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The Priest of Beauty:

Synesthetic influence in the Arts


In 1734 the French mathematician and Jesuit priest, Louis Bertrand Castel, built the world’s
first light organ. Following the theory of colour and pitch set down in Optiks (1704) by his
fellow mathematician, the world famous Sir Isaac Newton, Castel linked the colour
spectrum to the western musical scale and built an instrument that produced a
corresponding colour for every pitch. His invention dazzled the Enlightenment Society who
flocked to Paris to see the sixty coloured-glass panes of the light organ appear one by one
in accordance with the notes that were played. Although Castel’s hopes that a light organ
would become a popular form of mass entertainment never came to fruition, interest in the
mixing of music and colour continued to flourish, leading to many further attempts to
produce light organs by the assignation of the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale to
specific colours, as well as the appearance of several treatises on the subject such as D.D
Jameson’s pamphlet, Colour-Music (1844) and Sound and Colour (1869) by J D Macdonald.
With the aid of electricity, by 1895 the British artist Alexander Wallace Rimington was able
to build a more effective light organ which could activate projected, moving, coloured light
beams through filters and lenses. Far from the light organ becoming a passing fad, by the
beginning of the Twentieth Century the interaction of colour and music had become an
integral point of interest within artistic circles.

Experimentation into colour and music thrived with the work of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-
1944) and Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) acting as two of its chief advocates. Both men
were fundamental to the development of colour and music in the early 1900’s, but most
importantly to the present discussion, claimed to experience colours when they heard
music, possessing the condition now known as Synesthesia. Synesthesia literally means
‘together sensations’ from the Latin syn (together) and the Greek esthesia (sensations) and
medically defined describes a condition in which normally separate senses are not
separate.1 Although many people, both past and present, such as Scriabin and Kandinsky
are known to possess the condition, so little is still known about the human brain that
conclusive proof has been hard to find regarding the causes and affects of synesthetic
ability. The lack of definites and factual evidence within the field of synesthesia proves a
difficult issue when attempting to find a decisive definition or quantify its importance and
role within an artistic sphere. Although there are many forms of synesthesia involving the
mixing of all the senses, for a discussion centred around the arts, a specific focus on the
element of colour-hearing, the most common form of the condition, is needed. Not all of
the investigators in this field had personal colour-hearing experience, with correlations
between colour and sound being approached by non-synesthetes equally effectively, with
the paintings of Paul Klee (1879-1940) and A Colour Symphony (1922) by Arthur Bliss (1891-
1975) standing out as shining examples. Many of the pioneers in the field of synesthetic
discovery did, however, experience some form of colour-hearing, not least those who
looked to create synthesis in art.

This synthesis was attempted through the passion, intensity and introspective attitudes of
the Romantic period, not least in the work of Richard Wagner (1813-1883) but the rise of
Theosophy in the late 1800’s led artists to examine and explore the world in a new way,
with colour-hearing providing a brand new means of exploration, aiding the artist in his
desire to reach inwards and explore deep spiritual themes in his work. For both the
scientist and the artist, synesthesia is integral to the creative arts in its apparent linkage to
human emotion and spirit, but from a historical perspective it seems that from the turn of
the Twentieth Century, art, spiritualism and synthesis have been inseparably bound.

Although in artistic realms the concept of synthesis has been grappled with for well over a
century, the scientific world has been slower to grasp its importance. Synesthesia has the
ability to provide neurological researchers with an entirely new avenue of discovery into

1
Yuri Bronstein MD, Definition of Synesthesia
(http://www.medterms.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=8445)

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the conscious and the unconscious mind, but until the recent work of individuals such as
Richard Cytowic, an American neurologist and psychologist, and Simon Baron-Cohen,
professor of developmental psychopathology in the departments of psychiatry and
experimental psychology at Cambridge, it has been denied a place in mainstream science.
Gradually it has become more prominent, being closely examined, with theories being
presented regarding its cause, evolutionary roots and most interestingly, its surprising
prevalence within the population.

In The New Scriabin, Faubion Bowers wrote ‘The schizophrenic, the mystic and the artist
meet at some dangerous connecting point, and psychosis and transcendence are sometimes
difficult to sort and separate’2. The following discussion of synesthesia’s place in the arts
will strive to tackle the problem of sorting and separating with regards to artistic language
and to explore the possibility of wide spread synesthesia in the populous. Synesthesia is the
meeting point between sound, colour and spirituality and the key to expressing the
inexpressible.

2
Fabion Bowers. The New Scriabin, Enigmas and Answers, (New York, 1973) p.104

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There has never been a time when the arts have approached
each other more nearly than they do today, in the later phase
of spiritual development3

Kandinsky was a firm believer in the parallel existence of visual art and music, and devoted
his working life to trying to bring the two closer and achieve new artistic and emotional
depth. Superficially his approach was relatively obvious with the use of many musical ideas
and terms being applied to his art works. He often talked of harmony and counterpoint in
his work and was indeed known best for his ‘compositions’, where he drew together
musical and visual elements as colourful expressions, undoubtedly supported by his
synesthetic abilities.4 It would be near impossible to ignore the music in Composition VI,
painted in 1913 and now hanging in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg:

Fig. 1 Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VI (1913)

The shapes immediately suggest musical themes, echoing the strings of a violin and the bell
of a trumpet and the overall composition of the painting forms the basic shape of an
orchestra or group of players with a roughly circular outline being formed. The feeling of
movement and activity is greatly increased by the undulating shapes and forms which
appear to be falling towards the dark area central to the composition. The swathes of
colour also used by Kandinsky add a great deal to the overall musical effect. To some
extent the use of colour could be perceived as subtle, often with many similar shades
forming an overall effect such as the blue green shades of the bottom right hand corner or
the painting. The majority of the painting is light in tone, with even the extreme of white
being used in several places, only to be punctuated by forms in dark brown and black. The
predominance of the red and blue throughout the canvas lends added strength and form to
the painting, emphasising the contrasts of sound and tone.

The parallels between music and visual art seen here provided the basis for most of
Kandinsky's later work which involved many Improvisations and Compositions, but the
inspiration of one of his close friends and artistic allies also proved a strong influence in the
development of his synthesis within the arts. Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), a fellow artist
greatly admired by Kandinsky, drew many parallels between visual art and music and in the

3
Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, p.19
4
Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, p.27

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process made one of the greatest developments in western Twentieth Century music. The
development of abstraction was a concept which began with the work of the French
impressionists such as Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and Claude Monet (1840-1926) and
Kandinsky worked on the dematerialisation of objects which he saw in their work, and
developed abstraction in his own direction. But it was Schoenberg who became the leading
figure in using abstraction in the form of atonalism to, in Kandinsky’s words ‘realise that
the greatest freedom of all, the freedom of an unfettered art, can never be absolute’.5 Of
all the synesthetic artists working around the turn of the Twentieth Century, Kandinsky and
Schoenberg appear to have shared a true affinity regarding artistic ideals, as this letter
written by Kandinsky dated 18th January 1911 shows.

Dear Professor, Please excuse me for simply writing to you without having the
pleasure of knowing you personally. I have just heard your concert here and it has
given me real pleasure. You do not know me, of course-that is, my works- since I
do not exhibit much in general, and have exhibited in Vienna only briefly once
and that was years ago. However, what we are striving for and our whole manner
of thought and feeling have so much in common that I feel completely justified in
expressing my empathy. In your works you have realised what I, albeit in
uncertain form, have so greatly longed for in music.6

The concept of the discarding of chromaticism and the abandonment of tonal and harmonic
conventions which penetrated Schoenberg’s works became equally important to the
Compositions of Kandinsky. An emphasis on contrast deeply penetrated the work of both
artists as Kandinsky wrote, ‘Harmony today rests chiefly on the principle of contrast which
has for all time been one of the most important principles in art’7. The abandonment of
strict tonality and the emancipation of dissonance, which Schoenberg explained in the final
chapter of his treatise Harmonielehre [Theory of Harmony] worked for both composers, in
conjunction with the rise of the importance of colour in their work. Once again the
synesthetic experiences of both artists had the central effect on their work which
eventually led to the development, by both composers of a more complete work of art, or
stage composition, involving music, dance, and colour movement. Kandinsky’s play Der
Gelbe Klang [The Yellow Sound], written in 1909, involved a compound mixture of colour,
light, dance and sound whilst Schoenberg’s opera Die Gluckliche Hand [The Lucky Hand]
(1924), involved symbolic lighting and stage effects.

The concept of a total work of art encompassing music, art, drama and movement also
became a central part of Alexander Scriabin’s composition. His greatest statement in this
direction came in 1903 when he expressed a desire to create Mysterium, a grand
synesthetic composition involving music, drama, dance and poetry. Although this was never
fully achieved, the connection to Wagner’s Gestamkunstwerk [total work of art] is clearly
visible and it is quite possible that Scriabin saw his work as the next logical step in
achieving the end result. The work of Wagner can go some way to explaining the direction
of not only Scriabin’s ideology, but that of the arts in general at the beginning of the
Twentieth Century. The development of the Gestamkustwerk and the influence of the
philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) including artistic views such as that music
‘could still exist even if there was no world at all’, encouraged artists to re-examine the
human condition and set down new guidelines for the future development of the arts. 8 The
generation of Der Bleu Reiter and the Second Viennese School found artistic lines had been
blurred with all art forms channelling towards one great epicentre of artistic achievement
involving expressionism and spirituality. Colour hearing however, has not been the only
incentive and aid to realising a total work of art, or even the synthesis between two
individual art forms with other artists adopting different methods. Wagner, according to his
writings, shows no sign of having typically synesthetic qualities, yet devoted his life to

5
Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, p.17
6
Arnold Schoenberg, Correspondences Arnold Schoenberg-Wassily Kandinsky
(http://www.schoenberg.at/4_exhibits/asc/kandinsky/letters_e.htm#)
7
Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, p. 43
8
Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, [1818] trans. E Payne, (London, 1969)

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achieving a synthesis in the arts. Obviously, colour-hearing is only one route to achieving
an end goal, but it does play an integral role as any investigation will show. Many of the
artists who did involve the cross pollination of colour and sound in their work, such as
Kandinsky, Scriabin and Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), also experienced colour-hearing
cross-modal sensation.

The Mysterium of the acutely synesthetic Scriabin does throw up specific elements of the
integration of spirituality with colour and sound which cannot be found in Wagner’s
Gestamkunstwerk. The introduction of profound spiritualism to a synthesthetic composition
appears to highlight the ability of colour-hearing rather than just the theory and challenge
of conjoining the arts, as in general terms, only synesthetes have the ability to feel
spiritual connections between colour and sound. In any case, the belief that the grand
synesthetic Mysterium could bring about the dawn of a new age places Scriabin’s aims on a
very different plane to those of Richard Wagner.

Needless to say, Mysterium never materialised and Scriabin came little closer to achieving a
total work of art than Kandinsky or Schoenberg. The only difference being that his
composition was a composition in the more traditional sense. His Poem of Ecstasy, op.54
(1908) and later his fifth symphony, Prometheus, The Poem of Fire, op.60 (1910) became
the pinnacle of his synesthetic achievement. What most obviously makes Prometheus stand
above all Scriabin’s other works as the most forward in the search for totality is the novel
use of the ‘Clavier a Luce’ (light organ) which was to ‘bathe the hall in coloured light’ of
the corresponding keys.9

This mixing of sound and colour was to some extent, the musical alternative to Kandinsky’s
pictorial compositions. For Scriabin, the task of adding the Clavier a Luce to his work was
the obvious step towards his ultimate goal of total synthesis in the arts and his synesthetic
capabilities allowed him to join the two art forms with little difficulty. The Clavier a Luce
part is continuous throughout the work and is written as two pitches on a single stave. The
lower part of the organ was intended to bathe the hall in light whilst the upper part was
more active, constantly changing colour with each new chord or key.

Because in any real sense multiple art forms have never been fused effectively enough to
produce the outcome that both Kandinsky and Scriabin sought, it is hard to pass judgement
in the effectiveness of the conjoining of the senses.10 It would be unwise to proclaim that
synesthetic composers are any more successful in trying to achieve a more vibrant or
deeply moving experience through the fusion of the arts, but there is biological knowledge
which can begin to explain why an artist might expect to find answers through these
methods.
Neurological research has been used to prove synesthesia as an actual physiological
condition rather than an anomaly as has been previously thought (Baron Cohen 2002). There
has also been further study into the neurological causes of synesthesia (Grossenbacher
1992) and this is where the supporting scientific theory for creation of total art works can
be found. The concept of ‘crossed-wires’ often used to explain synesthetic experience has
also been investigated with proposals being put forward to give more exact explanations.11
Peter Grossenbacher, a psychologist at Naropa University proposes that the brain of a
synesthete feeds backwards allowing connections carrying information from high-level
multi-sensory areas to single sense areas to travel without being properly inhibited.12

9
Fabion Bowers, Preface to the score of Scriabin, Prometheus, The Poem of Fire, op. 60 (London,
1980)
10
Due to the complexity and unconsciousness of a synesthetic experience it is, in any real sense, much
more difficult to recreate it for a wider audience. Although many attempts have been made to produce
Prometheus involving light to the extent Scriabin imagined it, even with modern technology it is a near
impossible task.
11
Siri Carpenter, ‘Every Day Fantasia: The World of Synesthesia’, Monitor on Psychology, Vol.32
(March 2001), 3
12
Siri Carpenter, ‘Every Day Fantasia

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Daphne Maurer, a psychologist from McMaster University, Ontario supports this theory
speculating that rather than synesthetes having extra neural connections in their brains,
humans are all born with them, but lose the ability to use them as they grow.13 Assuming
that this hypothesis is correct, and that humans are actually born with the necessary neural
connections in place, it is no wonder that a composer could make sure of the cross wiring in
realising a total work of art. With neurological evidence providing the explanatory theory
and synesthetic composers proving the existence and use of colour-sound cross-wiring clear
connections begin to be made between synesthetic ability and artistic output. Although
people such as Kandinsky or Scriabin may not have recognised their synesthesia as a
tangible quality they had no problem in putting it to use in their work.

13
Siri Carpenter, ‘Every Day Fantasia

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That is beautiful which is produced by the inner need, which
springs from the soul14
As Leo Tolstoy wrote, ‘Music is the shorthand of emotion’ and the two are vital parts of
artistic expression.15 Often the outlet to express the deepest of human emotions lies in the
realms of religion or spirituality, and numerous art works have been devoted to this theme.
Many artists have looked to their synesthetic ability to aid them in attempting to achieve
new levels of transcendence or spiritualism through their chosen medium, and Scriabin,
Messiaen and Kandinsky’s attempts will be examined in turn. Firstly, the correlation
between human emotion and synesthesia will be assessed using the scientific research of
Larry Marks and Richard Cytowic (2002). From research carried out they concluded that
synesthesia occurs in the Limbic System, a more emotional and possibly primitive part of
the brain than the neo-cortex, where higher thinking occurs (see Fig 2).16

Fig. 2 The Limbic System

This allows for the possibility that our response to an art form, say a piece of music, could
be appreciated on two separate levels, firstly in the neo-cortex where it is formally
appreciated involving conscious evaluating and assessing, and secondly in a more primitive
form where we appreciate the emotional content and the underlying effect it has on us,
including any connections we may make between what we see, hear and feel. Kandinsky
produces an effective analogy in Concerning the Spiritual in Art to explain this point, ‘in a
conversation with an interesting person, we endeavour to get at his fundamental ideas and
feelings. We do not bother about the words he uses, nor the spelling of those works, nor
the breath necessary for speaking [….] we realise those things though interesting and
important are not the main things of the moment, but that the meaning and idea is what
concerns us. We should have the same feeling when confronted with a work of art’.17 It
becomes clear that what synesthesia helps to describe is not any tangible qualities in art,
but rather the abstract idea which is being represented. In cases of synesthesia where
colours and linked to numbers it has been seen that the colour relates to the abstract idea
of the number rather than the numerical concept, for example, a synesthete could make no
colour connection between an Arabic and the equivalent Roman numeral, just between the
colour and the concept of a number. The concept of an abstract idea is integral to the
understanding of the importance of colour-hearing to art. As much music expresses abstract
ideas such as spirituality or mysticism, a strong connection can be seen between the way
the brain tackles abstract thought in conjunction with multi-sensory perception. Artists by
definition have a natural talent for expressing abstract concepts in tangible forms and often
have quite clear ideas of exactly how they will express it.

Alexander Scriabin, an artist and synesthete, held the clearest idea for how music, colour,
and emotion should be conveyed. He wrote and composed extensively, striving to

14
Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, p.55
15
Leo Tolstoy, letter to his wife, January 1905
16
Richard Cytowic, Synesthesia: Phenomology and Neuropsycology A Review of Current Knowledge
(http://psyche.cs.monash.edu.au/v2/psyche-2-10-cytowic.html)
17
Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, p.49

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incorporate music and visual art to achieve great works of transcendent quality. Following
no strict religious code, Scriabin preferred the more ambiguous term Mysticism on which to
focus his emotional attentions. To some extent this followed in the footsteps of Wagner,
who had become intensely involved with the human psyche and more precisely the
philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). This philosophical
background, and especially Nietzsche’s concept of the Superman, supported a theory which
championed the human condition rather than relying on any strict religious codes. Scriabin
made the human condition a central point of his work, and championing his idea of
mysticism often went as far as to uphold unsubstantiated beliefs which almost
unquestionably verged on the insane. In Scriabin, Hugh Macdonald, states a strong case for
the intense conviction of these theories running far deeper than artistic ideals, becoming to
Scriabin, a doctrine for life, ‘I am God! I am nothing, a game, I am freedom, I am life, I am
a frontier, a peak’.18 According to his view, Scriabin thought of this music as
demonstrations and manifestations and believed that what he was creating was ‘no longer
music but something else’.19 He ranted about placing himself ‘sur le plan de l’unite’ and
saw himself as the supreme ‘high priest at the altar of this universal temple’. 20 His belief
that a new stage of existence could be brought about through art became central to his
writings and brought art and life closer than they had ever been.

To understand the importance Scriabin placed on the arts, it is first necessary to grasp his
basic view of spirituality, humanity and the foundation of existence. All things began with
Spirit, but had now evolved to a state of Matter.21 In Scriabin’s theosophically-based
opinion, the future involved returning to the original state of Spirit. Aided, possibly by his
synesthetic cross wiring, Scriabin’s view of the arts closely mirrored his Spirit-Matter-Spirit
pattern of existence. Originally, he believed that the arts existed in undivided unity, but
with the emergence of Matter it had been necessary for divisions to emerge, between
composer and performer for example. His aim was to return to Spirit through the, once
again united, arts.22

In the role Bowers assigned him as ‘high priest’, Scriabin developed the concept of Mystery,
which would come as Spirit triumphed and could only be followed by the end of the existing
world.23 As he saw the arts as a catalyst, he set about composing a great work, Mysterium,
to bring on the triumph of Spirit. Predictably this work never materialised, but his
programmatic work, Prometheus, became the culmination of this effort and a prominent
showcase for the coexistence of colour hearing and spiritualism.

In this, the ‘most densely theosophical piece of music ever written’ Scriabin expressed
many human characteristics such as Will, Contemplation and Joy through one of the most
ambitious and fantastical stories which ends with the ‘disintegration into the cosmic dust of
Nirvana’ as Bowers dramatically states.24 All of this was achieved by the involvement of
individual keys with specific colours. Scriabin’s colour-hearing is particularly prominent as a
technique used to aid his expression and explanations of spirit or Mystery and Prometheus
provides one of the soundest examples of a work which truly integrates colour with sound.

The harmonic root of Prometheus is based around Scriabin’s mystic chord (C, F#, Bb, E, A,
D) which first appeared in his fifth sonata for Piano (1907). The overall harmonic shape of
Prometheus mirrors the pattern of Scriabin’s spiritual ideas moving from F# to C and back
to F# where F# represents Spirit and C, Matter. In colour terms this meant a shift from blue
to red and returning to blue which appears in the lower part of the Clavier a Luce. This
lower part, which only shifts ten times throughout the piece, follows the expected change
from Spirit to Matter according to Scriabin’s system. F#-Ab-Bb-C-Db-D-E-Db-F# in the bass

18
From Hugh Macdonald, Scriabin, (Oxford University Press, 1978) p. 9
19
Bowers, Preface to Prometheus
20
Hugh Macdonald, Scriabin, p.10
21
Hugh Macdonald, Scriabin, p.12
22
Hugh Macdonald, Scriabin, p.125
23
Bowers, The New Scriabin, p.125
24
Bowers, Preface to Prometheus

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follows the states from Creativity (F#) through Movement of Spirit (Ab), Lust (Bb), Human
Will (C), and Joy (D) back to Creativity.

However ritualistically Scriabin uses Prometheus to hammer home the concept of the
synthesis of the arts, he strived to reach new spiritual heights aided only by artistic means,
something that had never been attempted, and possibly achieved, so successfully. There is
no doubt that his contemporary Kandinsky would have approved of his spiritual approach to
tackling spirituality writing that ‘Every man who steeps himself in the spiritual possibilities
of his art is a valuable helper in the building of the spiritual pyramid which will someday
reach to heaven’.25

The collision of ideas between Scriabin and Kandinsky continues with Kandinsky’s statement
‘I value only those artists who really are artists, that is, who consciously or unconsciously,
in an entirely original form, embody the expression of their inner life; who work only for
this end and cannot work otherwise’, the sentiment of which could easily be applied to
Scriabin’s artistic theories.26 Scriabin never collaborated with (or even met) Kandinsky, but
they spent their lives devoted to tackling similar problems from different ends of the
artistic spectrum with colour hearing as their inspiration. In an attempt to find answers to
the problems of art and spirituality Kandinsky wrote ‘Uber das Geistege in der Kunst’
[Concerning the Spiritual in Art] (1911). In this work, the importance of colour as the
connection between music and spirituality is explicit, Split into two sections, the first
promotes the concept of a spiritual revolution in painting leading to the abstract expression
of the inner self, whilst the second discusses the psychology of colours and the
responsibility of the artist. In the introduction to Michael Sadlers translation, he states,
‘Kandinsky is painting music. That is to say, he has broken down the barrier between music
and painting, and has isolated the pure emotion.’27 Kandinsky’s colour-hearing must have
had a part to play in his breaking down of the barriers, as it gave him a new dimension
within which to work. Because he was able to connect sound and colour in his own mind he
was more capable of transferring his experiences into text, as he did with Concerning the
Spiritual in Art, and more excitingly onto canvas, which is where his most true synthesis
occurs.

As successful as Kandinsky’s canvas’s were in creating a synthesis between art and music,
he continued to revere music as the ‘best teacher [because it had] devoted itself not to the
reproduction of natural phenomena, but rather to the expression of the artists soul, in
musical sound’. If, in Kandinsky’s eyes music was truly the most successful art form for
displaying true synthesis, he must have found problems in working in his own chosen visual
medium. Because of the naturally intangible and ethereal qualities of music it does lend
itself to expressing the inexpressible in a greater sense than visual art, dance or literature,
Visual art does, however, have its benefits in that expressing colour as music, as Scriabin
and later Messiaen knew only too well. Kandinsky dedicated much of his life to exploring
the colour-sound-spirit relationship, writing in Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911) that
‘Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano, with its many
strings. The artist is the hand that purposefully sets the soul vibrating by means of this or
that key’. In his attempt to conjoin sound and colour in visual statements he carefully
detailed all colour-sound correlations he experienced. He explains his personal colour
hearing as two pairs of antithesis.

Firstly Kandinsky deals with the relationship between the spiritual (blue) and the bodily
(yellow). ‘yellow is the typically earthy colour […] it can never have profound meaning [….]
profound meaning is found in blue […] a colour that creates the feeling of rest […]’. He
even makes his evaluation as detailed and specific as to match colours to specific
instruments, ‘a light blue is like a flute, a yellow like the shrill notes of a trumpet’. The
second antithesis is based on the light-dark relationship, explaining movement within
different colours with yellow moving towards the audience and blue moving away. This

25
Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, p. 20
26
Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, p. 7
27
Michael Sadler, Preface to Concerning the Spiritual in Art

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second antithesis agrees with the first in that yellow, as an earthy colour, is moving
towards the human where as blue, a deeply spiritual colour, moves away from the audience
toward the spiritual. Kandinsky even went so far as to precisely describe the associations he
was able to make between colours and instrument. For him light blue was like a flute,
darker blue a cello and ‘darkest blue of all-an organ’ as well as violet echoing ‘the deep
notes of the woodwind’ and orange the ‘notes of an old violin’.28 This level of colour-sound
association is quite extreme in its exactness of instrumental timbres and shades but other
composers, such as Messiaen, also achieve quite stringent links between sound and colour.

Instead of associating pitches to colours as many others had done before him, Messiaen
developed a system of modes of limited transposition which he connected to individual or
groups of colours. These were artificial modes, which formed transpositionally-equivalent
groups and were based on the chromatic system. Messiaen used these as the basis for much
of his harmonic and melodic writing, especially in conjunction with colour. Peter Hill has
tabulated these modes with their related colours in The Messiaen Companion which
provides a clear correlation of Messiaen’s sound-colour experiences. Although this provides
a basic explanation, discrepancies can be found within these associations and some of the
chords he used were non-modal, thus having little in common with any specific colour
correlations. Strangely enough, Couleurs de la cite celeste (1963), one of the most
colourful compositions Messiaen ever wrote, is one of the compositions which does not
concur entirely to his systematic use of mode to colour correspondence. Never the less, it
was his most successful attempt at colour-sound synthesis and he commented on it saying ‘I
don’t think I’ve ever gone so far with the colour-sound relationship’.29 The first sentence of
the preface for this work confirms the importance of colours, ‘La form de cette oeuvre
depend entierement des couleurs [The form of this work depends entirely on colour]’. 30
Throughout the score colour instructions are written to explain chords or melodies such as
‘topaze jaune, chrysoprase vert clair et cristal’ and ‘emeraude verte, amethyste violette’
and frequent appearances of blue and red in the form of Ab major and Eb major also
support the musical themes throughout the work.31 In conjunction with the colour element
of this work its significance lies in the fact it was the first religious work Messiaen produced
since Livre d’orgue (1960). It was loosely based on the version of the New Jerusalem
revealed to the writers of Revelations and Messiaen added five quotes from revelations in
the preface of the score as a guide to the works’ meaning as well as the colours used such
as expressing the holy city’s light ‘like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone,
clear as crystal’ (Rev 21:1).

The use of biblical quote and religious subjects in Messiaen’s compositions provide a strict
example of an artist who kept spirituality, and in his case Catholicism, central to his
musical work. The three causes Messiaen always championed in his music were the
Catholic faith, love and nature all of which were highly affected by sound-colour
correlation which he considered ‘the most important characteristic of my musical
language’,36 This statement alone reinforces the idea that for someone with colour-hearing
like Messiaen, it is impossible to separate it from any creative expression, including the
integral theme of religion and spirituality. Messiaen was enchanted by colour in the stained
glass of the great medieval cathedrals, ‘My first visit to Notre Dame, the Sainte Chapelle
and later the cathedrals of Chartres and Bourges certainly exerted an influence on my
career’ which became a contributory factor to his composition of deeply religious works.37
Those deeply religious works were the chosen form of Messiaen’s outlet of his emotional
and unconscious side, and he provides a clear example of a synesthete composer who
championed the role of the unconscious in art. ‘Why do you compose?’ he was asked,

28
Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, p.38
29
Samuel, Olivier Messiaen: Music and Colour, p.139
30
Olivier Messiaen, Preface to the score of Couleurs de la cite celeste, (Paris, 1963)
31
The importance of red and blue is sustained by the original striking cover to the score, also printed in
blue and red.
36
Samuel, Olivier Messiaen: Music and Color, p.20
37
Samuel, Olivier Messiaen : Music and Color, p.37

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replying ‘[…] it seems to me, really, that a composer writes music because he has to […]’.38
This could be applied to many a composer’s approach, but the added ability of synesthetic
appreciation appears to reinforce the natural sway in the direction of an artistic calling or
necessity. It seems in the case of Scriabin, Kandinsky and Messiaen that as artists who
experienced colour-hearing, they could not help but use their cross-modal abilities to
express their individual insights into emotion and spirituality in their art works. How the
audience of their work is able to appreciate their insight and expression is another side to
the argument for synesthesia’s place in the arts.

38
Claude Samuel, Olivier Messiaen : Music and Color: Conversations with Claude Samuel, Trans. E
Thomas (Paris, 1986) p.19

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When I hear music I see colours […] I’m convinced that one
can convey this to the listening public39
A linguistic experiment devised by the psychologist Wolfgang Köhler (1887-1967) to assess
connections between language and visual imagery provides interesting support for more
wide spread synesthesia. The Booba-Kiki Experiment asks participants to match two shapes
(see Fig. 8) to two Martian words, Booba and Kiki. Results show that over 90% of
participants instantly matched the round, curvy shape with the word Booba as a spiky shape
with the word Kiki (Vilayanur Ramachandra, 2003)

Fig.8 Booba-Kiki Experiment

There is nothing to suggest any logical connections between these words and images, yet
humans appear to be able to recognise the abstract concept of jaggedness in both the
sound and the visual image. This is only possible because cross-modal wiring in our brain
allows us to achieve synesthetic abstraction and connect visual stimuli with sound
(Vilayanur Ramachandran, 2003). It is near impossible to find precise figures on the
number of people experiencing true synesthesia, but it has generally been believed that
anything between one in 25,000 (Cytowic, 1989) to one in every 2000 people are
synesthetes (Baron-Cohen, 1996). The Booba-Kiki experiment begins to provide proof that
in fact, the majority of people have, to some extent, innate synesthetic abilities. Taking
this a step further, onto what could be termed relatively thin ice, it is possible that many
more artists (and therefore compositions) may be, albeit subconsciously, affected by the
notion of colour-hearing and cross-modal connection.

Olivier Messiaen hoped that his audience would, to some extent at least, become aware
and appreciate the colours he included in his work. He claimed, rather optimistically in
conversation with Claude Samuel, that ‘most people have a kind of sixth sense and feel the
sound-colour relationship, except that they are not conscious of it nor is it comprehensible
to them’.40 As a synesthete himself, Olivier Messiaen could not help but connect colours to
what he heard, but he also wanted his listeners to appreciate the colours in his music
through their innate sixth-sense ability. To attempt to unravel the complexities of colour-
hearing and sixth-sense ability it is necessary to examine individual colour-hearing
experiences, but this proves difficult because of the individuality of the condition. Strictly
speaking, no two synesthetes will make the same sound-colour connections.

Scriabin’s system of pitch to colour relation provides a much clearer explanation of his
synesthetic understanding which is more comprehensibly understood by the layman as
opposed to Messiaen’s complex, and not altogether fool-proof, system of relating colours to
modes of limited transpositions. For example, for Messiaen, lightness and darkness were
affected by the falling and rising of pitch.44

39
Conversation with Olivier Messiaen, 16th December 1983, Contributions to the Spiritual World of
Olivier Messiaen, trans. Barbara Dagg and Nancy Poland p.112
40
Samuel, Olivier Messiaen : Music and Color, p. 129
44
Peter Hill, The Messiaen Companion, p. 209

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Despite the more irresolute colour-sound correlation, in some of his scores Olivier Messiaen
provided quite stringent instructions as to the colours that his music should induce, such as
in his Des canyons aux étoiles (1974) and the previously discussed, Couleurs de la cité
céleste. These instructions, however, were not so much a representation of how Messiaen
envisaged the audience should perceive his work, but rather an interpretive guide for the
conductor. Messiaen was always careful about how distinct the association was between
colour and sound could be and was adamant that although he truly experienced colour, he
perceived it inwardly rather than visually. The inward perception of colours is an
important idea to consider in relation to the possibility of universal sixth sense ability as it
shows that colour-hearing is not as blatant in its execution as first appears as it seems that
for many synesthetes that colour-sound correlation is not as0 obvious as simply seeing a
colour, but rather that it manifests itself as a feeling. In Richard Cytowic’s research (1993)
he listed five diagnostic features to define synesthesia. He states that true synesthesia will
be involuntary but elicited, projected, durable, discrete and generic, memorable,
emotional and poetic. He explains the emotive quality found to be part of a true
synesthetic experience as ‘ a conviction that what synesthetes perceive is real and valid’.45
Using Cytowic’s five diagnostic features it becomes quite possible to assess true synesthetic
experiences, but what it fails to help with is the more challenging questions arising when
discussing non-synesthetic or quasi-synesthetic responses to sound-colour correlation.

In attempting to investigate non-synesthetic or sixth-sense ability responses, the


coordination and agreement between colour-sound correlations in true synesthetes can be
used to provide a basis to quantify and evaluate any sixth-sense experiences. As previously
stated, no two synesthetes share exactly the same responses, but there are surprisingly
marked similarities in colour-sound association. In Scriabin’s Prometheus the relationship
between the concept of Spirit being blue and Joy being yellow finds agreement with
Kandinsky’s own view that blue is a spiritual colour moving away form the audience and
yellow being an exocentric colour moving towards the audience. Further parallels can be
drawn between their theories and use of instrumentation. An example of this is found with
the Prometheus theme of human will, which appears on the trumpet in bar 21. Kandinsky
would have considered this theme yellow due to its ‘earthly’ qualities and would have
naturally turned to the trumpet as the instrument of choice, as in his opinion its tone was
‘yellow’.46 Moving away from the parallels drawn between these two synesthete artists, the
table below provides broader support for establishing synesthetic universals using colour-
sound associations of many well-known synesthetes.

Callopy’s graph shows only a few examples of selected synesthetes, but even using the
experiences of these few individuals, certain similarities become starkly apparent.

45
Ricahrd Cytowic, Synesthesia; Phenomenology And Neuropsychology, A Review of Current
Knowledge
46
Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, p.38

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Ascending chromatically from C, a general shift from reds through orange, yellow, green,
blue and finally purples becomes obvious. The predominance of E as yellow and A as shades
of purple also help support a more conclusive basis of association. Evidently no results here
are entirely consistent and to draw a final conclusion would be rash, but it does begin to
impose a rather more succinct concept of universal associations. The possibility arises that
because of the correlation in results there could be universal associations which only true
synesthetes have the capabilities to pick up on, but exist in all people. Wassily Kandinsky
obviously believed in a certain level of universal association, writing in Concerning the
Spiritual in Art, ‘the sound of colours is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone
who would try to express bright yellow as the bass notes or dark lake in the treble’.47 It is
generally found that few people would connect the sound of a flute with dark red or the
tones of a double bass with yellow or pale blue. This evident association made between
dark and light colours with low and high pitched sound provides a clear example of the
synesthetic capabilities innate to all of us, but it is still a far cry from distinguishing
individual correlations between pitch and colour as would be found with the experiences of
Cytowic’s true synesthete. This distinction between true synesthesia and any type of sixth-
sense ability is important to appreciate. In a series of experiment carried out in 2003,
Baron-Cohen proved the existence of synesthesia by showing the increased activity in the
visual area of a synesthetes brain in response to sound as opposed to that of a non-
synesthete. This research proves the existence of the extraordinary ability of a synesthete
which is not found in the normal brain, but there is still scope for approaching the
possibility of a universal sixth-sense from a biological stance, as was shown with Kohler’s
Booba-Kiki experiment.

Evolutionary argument also provides a strong case as to why a sixth sense may be present in
the human brain. Vilayaunur Ramachandran, director of the Centre for Brain and cognition
at the University of California, San Diego proposes that visual image and movement were
the first cross-sensory elements to develop, benefiting our ape ancestors who relied on
their skills at tree climbing for survival (2003). Having the capability to associate what they
saw to what they felt meant that they were far less likely to injure themselves. This visual-
movement connection led to the creation of sound (and later language) developing because
of the innate cross activation between hand and mouth. Explained in slightly more detail,
this meant that because the areas of the brain controlling hand and mouth activity are next
to each other, any gesticulation of the hands would be accompanied by mouth movement,
eventually leading to noise production. The angular gyrus, the part of the brain where
multi-sensory cross connection occurs, become progressively larger from lower mammals to
humans. Ramachandran believes that the enlarged human angular gyrus is due to the fact
that once the ability to use cross-modal abstraction was in place, further forms of
abstraction continued to develop, helping to explain why humans are more apt at
understanding and using metaphors and other types of abstraction, such as connecting
colour and sound.48

This stands as a convincing biological argument for the apparent widespread sixth-sense
ability found in humans and it is supported by the surprising amount of cross-modal
language that has infiltrated our everyday existence. The common complaint of feeling
blue or describing a lemon as tasting sharp testify to the humans inherent dexterity at
mixing senses. The fact that synesthesia can be induced by the use of certain
hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD cements the theory that a sixth-sense or type of
synesthetic perception is possible in anyone given the right conditions. This analogy from
Richard Cytowic provides a useful example to explain exactly how valid the concept of a
universal sixth sense ability is and how it relates to the working of the brain.

The consensual image we see on the screen when watching television is


the terminal stage of the broadcast. Someone able to intercept the
transmission anywhere between the studio camera and the TV screen

47
Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, p.25
48
Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, Hearing Colour’s, Tasting Shapes,
(http://psy.ucsd.edu/chip/pdf/SciAm_2003.pdf)

14
would be like a synesthete, sampling the transmission before it reached
the screen, fully elaborated. Presumably, their experience would be
different from those of us viewing the screen. We can similarly propose
and test the concept of synesthesia as the premature display of a normal
cognitive process. This implies that we are all synesthetic, and that only
a handful of people are consciously aware of the holistic nature of
perception.

This is the view of universal sixth-sense theory which is the most realistic and most useful
to a debate in the artistic circles in which this discussion started. It explains the necessity
to reassess art and its audience’s responses from a synesthetic perspective, allowing for the
possibility that artists have unknowingly created works which engage sensual cross-
modality.

Universal sixth-sense theory involves accepting that colour exists in all music and music in
all colour. True synesthetes are extraordinary not for the fact they are experiencing a kind
of sensual peculiarity, but that they have the ability to perceive something which would
normally go unnoticed. The commonality found with all the artists discussed here is their
attempts to convey to an unawakened audience the true cross-sensual qualities the arts are
able to express. None of these attempts however, have been altogether successful in
awakening the ability of cross-modality in the human brain, although some have provided
solid examples of the possibilities and explained to the non-synesthetes what cross-modal
experience is truly like. Whilst Kandinsky ‘s paintings come close to presenting a true
physical expression of colour-hearing, with musical composition it has been proven to be
much harder. Because of the intangible and emotive qualities which music possesses over
the other arts, clear expressions of colour or form can easily become lost in a whirlwind of
vague meaning and expression. Even taking a relatively staid example of the contrapuntal
weaving of colours compared to the ease by which musical sounds can be found in the work
of Kandinsky. As for Alexander Scriabin’s over-zealous attempts to use colour and sound to
bring about the dawn of a new era of man, there is no surprise in the fact that he was
endeavouring to achieve the impossible.

It is in fact, by using Scriabin’s own words against him that a more viable approach can be
found to the involvement of cross-modality and emotion within the arts. His words ‘I bring
not truth but freedom’ provide a fine example of how any sixth-sense ability should be
approached. Scriabin, along with his fellow artists was unable to bring actual spiritual truth
to his audience, but by attempting to incorporate all his senses in a single composition he
was able to provide the most free interpretation and expression of the soul thus giving his
audience the maximum number of angles from which to explore his work and learn from
the concepts behind it. This is the way in which people should explore their own cross-
sensory perceptiveness, stretching the boundaries of what the human brain is able to
comprehend.

There are definite links between cross-modality and emotion, especially in the case of
colour and hearing, where artists have undeniably lead the way in investigating the
emotional aspects of synesthetic perception and scientific theory that synesthesia occurs in
the Limbic system, an area related to emotional response, goes some way to help explain
why the two are so interconnected. However, it largely remains an artistic question as to
how colour-hearing can be used to benefit a creative and emotional understanding of art.,
The role of the artist has changed very little since the late Nineteenth Century and is
summed up very neatly in this quote from Arnold Schoenberg,

Art belongs to the unconscious! One must express oneself! Express oneself directly!
Not one’s taste, nor one’s upbringing or one’s intelligence, knowledge or skill. Not
all these acquired characteristics, but that which is unborn, instinctive.49

49
In Arnold Schoenberg, Wasily Kandinsky:Ltters, pictures and documents, edited by Jelena Hahl-
Koch, trans. John Crawford (London, 1984), p.23

15
Expressing the unconscious and emotional elements in art lends itself to the artist’s
inclusion of colour-hearing but the successful perception of such statements lies wholly
with the audience. With the acceptance of a cross-modal sixth-sense ability in everyone,
art can be viewed form new perspectives which could lead to a fresh understanding of the
unconscious and emotional aspects in art.

Lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and…stop thinking! Just
ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to ‘walk about’ into a
hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?50

50
Wassily Kandinsky, Uber Das Geistige. In Der Kunst, Inbesondere IN Der Malerei, (Munich, 1910)
from Cytowic, Synesthesia: phenomology and neuropsycology

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