me each decade of numbers has a color. The 20s are gray; the 30s are yellow; the 40s, olive green; the 50s, blue; the 60s, white; 70s, gold; the 80s, bright green; and the 90s, orange. "Oh," I say, my 9s and 90s are orange, too."

"Well," Torke says, "I don't think I've ever told these things to anyone before, and certainly have never put them down on paper. I've so internalized them, just the way I tend to want to internalize my music's colors. But I'm thinking now, what would happen if I could show them really the way I see them internally? What would it be like," he continues with a wry smile, "to make music for an audience of synesthetes?"

From 'Farb-' to 'Gesamtkunst' or 'Richtung und Wahrheit'—in colored rooms.

Torke tells me that he experiences colored vowels, too, perhaps, he speculates because they are more "musical" than consonants. I tell him how Yale researcher Larry Marks did a study showing a correlation between vowel and musical pitch and brightness. Though synesthetes reported all different colors for their vowel sounds or musical notes, which on the face of it would indicate no objective correlation between sound and color, Marks found that the higher the pitch of the vowel or musical note, the "higher" the level of the color's brightness (though the hue, itself, might be red for one synesthete, green for another). As I tell Torke about this, it suddenly strikes me that although many people would find our comparing the colors of numbers, calendars and vowels sounds more than a little odd, they would consider it less odd and probably more appealing to hear about the "colors" of music. Why is that? What is it about music that makes it such a comfortable companion to visual mediums, even to being transformed into a visual medium? It feels very natural to set music to images—whether as a soundtrack to a film or play or music video—or even as background when one watches those PBS programs on art that play Mozart and Bach in the background as they show the images of the world's great paintings and sculptures. In 1999, the Microsoft company put out a Windows media player called Visualizations, which allows viewers to enjoy changing designs as visual representations of given pieces of music. Is there something in all of us that wants to experience sounds and images together in some perfect balance?

Music so lends itself to visual accompaniment that I wonder whether, in the absence of it, most listeners themselves don't create it in one way or another. Are most people visualizing something when they listen to music? Is music in some sense visual for almost everyone? Perhaps the notion of color music holds out the promise of that absolute, perfect linkage—even reminding us of that preverbal period of infanthood where sounds were colors were shapes were smells were tastes? What is that longing for total integration that all these attempts and tendencies speak to? If there is such a longing, it was also behind the nineteenth-century longing to create the gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art. I ask Michael Torke his thoughts on some of those attempts to create the total work of art ; of Scriabin's musical composition Mysterium, his piece that contained not only music's colors, but also its odors. Scriabin wanted to show there was a scented dimension to music as well as a visual one and to have his audiences experience the sensuous harmony of life through his music. Torke says he well understands the attempt at total integration, but thinks it's hard to make it work. Perhaps, however, he says that desire for the total work of art is what of late has attracted him to writing for the opera (Torke wrote music for the New York City Opera's production of Central Park, and his next project is writing for the new opera House of Mirth). But the longing to create a form of perfect integration remains.

In an article appearing in the the MIT journal Leonardo, Torke also expresses the longing for integration when he says that his motivation to create tonal music is linked to his synesthetic associations, and is "something like a yearning for God," although he tells me he's not at all religious. He identifies his "yearning," however, with the longing to find an objective truth, something against which we can measure ourselves and what we do. As an integral part of his creative process, his synesthesia is linked to the longing for that truth, for a sense of integration. In a wonderfully thoughtful article on music and synesthesia, Greta Berman, a professor at the Juilliard School, writes that the small number of synesthetic composers tended to link their color music to a longing for ultimate truth:

[M]ore often than not, these composers can be considered visionaries.  . . . A common belief of theirs centers on the unity of the arts and often, by exxtension, all religions, nature, and the whole of humanity.

Torke tells me that the greatest compliment he ever received on his music was from a young woman who said, "What I like about your music is, it shows a world where everything has found the right place." And I think, in describing his greatest compliment, he is also describing the centuries of appeal of synesthesia:  the promise it holds of finding the dimension where everything has its place, with each sense existing so in harmony with another that it seems to become the other. In the meantime, before that promise can be kept or even properly understood, we can continue fitting pieces of the sensory puzzle together. While the mystery of the total picture may not be soon solved, it can, like Michael Torke's "colored rooms," be celebrated.

© 2001 All rights reserved by Patricia Lynne Duffy. Reprinted with permission from the author.

(Patricia Lynne Duffy's essays and articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, New York Newsday, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Ms., and many other magazines and newspapers. Two of her essays, "Taipei Tales" and "Dining in French," won Literal Lattè awards. This is her first contribution to the magazine.)

[More articles on synesthesia appear on the Blue Cats website.—Eds.]