Messiaen:Synesthesia:Kubrick

By January 17, 2016Film Music, Words

The masterful composer Olivier Messiaen is widely known to have had synesthesia. For those unaware of this fascinating neurological phenomenon, it is a condition where an individual experiences sensory stimulation from a source other than the principle one being activated. As if the smell of an pineapple, as well as being sweet and tangy, also elicited the colour purple in the persons visual cortex.
Much has been written about Messiaen’s condition, and suffice to say, it was no flippant proclamation. While many of us, if not all of us, have emotional connections and responses to music, and in turn can lead to an approximate translation into another sense, weather tactile or colour. Messiaen’s condition was true in the most quantifiable of ways. Where as you or I may, may hear a solo guitar and voice funeral blues, and, obviously associate the colour blue, or possibly black to the music, or alternatively, a smoking hot Cuban band with blistering trumpets and sex rhythm evoking wine red, or maybe a scratchy contemporary violin figure makes us itch, to this end, we all experience some sort of syhesthesia. However, in the truest sense of the word, the individual in question can reproduce matching responses over time with more detail than the average person. It is very well documented that Messiaen could consistently reproduce not only colours, but minute gradations and shades, when hearing harmonies of highly complex nature. Different inversions, and transpositions with similar interval vectors would produce a slightly different shade, but yet remain in the same family.
Anyone who has studied the work of Messiaen, or even simply listened to him with a discerning ear, can clearly accept that his harmony was of a highly complex and individual style. The ability to identify colours, throughout all the possible extrapolations of musical material under his control, and his ability to remain consistent in his declarations, is marvellous and awe inspiring. It is worth noting that, as some have argued, that sound/colour synesthesia could be reduced to simply a matter of an individual possessing an extremely acute sense of perfect pitch, and then assigning a colour to the varying sonorities. This in itself is a marvel and a admirable talent, but one that is more akin to an acute and prodigious memory. In the case of Messiaen, I believe he contained the condition of synesthesia in its truest and most magical form.
His primary musical, and arguably philosophical, influence was Debussy, who, while not known to have synesthesia per se, was one of the first composers (along with other of the so-called impressionists) to compose music with the idea that harmony was stemming from a source of colouration as opposed to function. A rejection of the narrative oriented romanticism of the previous generation This idea, concept, procedure, would basically change the course of music. (Aside from contemporary Classical music, Jazz musicians would adopt this perspective, and it could be argued that a majority of Rock is all colouration as opposed to function.)

By definition, as a filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick, composed with colour. As this recent montage shows, his marvellous attention and awareness of the emotional, psychological, and most likely physiological effects of colour on the person, was of a masterful level and one that he treated with utmost importance.
Would it not be a wonderful exploration to investigate the scoring used by Kubrick, in scenes displaying a prominent focus of a certain colour? Or how about taking various chords from Messiaen’s palate (which he has labeled according to colour) and scoring some of the Kubrick scenes with the corresponding material? If only there was more time in a day, in a lifetime.

Or how about science does us all a favour and just figures a way to make them revenants, so they can come back and work together.

Thanks to Pierre Blaizeau for turning me on to this video.

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