Visual Elements in Music

5 The Fascination of Color in Music

More often than not, color plays the outstanding role in the translation of visual impressions into music. While, in 1922, Sir Arthur Bliss had already been inspired by the symbolic meaning of different colors in heraldry when composing his Color Symphony,[10] the colors were of particular importance throughout Olivier Messiaen’s complete oeuvre. The French composer was a synesthete and associated complex color visions with equally complex sounds. Throughout his life, he wanted to write a Musique colorée and composed works such as Couleurs de la Cité céleste (Colors of the Celestial City), which already indicated the link of color and sound in their title. However, Messiaen never thought of an optical representation of his visual perceptions, he was composing for an inner vision.

This is also true for composers of a younger generation such as, for example, Michael Torke and Rebecca Saunders. The US-American Torke has various forms of synesthesia, which do not only affect the eye and ear, but also the sense of touch. Influenced by this, mainly in the 1980s he created works that were named after colors, for instance the orchestral compositions Ecstatic Orange and Bright Blue Music. Later, Torke refrained from expressing his color sensations in titles, as he feared, and still fears, that imagining colors might distract the listener from the complexity of his music.[11] The British Rebecca Saunders, on the other hand, is inspired by colors without having a synesthetic predisposition. To her, there is a link between the sensuality of instrumental sounds and that of colors, and in her quest for a metaphor for her musical thinking, color associations can highlight the physical presence of instrumental sounds.[12] Saunders creates sounds which seem to glow, and compositions like cinnabar (1999) or Blue and Gray (2005) emphasize her particular affinity to colors.