As with any art form, there is a highly developed technical language that accompanies music. Where visual artists might discuss brush strokes or shading, musicians talk about articulation, timbre, and vibrato. What sets music apart is the frequency with which musicians fall back on visual language to describe musical phenomena. For example, a significant portion of the musical lexicon is inspired by metaphors about color. When a section of music falls outside the piece’s key, that section is filled with “chromaticism.” Timbre is often referred to as “tone color,” which ranges from mellow and dark to bright and brilliant.

Some musicians have had a notably immediate relationship with color. Olivier Messiaen, for example — the French organist, composer, and twentieth-century mystic — famously experienced chromesthesia, a form of synesthesia. An uncommon neural condition, synesthesia mixes up and supplements sensory experience, so that input from one sense — the sound of a voice, for example — is consistently accompanied by the perception of, say, a taste or an odor. Messiaen’s chromesthesia meant that his experience of sound was augmented by a perception of color, and this unique perspective heavily influenced his compositions. Not only did he notate colors in some of his scores, but he would also construct the tonal areas of his works from the pitch-color associations he experienced. These “color chords” set aside traditional harmony and instrumentation for the otherworldly harmonic sensibility and timbral quirks of his unique soundscapes.

Another composer, the Russian–born Alexander Scriabin, may have also experienced synesthesia. Although these long-standing claims have recently been brought into question, there is no doubt the composer drew associations between colors and tonal areas in music, much like Messiaen. Based in part on Isaac Newton’s Optics, in which the colors of the visual spectrum were limited to seven — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet — to match the seven pitches of the major scale, Scriabin applied the visual spectrum to the twelve keys in the circle of fifths. He also famously conceived of a piano that projected certain colored lights based upon what was being played, and called for the instrument, the clavier à lumières, to be used in his 1910 tone poem Prometheus: The Poem of Fire.


Exploring the intersection between color and music is not an enterprise strictly limited to genuinely, questionably, or even lexically synesthetic musicians, however. Artist Spencer Finch believes there is something crucial about these intermedial explorations. “It’s something that musicians and artists are interested in.” Finch tells Listen. “I think people want to make connections between different kinds of art — from a desire to connect different fields of art, different traditions, and different senses.” It is exactly this impulse that fueled his most recent installation, which hangs in Steinway Hall in New York City and is called Newton’s Theory of Color and Music (Goldberg Variations).

‘I wanted the installation to be very specific to the site without it being floating musical notes or something.’

For Newton’s Theory, Finch drew upon the visual spectrum as set down by Isaac Newton — much like Scriabin did — assigning colors to each note of the chromatic scale, from red for C to violet for B-natural. He then took J.S. Bach’s iconic Goldberg Variations and translated the first few measures of each movement into a series of colored bars, whose lengths correspond with pitch duration. Each movement’s translation is illuminated along one of thirty-two fluorescent double fixtures. Each fixture represents the pitches in the left
or right hand, and hangs from the ceiling with identical fixtures representing the work’s aria at the highest and lowest positions.

Many of the other ideas for Newton’s Theory simply followed from working with Steinway & Sons: “I wanted it to be very specific to the site,” says Finch, “without it being floating musical notes or something. So I thought about ways of exploring multiplicity in a visual way that connected to music, and specifically piano music. . . I arrived at the Variations. . . and [with its theme and variations structure] it seemed like a piece of music that lent itself to these ideas about multiplicity I was working with.”

Back To Kansas (2013)
Back To Kansas (2013)

Finch has devoted much of his work to exploring the limits of color as a medium for blurring borders with other art forms. Another installation of his, Back To Kansas (2013), reaches out to film. For this work, Finch pulled a series of seventy color swatches from the palette of the innovative 1939 Technicolor classic The Wizard of Oz and arranged them in a matrix on a wall. Intended to be viewed at dusk, Back To Kansas capitalizes on the human eye’s capacity to see different colors in low light environments. As the exhibition space grows dimmer, the colors with shorter wavelengths (i.e. blues and violets) begin to disappear, fading more and more with time until even the reds with the longest wavelengths have faded to gray, just like in the movie.

Finch also draws on literary sources in his work. A longtime poetry buff who actually studied literature in school, the artist discovered a theory of writer Vladimir Nabokov, which the Russian expatriate called “colored hearing.” Considered by some to be a type of chromesthesia, Nabokov took each letter of the alphabet — in English, French, and his native Russian — and assigned each a color based on its sound. Using this scheme, Finch translated another text — Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle — notating it on a large piece of paper as colored dots.

‘I think people want to make connections between different kinds of art — from a desire to connect.’


“I actually found the Nabokov thing and it wasn’t until two years later that I figured out what to do with it — what text made sense. The uncertainty principle really made sense to me because it’s about relativity, a bunch of electrons flying around a space, and how when you observe one, you change its position or momentum. To me, the uncertainty principle is all about subjectivity in some way, on an atomic level. I find the idea really beautiful that when you observe something, you change it. . . that by looking — which we always see as such a passive activity — you actually are changing something.”

In this piece, called Abecedary (Nabokov’s Theory of a Colored Alphabet Applied to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle) (2004), as well as in Newton’s Theory, one can see the influence of science and physics on Finch’s thought: a structure for developing his work. In fact, he believes there are a lot of sympathetic vibrations between making art and doing empirical science:

“Empiricism and the scientific method. . . it’s not so different from the way artists work generally, where you just keep trying things until you get something that’s right. It’s a different kind of search for truth or rightness, but I think that process is part of both science and art-making. To have that integrated into my artwork is somehow interesting for me. Also because it sort of celebrates subjectivity, and really expresses the idea of multiplicity rather than giving too much credit to or valorizing a single attempt as the correct one.

Abecedary (Nabokov’s Theory of a Colored Alphabet Applied to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle) (2004)

“You know, I think it’s also about failure in some way, which I think is wonderful. Each time you try to get it right, whether it’s a scientific experiment or you’re recording something visually, it’s never quite right. And though I’m sure this doesn’t align with the reality of the Goldberg Variations, I’ve always thought of them as multiple attempts at something. . . artists and artworks like this really defy any claims to a kind of Universalism or universal ‘Truth,’ an objectivity which I am always suspicious of.” The same is true for audio recording as well — it’s never incontrovertible. That’s why artists continue to record and perform works written hundreds of years ago. It’s why we see a new cycle of Mahler symphonies and Beethoven sonatas every year.

Or take the Goldberg Variations. Arguably the most famous audio recordings of the work were made (twice) by Glenn Gould, who painstakingly crafted his interpretations and recordings, constantly striving for the perfect performance. His renditions differed markedly from other pianists’ — and even his own, his perspective on the Variations evolving dramatically over the course of his career. Gould’s art invited him and his listeners to approach J.S. Bach’s masterwork from multiple angles. Spencer Finch invites us to do the same. 


This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.  


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