As We See Sound – Exploring Audible Color

“Color provokes a psychic vibration. Color hides a power still unknown but real, which acts on every part of the human body.” – Wassily Kandinsky

Musicians, philosophers, and artists have sought, for centuries, the ultimate translation of sound and vision, the ability to translate one sensual experience into another, from hearing to seeing and back again. This search for “audible color” has taken many forms, from early Pythagorean theories on the harmony of the celestial spheres to contemporary experiments with electronic music, rituals, and coordinated visual effects. Running through it all is a fascination with how existence is interwoven with relationships that often defy our understanding.

At a basic level, there is timbre, a term used by musicians and music theorists to denote the “color” of sound. Timbre is a specific nuance of sound coming from the vibrational frequency of a note. This effect of sound is specific to the instrument or voice that sounds a note. For example, a guitar has a different timbre than a bass, even when playing the same note in the same register. Two different guitars may play in unison, but a trained listener can pick up the unique timbre of each instrument. Where the instrument is played, the level of humidity in the air, and the ability of the player are all important factors in determining timbre.

Professor William A. Sethares of the University of Wisconsin at Madison has brought some understanding to the amorphous idea of timbre. In his book Tuning, Timbre, Spectrum, Scale, he explores the relationship of consonance and dissonance through his specialty in sound engineering.

According to Sethares, timbre is best described in terms of color by understanding it as a relationship of harmonic overtones layered to create a sound. The process can be understood in the same way that one might mix yellow and blue to make green. Russian abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky was very aware of this comparison, and although he wasn’t a musician, he conversed on equal terms with Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg and developed his own painterly theories of sound and color. Sethares points out that other theorists such as Pierre Schaeffer, who was a major proponent of musique concrète, explained timbre in terms of the material that made the sound. In this sense, one would say that a sound was wooden, metallic, or wet depending on its source.

Sethares uses a thought experiment with his students, asking them to imagine a visual interface to show music to someone who can’t hear. His students have returned a number of solutions, ranging from the use of a spectroscope to demonstrate the sound waves to employing a visual representation of a figure moving to the music. When students’ solutions turn to color, they tend to use color relationships as demonstrated by painting.

Sethares makes clear, in his estimation, that these answers are one of the reasons that a direct correspondence between sound and color might not be possible. “From an artistic point of view, this idea can create interesting results,” he says. “From actual investigation, though, it doesn’t hold water.” Sethares points out that wave forms of color and sound are different. The range of frequencies that the ear can perceive is much greater than the range of light frequencies that the eye is capable of seeing. If the human organism were truly able to perceive correspondences between color and sound, this deviation wouldn’t be so great.

Common color theory describes “warm and cool colors,” where blues are cool and reds are warm. Sethares notes that in actual wavelength, however, the opposite is true. Blue light is more energetic than red. Even in cases of synesthesia—the stimulation of multiple senses when exposed to something that would normally only affect one—there is no defined pattern of correspondences. “Essentially, every synesthete perceives these correspondences differently,” Sethares says.

It was all in the mind…

The famed Grecian philosopher Pythagoras is credited with formalizing a theory of correspondences that brought the entire universe into a single harmonious relationship. The seven known planets of ancient cosmology, the seven colors of the spectrum, and the seven notes that make up the octave before the first note is repeated at a different pitch—for Pythagoras, these formed an integral relationship that was the basis, in fact the whole, of existence. Using mathematical correlations, Pythagoras and other early chromato-acoustic truth seekers cemented these relationships in their minds.

This theory can be found in many cultures throughout the ancient world, expressed in the architecture of ancient temples and palaces. Manly P. Hall, in his classic Secret Teachings of All Ages, describes temple complexes from a number of different cultures that included a seven-step, color-coordinated building pattern. Such examples further demonstrate the interplay that the ancients saw between music, mathematics, and the physical world.

With the European Renaissance, this relationship gained the lofty title musica universalis—universal music, or music of the spheres. The theorists of this time were still left to purely acoustic or architectural representations of these ideas. Through the influence of Neo-Platonic theosophy, Renaissance thinkers continued to explore the Pythagorean ideal of a harmonious celestial correspondence explained through mathematics and music.

An English philosopher, Robert Fludd, drew one of the most succinct examples of this idea with his illustration of the celestial monochord. The illustration would later be used by ethnomusicologist and filmmaker Harry Everett Smith for the cover of his pivotal compilation of American roots music, a compilation that would spark the fires of the folk revival of the 1950s and ’60s and inspire musicians like The Fugs, Grateful Dead, and Bob Dylan to reach back into the past for those secret correspondences of sound and vision.
Through the influence of Helena Blavatsky’s theosophy and the esoteric revival of the late 19th Century, these ideas began to gain renewed attention by Western composers. Unfortunately, even with a basis in philosophy, those working to express their ideas of sound and color have never fully agreed on the direct correspondences. Composers Richard Wagner, Arnold Schoenberg, Alexander Scriabin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and a number of others created music whose elaborate performance design was crafted to expose these relationships, yet some of their most heated disagreements came from their attempts to express these notions in a systematized way.

Jazz, blues, and psychedelia

Neo-Platonic influences were not limited to European composers. These influences stand strong in the work of American jazz greats John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, and even Quincy Jones. Coltrane’s classic A Love Supreme moves through the Kabbalistic harmonic sequence—a ten-step sound theory to unify man with divinity—following the ten Sephirot of Kabbalah’s Tree of Life. Each Sephirah has a corresponding color; what Pythagoras outlined in seven is here demonstrated in ten. Hancock credits his understanding of math with his success as a jazz pianist and music theorist, and Jones is very open about his use of Pythagorean intervals to organize his musical ideas.

Jazz has its own relationship with color outside of Coltrane’s complex organizational experimentation and the meanderings into mathematics and tonal coloring of Hancock and Jones. The “blue” note gives an unmistakable voice to jazz and blues. Just a semitone move below a major chord provides a distinctive accent that colors blues, jazz, and a number of traditional music styles.

Although the invention of jazz and blues came long after Pythagoras and Plato, their understanding of the effects of this coloring wouldn’t surprise anyone who has fallen on the blues to crutch his or her hard-time feelings. Plato, in The Republic, discusses the effect of semitone changes and the use of the minor key, going so far as to recommend that playing in a minor key be discouraged or banned due to its deleterious effect on morale.
For many, however, the blue notes of jazz and blues aren’t so depressing. Some, in fact, find it exhilarating. Jack Kerouac’s writings often rattle through descriptions of the physicality of jazz that he experienced while spinning on a cocktail of alcohol, Benzedrine, and marijuana. The drug culture, which exploded in the 1960s and ’70s, opened up paths for many to experience the colors of music in a more direct sense.

Upon the introduction of stronger entheogens—psychoactive substances used to awaken spiritual sensations—many took increasingly abstract explorations of harmonic coloring. The subsequent psychedelic era was identified in part by the strong visual elements tied to musical experience. Experiments by a few lone psychonauts such as Henri Michaux, Albert Hoffman, Aldous Huxley, and Antonin Artaud in the 1920s through to the ’50s had seeped into the music culture through boundary breakers like Harry Everett Smith. Not only did his studies provide a solid foundation for the folk revival, but his work in experimental film provided the basis for the Grateful Dead’s light show. Furthermore, he represented connections to the literary and arts scenes that brought the influences of entheogenic explorers to the burgeoning psychedelic scene.

“I dream of color music, and the machines that make it possible…” – Jhonn Balance, “Sex With Sun Ra”

One of the more interesting sidetracks to this color-based exploration began during the Enlightenment era. Up until the 18th Century, the expression of Pythagorean and Neo-Platonic color theory existed in an idealized state. It wasn’t until the Enlightenment that it was possible to show these correspondences through the use of technology.

In the 18th Century, the Jesuit monk Louis Bertrand Castel designed a harpsichord that revealed different colored glass panes depending on the note played. This somewhat quaint invention would provide the basis for the next 200 years of experimentation with what are known as “color organs.” His experiments in further illuminating his invention using candles were met with consternation, though that was more from fear of engulfing a cathedral or court in flames than exposing the greater mysteries of universal harmony.

In the early 20th Century, Alexander Scriabin created a color organ that he called the Luce (Italian for light), which was to play an integral part in the performance of his composition Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, although it was never used. Around the same time, inventor Thomas Wilfred created an instrument that abandoned the idea of sound all together, creating compositions of pure color. He postulated an entire art form based on his invention, which he called Lumia. As with Scriabin’s abandoned Luce, Wilfred’s Lumia had a very limited time before drifting into obscurity, but other inventions followed to realize the “color” of music. The Luxatone Color Organ, invented by Harvey Spencer Lewis, was used to show the Pythagorean correspondences. Lewis, who founded the ancient mystical order Rosae Crucis, ultimately built a number of devices to show various hidden relationships.

Lewis’ Color Organ was among the first to utilize technology that allowed it to receive an input, whether voice or sound, that then would be translated into a synchronous display of color. Its triangular display screen would even show differences of intensity in the color dependant on the loudness of the sound.

Another invention, by Charles Henry Allan Bennett, went even further in an attempt to directly connect sound and color. According to Khem Caigan, director of the Harry Everett Smith Memorial Library and a one-time associate of Smith, “the Bennett device is interesting, because light from a lamp passes through colored filters and is directed upon mirrors attached to tuning forks that are excited by a series of solenoids.” This version of the color organ, however, was meant for direct use in ritual. “The light would jiggle around on the diagrams upon the wall, in a manner similar to the old laser light shows,” Caigan says, “while the practitioners intoned the holy names during the course of a ritual. The ‘vision and the voice,’ indeed!”

Harry Everett Smith, meanwhile, explored these correspondences through his hand-painted films, often using multiple projectors to achieve a fully immersive effect. Abstract shapes of color and potent alchemical symbolism mixed together in Smith’s expressive masterpieces. The experience was stimulating for the viewer, combining all the elements of light and sound to create a quasi-synesthetic experience.

Others such as composer Harry Partch probed the tonal and spatial possibilities of color, rather than the directly visible. Dissatisfied with the equal-tempered chromatic scale, Partch created his own instruments to explore the possibilities of subtle sound colorings. The goal was to encompass what Partch called “corporeality,” a body-centric, existentialist view of artistic creation. Partch used color to achieve this as well as to organize his ideas. For his retuned reed organ, which he called the Chromalodeon, he used color-coded keys to structure his compositions in a 43-note scale.

“The new art materials of a new age…are most certainly to be accepted, but with a reexamined philosophy of use.” – Harry Partch, Thoughts After and Before the Bewitched

Color and sound in the 21st Century

Coming out of the commingling color play of the psychedelic era, our contemporary senses are blurred and immersed in an ambiance of noise and light. The traditions of Harvey Spencer Lewis and Harry Everett Smith, of technology and psychonautics, have become enmeshed in our culture. A concert overturns our senses with colored patterns; animated billboards appear above us on the highway; computer monitors flicker with constant movement. Even the cheapest audio apps integrate visual accompaniment to sync to music in ways reminiscent of Lewis’ Luxatone Color Organ.

Augmented by technological advances, the quest for a union of color and sound has become the playground of video artists and electronic musicians. Brian Michael, also known as electronica musician Alka, is quite familiar with this territory. Having performed with visual artists in clubs and in galleries for exhibitions, the interplay of color and sound is important to his art. “It heightens the experience for the audience and adds a much-needed missing element,” he says. But even with the aid of technology, the problem of correspondences still exists. “There always seem to be the moments that don’t work and then moments that seem serendipitous,” Michael says. These challenges remain an attraction for artists and musicians.

The problems that William A. Sethares notes about the frequency range and color/sound correspondence is something that Michael acknowledges and hopes to one day explore. “I would love to work with an algorithm that directly translates the rhythmic elements, tonal frequencies, and harmonics produced from their various combinations into the corresponding color-spectrum frequencies in real time,” he says. “Similar to an oscilloscope but with a full dimensional range of colors in a multidimensional field—a holograph of sorts.”

Retaining tonal color using digital instruments is another obstacle that many contemporary musicians are overcoming. A common element in today’s production is the flattening or standardizing of timbre; in the quest for an ideal sound, the unique qualities are sacrificed for efficiency. Michael, however, takes care to overcome these drawbacks of the digital medium. “I do think that many laptop show-goers may miss the experience of watching musicians physically interact with their instruments to produce tones,” he says, “as in a guitar player strumming and plucking strings.” He envisions a way to make the actual working process of the computer visible to the audience.

Seemingly, artists like Alexander Scriabin would have benefited from these technologies. But their unique achievements reflect a humanity that can be lost in a technological translation. This sentiment is echoed by Charles A. Riley II, a professor at Baruch College at CUNY and the author of Color Codes: Modern Theories of Color in Philosophy, Painting and Architecture, Literature, Music, and Psychology. “While I agree that computers might have enticed Scriabin,” Riley says, “my strong feeling is that as in the visual arts as well as film, the computer is imposing a mechanical lack of feeling upon what used to be the realm of very direct feeling as expressed through color.” Organic details that often illustrate color, he feels, are not necessarily realized through digital production techniques.

War and harmony of ideas

But with digitalism aside, Riley contrasts contemporary musicians and artists with their chromato-acoustic forebears, noting the varying intent either to establish a link between sound and color or disprove one. “One thinks, of course, of John Cage taking the place of Alexander Scriabin or Arnold Schoenberg,” he says, “much as Donald Judd and Gerhard Richter are pushing out the loaded symbolic and psychological chromaticism of Wassily Kandinsky or Henri Matisse. When it comes to modernism, I feel that the Pythagorean and Neo-Platonic elements remain dynamic forces in the compositional and performance strategies of many musicians, but there is also a postmodern trend toward devaluing the ‘meaning’ of color, something that music shares with the visual arts.” As an example of the latter, Riley points to a 2008 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, called Color Chart, where unmixed industrial tones and compositional techniques relied heavily on random factors.

Yet there are others who are continuing closer to the traditions of Harry Everett Smith and Harry Partch. In Manhattan, New York, the Musicka Mystica Maxima festival mixes music, visual arts, and esotericism to explore sound on a holistic level. Held on the autumnal equinox, the event is structured to express the universal harmonies explored by Pythagoras and the Neo-Platonists. The 2009 festival featured John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Daniel Higgs, and Genesis P-Orridge (of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV), centering less on experimentalism and more on the intersection of ideas. As with the ritual color and sound device created by Charles Henry Allan Bennett, these artists survey the mathematical, psychological, intellectual, and physical characteristics of sound. Here the experiment finds a result in a fully integrated experience.

Peter Seals, who curates Musicka, Mystica, Maxima, was inspired by Harry Everett Smith to create an event where diverse traditions could come together and explore these issues. According to Seals, he saw many different groups of creatives in New York who were working along similar lines, but not necessarily aware of each other’s work. The festival provided a space for what Bryan Michael envisioned while discussing his attempts at translating sounds and visuals, a place where visual artists, environmental artists and musicians can come together under the goal of unifying their arts.

Over the centuries, many have sought to combine these elements to achieve the ultimate translation of sound and vision. And for each explorer, his or her failures and successes were enhanced by the knowledge picked up during the search. When successfully integrated into a performance, whether direct correspondences can be shown or not, the results are undeniably powerful. Even when left in the seed of a theory, the twining roots and subtle sprouts continue to grow toward a final translation of senses—and a discovery of the harmony that inspired the musical universe of Pythagoras and his successors.



2 responses to “As We See Sound – Exploring Audible Color

  1. This article is really interesting – I m especially interested in the work of Scriabin and Harry Partch. Do you know where I could get a copy of:
    Harry Partch, Thoughts After and Before the Bewitched

    Is it available online? If you had a PDF version would it be possible to foward it on to me?

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