Structural Analogies

3.2 Colors and Relationships between Colors: Nuances and Contrasts

Musicians were also interested in the phenomenon of color and sought to transpose its multitude of hues and the interrelation of various shades of color to the composition of musical material. Arnold Schoenberg, who devoted himself increasingly to painting in the early twentieth century, undertook such an endeavor in Farben (Colors, 1909). The chords change so smoothly in this work that an emphasis on any individual instrument is imperceptible, except as a change in color (i.e., timbre). While Schoenberg raised the progression of minute intervals to the dominant principle of composition, György Ligeti went one step further in Lontano (1967), by increasing the number of voices and minute intervals to create clusters — noise like bunches of notes — in which the chord is replaced by a sound space, a process Ligeti describes as micropolyphony. The ensuing simultaneous processes at different speeds that shimmer through, overlay one another, and whose many types of break and reflection give rise to an imaginary perspective he compares with entering a dark room, in which colors and contours only slowly become visible.[9]

Inspired by Barnett Newman’s monochrome paintings — which, due to several layers of paint applied with a coarse brush, not only acquire a particular intensity but also evince extremely fine nuances — Morton Feldman remained convinced that all elements of a potential differentiation are already contained in a sound and are able also to develop a luminosity comparable to that in Newman’s paintings. In order to bring these properties to light, he gave notes — in Intermission 5 (1952), for example — the chance to decay and thus to fully unfold all their latent sound potential.

Oliver Messiaen, in turn, oriented the structure of his work to the relationships between colors, although his approach as a whole remains obscure to the uninitiated. His own description of it appeared in 1963 in the foreword to the score of his orchestral work Couleurs de la cité céleste (Colors of the Celestial City; 1963): The form of this work is determined entirely by colors. The melodic or rhythmic themes and the tonal or timbral complexity evolve like colors. In their constantly renewed permutations one finds (by analogy) warm and cold colors, and complementary colors that influence their neighbors, shading down to white or toned down to black.[10]

Oliver Messiaen,Couleurs de la cité céleste (1963), Note de programme, (accessed July 22, 2009). — Trans. J. D. Efforts were made, furthermore, to use analogies to transfer tones to colors and to make them visible with the aid of the light organ, for example, or, alternatively, to incorporate colors in the composition, as in Alexander Scriabin’s Prometheus (1910).