November 13, 2010
Most discussions of Olivier Messiaen quickly turn to the subject of color, since his was an extreme instance of synesthesia. As a musician with a moderate degree of red-green color-blindness, I’ve long been interested in how my condition might affect the perception of music. Though Messiaen’s linking of color and tone was far more radical than mine, the general question of color is to some extent transferable among our senses (as when we speak of “loud” colors, for example). My own color-blindness is of a sort in which I see all the colors as different (and my pallet is extremely satisfying and my taste not noticeably different from the norm), but it has been proven to me scientifically that my colors are not your colors. My curiosity about the way one sense affects another is enhanced by the fact that the best musician of my acquaintance is completely color-blind but has the absolutest of absolute pitch. Since he’s also a student of Homer, I have often thought of them both as I recall sunsets over the Mediterranean (a passion of mine) and my conviction that Homer’s wine-dark sea really does look like wine at a certain moment in the process. Now I stumble on this interview in the Paris Review, from which I quote:
What’s the best explanation for Homer’s describing honey as green, oxen as wine-colored, and iron as violet? And why did the natives of Murray Island call the sky black, of all colors!
Well, as for the first question, I can’t explain it better than William Ewart Gladstone did one hundred and fifty years ago: “Colours were for Homer not facts but images: his words describing them are figurative words, borrowed from natural objects. There was no fixed terminology of colour; and it lay with the genius of each true poet to choose a vocabulary for himself.” For Homer, the word that ended up meaning “green” meant something like “fresh” or “pale,” and could be applied with perfect sense to fresh and pale looking things of both green and yellow hue. The distinction in hue between yellow and green was not one that seemed very important in his day. Similarly, in many cultures “blue” is just considered a particular shade of black, and finding a particular name for this particular shade is not a very pressing matter, especially as blue material objects (as opposed to the vast nothingness of sky or even the sea) are extremely rare in nature. So it makes perfect sense, if some nagging anthropologist comes to question you about the color of the sky, to use the nearest color on your palette, and say “black.”
The book under discussion there deals with the idea that color-perception is as much a cultural matter as the perception of music is. The romance of music as a “universal language” has long since been debunked, but it seems that color is also unstable from culture to culture.
And it just occurs to me that, since my variety of genetic color-blindness is common in males and not present in females (though inherited through the mother), the effects of any links between color and music would also vary, not just from individual to individual and culture to culture, but between the sexes as well.