French composer Olivier Messiaen was a synaesthete who experienced colours when he heard or imagined music. He devised his own system of modes (scales) based on his synaesthesia and in some scores he actually notated the colours, to help the performer in interpretation. Here is a unique video clip from one of his famous classes at the Paris Conservatoire.
A Naturalist’s Voice
From 1941 he became a teacher and lecturer at the Paris Conservatoire and held classes in analysis, theory, aesthetics and rhythm but it wasn’t until 1966 that he was officially appointed Professor of Composition (although he had in effect been teaching composition for years). Many famous names passed through these classes including Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, Alexander Goehr and later George Benjamin who Messiaen had a particular fondness and admiration of. Perhaps the one thing that rubbed off on all these composers is Messiaens’ avoidance of regular metre citing it as artificial (relating to marches and more popular music). Messiaen supports his argument by pointing out that in nature things are not even or regular. For example the branches of a tree and the waves of the sea are not even patterns. However, what is true is ‘natural resonance’, and this true phenomenon is what his music is based on.
Messaien’s wife (and former student) Yvonne Loriod said about their first encounter that “all the students waited eagerly for this new teacher to arrive and finally he appeared with music case and badly swollen fingers, a result of his stay in the prisoner of war camp. He proceeded to the piano and produced the full score of Debussy’s Prélude á l’après-Midi d’un Faune and began to play all the parts. The whole class was captivated and stunned and everyone immediately fell in love with him.” Messiaen never imparted his own compositional techniques in his classes but rather steered students along their own paths.
Messiaen on Synaesthesia
“When I was 20 years old I met a Swiss painter who became a good friend by the name of Charles Blanc-Gatti, he was synaethesiac which is a disturbance of the optic and auditory nerves so when one hears sounds one also sees corresponding colours in the eye. I unfortunately didn’t have this. But intellectually like synaethesiacs I too see colours- if only in my mind – colours corresponding to sound. I try to incorporate this in my work, to pass on to the listener. It’s all very mobile. You’ve got to feel sound moving. Sounds are high, low, fast, slow etc. My colours do the same thing, they move in the same way. Like rainbows shifting from one hue to the next. It’s very fleeting and impossible to fix in any absolute way.
It’s true I see colours, it’s true they’re there. They’re musician’s colours, not to be confused with painter’s colours. They’re colours that go with music. If you tried to reproduce these colours on canvas it may produce something horrible. They’re not made for that, they’re musicians colours. What I’m saying is strange but it’s true. I believe in natural resonance, as I believe in all natural phenomena. Natural resonance is in exact agreement with the phenomena of complimentary colours. I have a red carpet that I often look at. Where this carpet meets the lighter coloured parquet next to it, I intermittently see marvelous greens that a painter couldn’t mix – natural colours created in the eye.”