Matthew Stadlen spends the day with concert pianist Paul Lewis as he gives a Schubert recital at the Wigmore Hall.
Watch the programme here
Matthew Stadlen spends the day with concert pianist Paul Lewis as he gives a Schubert recital at the Wigmore Hall.
Watch the programme here
As a postscript to my recent article on synaesthesia, Extraordinary Splashes of Colour, here’s a video clip of Olivier Messiaen, a fellow synaesthete, talking about colour in Debussy’s Peleas et Melisande, a work he describes as his greatest influence….
Music and Synaesthesia
I have written before about synaesthesia and how it effects me personally, and relates to my experience of music, both playing and listening to it.
Synaesthesia is a physiological ‘condition’ (I hesitate to use this word, as I am in no way disabled by it), which literally means “a fusion of the senses”. Its incidence is considered to be about one in every two thousand people, though it may be far commoner, since its “sufferers” do not regard it as a condition for which they should seek help from a psychologist or neurologist. It is more common in women than in men. Musical synaesthesia is “one of the most common [forms], and perhaps the most dramatic” (Oliver Sacks). It is not known whether it is more common in musicians or musical people, but musicans are more likely to be aware of it. I have always had it, and until quite recently, I assumed that everyone else had it. It was only at dinner one evening, when I revealed that Monday is always red, Thursday is a brownish-mauve, and the key of B-flat major is sea-green, and my friends looked at me slightly askance and declared “You’re nuts, Fran!”, that I realised I was one of the one in two thousand….
From quite an early age, I suspect I was aware that my brain assigned individual colours to the musical keys – just as it does for letters of the alphabet, days of the week, months of the year, numbers etc. It seemed perfectly normal to me. I have met other synaesthetes, including those who share my particular version of the condition, though our ‘colour schemes’ are never identical. My particular colour scheme is unchanging: A is always red, no matter what background it is set against or in what context; F major is always a dusky mauve
As a musician, this makes for an interesting experience. At concerts, even if I do not know what key the piece is in, the music will conjure up colours in my head. And when I am playing music, the score is most definitely not black and white: chromatic passages, in particular, are extremely vivid and colourful. When I am working, I do not add my synaesthetic colours to the score – this would only add to all the other annotations that are scribbled on my music. But I am always aware of the colour scheme as I am working, and it definitely informs my practising.
A quick browse of the internet threw up some interesting articles, including colour analyses of some of Beethoven’s music, including the Kreutzer Sonata and the Pathetique. However, these are not the work of a synaesthete; rather a means of mapping the music in a more visual, easy-to-follow way.
Some facts about synaesthesia:
Aristotle wrote that the harmony of colours was like the harmony of sounds. This set the stage for a later connecting of specific light and sound frequencies, as Aristotle’s works were translated and incorporated into European scientific study. From the late 15th century, academics, scientists (including Isaac Newton) and musicians were assigning colour schemes to notation, intervals, and the musical scale. Musicians who were genuine synaesthetes include Franz Lizst, American pianist and composer, Amy Beach (1867-1944), who had both perfect pitch and a set of personal colours for musical keys, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Olivier Messaien. Scriabin claimed to have synaesthesia, but it is more likely that he was simply responding to the then salon fashion for “colour music”, and the writings of Russian mystic Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society. Founder of the Futurist movement in art, Marinetti, aspired to have all the senses (he counted five) employed in “interactive synesthetic ecstasy”, and The Futurist Manifesto includes suggestions as to how colours, shapes and sounds combine, which has influenced composers and musicians, as well as artists. English composer Sir Arthur Bliss wrote a Colour Symphony, but this is not the product of a synaesthetic mind. Like Scriabin, he was influenced by the idea of “colour music”, though it was not a mystic association for him but rather a response to the symbolism usually associated with the colours of the English heraldic tradition.
Messiaen’s music, for me, vibrates with colour. The fourth Vingt Regard, which I am studying, is full of chords with rich layers of colours stacked atop one another, flashes of bright gold, orange, royal blue, deep red. Combinations of colours were very important in his compositional process. “I see colours when I hear sounds, but I don’t see colours with my eyes. I see colours intellectually, in my head.” He found that raising a note an octave produced a paler shade of the same colour, while lowering the note produced a darker hue. Only if the pitch altered would the colour change (my experience is identical). His colour associations were very consistent (as mine are), and so to help musicians understand his particular colour schemes, he annotated his scores with the precise colours he perceived. The piano part, in the second movement of his extraordinary and moving Quartet for the End of Time, written in a German PoW camp in 1940-41, contains the instruction to aim for “blue-orange” chords, a difficult concept for a non-synaesthete to grasp, perhaps.
I have yet to meet a fellow synaesthete who is also a musician. The subject fascinates me, in a non-scientific way, and I would be delighted to hear from other musicians who also see colours, either when they listen to music, or when they read it off the score. My experience tends to be more intense when I am actually reading music.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s colour scheme follows, one of several I could have included. My colours are in brackets. As a general rule, minor keys are a more muted version of their major counterparts. Enharmonic keys are different, however: while D-flat major is a pale greeny-blue, C-sharp major is deep red; F-sharp major is purple, which G-flat major is a pale yellow-orange.
|B major||gloomy, dark blue with steel shine (greenish-blue)|
|Bb major||darkish (sea green)|
|A major||clear, pink (deep red)|
|Ab major||greysh-vioket (pinky-red)|
|G major||brownish-gold, light (whiteish-green)|
|F# major||green, clear [colour of greenery] (purply-blue)|
|F major||green, clear [colour of greenery] (pinky mauve)|
|E major||blue, sapphire, bright (orange)|
|Eb major||dark, gloomy, grey-bluish (muted orange, with pink)|
|D major||daylight, yellowish, royal (deep sky blue)|
|Db major||darkish, warm (softer sky blue)|
|C major||white (red)|
‘From the outset all manner of unacceptable behaviour, whether manifesting itself emotionally in false rapture or facial grimace, the stamping of feet to mark the rhythm, accompanied by an all-embracing unsightly body movement, the shaking and nodding of the head to and fro, snorting during a trill or difficult passage, all of these and more cannot under any circumstances be condoned or excused, regardless of rank or gender. Neither can politeness nor indulgence toward the fairer sex be permitted even a mere consideration. Despite music being perceived solely through the ears, there can be no excuse to offend the eyes with such wild antics being carried on in public. Those musicians who enrapture through their performance perceptibly tend to weaken an otherwise good impression when their caricature-like behaviour either induces laughter in us or their apparent convulsions tend to instil fear and horror amongst the listeners’. (Daniel Gottlieb Turk, translated from the German).
Until very recently, junior doctors were not taught “bedside manner” at med school; likewise, are aspiring concert soloists taught concert etiquette while at conservatoire or music college? The thought certainly conjures up an amusing image of a roomful of would-be virtuosi being taught how to bow and curtsey properly…. In the regulations for the Diploma exams, one of the requirements is “a high degree of stagecraft”. I know I can cope with the fashion element: as a friend said when we were discussing what I might wear for my diploma recital, “One thing’s for sure, Fran: you’ll be the best-dressed candidate by a long way!”. But bowing, or, worse, a neatly executed curtsey? Not a quick bob-down, but a proper, graceful, deep curtsey? Hmmmm…..
Just as the first piece of a concert is the soloist’s “calling card”, the way the soloist presents him or herself on the concert platform can also set the mood for the rest of the evening. There are many different ways of doing it: continental, especially southern Mediterranean and Easter European performers, seem to favour a deep bow and hand on heart, perhaps expressing the inexpressible even before the music has begun? Russian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja strides purposefully onto the stage, her bow is a little impatient, as if she is keen to get on with the evening’s work. Paul Lewis, with his Byronic dark curls and stormy brows, always looks as if he’d rather be anywhere but the concert hall; I used to think this was a sign of his general grumpiness, but lately I’ve concluded he may just be shy. Angela Hewitt, on the other hand, has a smile as sparkling as the crystals on her gown and exudes general pleasure at being there.
Some of the greatest artists of our time, indeed, of all time, are or were famously miserable: Sviatoslav Richter shared Paul Lewis’s grumpy face, as did Rachmaninov (there is even a photo of him in the green room at the Wigmore Hall looking as if the last thing he wanted to do was play the piano), while Grigory Sokolov has a reputation for dismissing his audience with a curt nod, as if the audience are an irritation to be borne for the duration of the performance. Why do artists find it so difficult to acknowledge the audience who, after all, are a critical component of the concert experience? For without an audience, it would not be a concert…. If one’s body language on greeting the audience is negative, then no matter how beautifully and movingly, and technically flawlessly one plays, the audience will always feel rather hard done by, perhaps even questioning why they paid good money for such a misery-guts to entertain them. Incidentally, at the end of a concert, Paul Lewis cannot wait to get off the stage. He takes the most peremptory of curtain calls, and scuttles away to the green room as soon as possible. Or maybe he is just anxious to get out of the Wigmore Hall before the pubs close?
Then there is the outfit: these days, many male soloists are eschewing the traditional virtuoso uniform of white tie and tails in favour of lounge suits, nehru jackets, smocks, and even grubby tee-shirts. Given that the physical effort of playing the Rach 3 is equivalent to shovelling coal, I suspect many a concerto soloist would happily play in a vest. Some soloists have developed a very studied and careful on-stage image through their attire: Stephen Hough favours shiny metallic green shoes; Lang Lang has his wide-sleeved Chinese jackets; Mitsuko Uchida’s Issey Miyake pleated creations (which, when she moves her arms, gives the impression of butterfly wings). “Russell Brand of the piano” James Rhodes, with his Joe-90 glasses, 4-day stubble and tattoos, has gone to the other extreme, by choosing to appear in scruffy tee-shirt, frayed jeans and dirty Converse trainers, rather like the traditional music student.
Interestingly, the women are still expected to turn out in sparkly dresses and long gowns. The last time I heard Angela Hewitt, my eyes were dazzled by the rhinestones on her satin dress. All rather lovely – and the music was pretty good too. At one of the ‘Maria Joao Pires and Friends’ concerts at the Wigmore in 2007, my seat was located to one side of the stage, so I could only see the musicians’ feet. MJP wore a rather striking tunic and flowing skirt. And on her feet? Big, clumpy sensible shoes.
It’s not just the outfits that can delight or offend the eyes: it’s the gestures too. I have never favoured extravagantly, virtuoso affectations: they just get in the way of the music. Obviously, certain music demands certain gestures: I did a lot of work last winter with my teacher learning how to float my hands and arms about the keyboard while playing Debussy’s ‘Voiles’. One’s body language can certainly inform the music and help to convey mood and meaning to the audience. But when the gestures are simply for effect, to draw attention to soloist rather than to music, they become irritating. The Turkish pianist Fazil Say is a specialist in extravagant movements, and to say he is “all over the piano” is an understatement: he sways and swoons, tosses his greasy locks around, raises his eyes to heaven, or brings his nose almost to the ivories. None of this makes any sense when he is playing a Bach Toccata or the elegant slow movement of a Mozart Piano Sonata (which, incidentally, he ruined).
Snuffling and grunting, sighing and humming are other virtuoso habits. I wonder how many piansts are actually aware that they are doing it? I accept that some habits are probably the result of nerves; others are just that – habits, which have become ingrained. A friend of mine sighs as he plays; Glenn Gould famously muttered; Paul Lewis grunts, so much so that the first time I heard him play, I thought there was a problem with the piano! It reached a climax of growling as he approached the hauntingly beautiful Arioso of Beethoven’s Opus 110; curiously, he did not snuffle once during the sublime and ethereal second movement of the Opus 111.
So, can I please make an appeal to all soloists? Smile as you walk across the stage and bow in such a way as to dispel remoteness: it will bring the audience closer, draw them in, and remind them that this is to be a shared experience. Oh, and wear a clean shirt, and maybe a nice pair of shoes?
When I was a student in the mid-80s, we all had “cassette players” (the word “ghetto blaster” was fairly new vernacular at the time), and we all made compilation tapes for each other. One of my friends, who was ‘studying’ (hollow laugh) Sociology, seemed to spend most of his time closetted in his room in a cloud of stale, fetid air, creating compilation tapes for the rest of us. Party mixes, mostly, for those “corridor parties” in “halls”, or, when “living out” (i.e. not in a hall of residence), the all-nighters we enjoyed in our scruffy rented accommodation, where the walls were adorned with blue-tacked posters of trendy Steven Berkoff plays, photographs of Jim Morrison, Pre-Raphaelite prints and the ubiquitous Che Guevara picture purchased from Athena. We drank Exmoor and Wadworth 6X, and stuck candles in old wine bottles, wore black jeans and black roll-necks like French intellectuals from the 1960s, and thought we were oh so cool. We were wild in the old days! We had a lot to learn……
A friend (and lover, as it turned out) of my mother, who fancied himself as a unreconstructed hippie and who used to smoke hand-rolled joints in the back garden of our house in the leafy commuter town of Rickmansworth, gave me a new compilation tape every birthday during the years that he and my mother enjoyed an association. For my 18th birthday, it was a collection of songs from the year of my birth, 1966, which was quite inventive. I used to play it a lot, and it included tracks like ‘Paint it Black’ and ’19th Nervous Breakdown’ (The Rolling Stones), ‘Summer in the City’ (The Lovin’ Spoonful), ‘Shapes of Things’ (The Yardbirds), and ‘Sunshine Superman’ (Donovan). At the time, I was deeply into late 60s bands like The Doors and Jefferson Airplane, and female protest singers such as Joan Baez, Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell. The compilation tape, made for a friend, or, more significantly, a boyfriend, became a vehicle for unexpressed or inexpressible emotions and barely-concealed longing.
On a radio programme I caught the other day, one of the guests was lamenting the demise of the compilation tape, now that we don’t have cassette players any longer. But with the advent of iTunes and similar music programmes, it is possible to create compilations and “mixes” once again – and it’s a whole lot easier these days because you simply “drag and drop” the tracks into the new playlist. Newer versions of iTunes have a neat function called ‘Genius’ which will create compilations for you, based on a highlighted track. It looks clever, as if the artificial intelligence of iTunes is able to match certain tracks with others to create a coherent playlist, but in reality all it is doing is using some kind of techie ju-ju and searching by genre and tempo. It copes less well with classical music, for example, pairing a Bach Cantata with a Chopin Prelude.
I still make my own mixes, mostly for listening in the car. I do not have a CD player in the house any longer: when it finally gave up the ghost last year, I didn’t bother to replace it. Instead, all my music is stored on the main house computer and is streamed to a high-quality sound system in the sitting room via the magical gadget that is Apple TV. I also have a very old, now very collectible first generation iPod, on which almost my entire music library is stored. The iPod is so old (barely 10 years!) that its battery no longer charges, but it works off the mains and can be plugged into the hi-fi. So I make ‘mixes’ for long car journeys, a trio of CDs especially for the campervan (when I had it), or for 8-hour drives down the autoroute to the Alps when you need stuff you can sing along to to keep you awake (‘Hallejulah’ by K D Lang was popular at Christmas!). I also keep a CD of my current repertoire for listening to when I’m driving. Then there’s ‘Chopin Favourites’, ‘Schubert Favourites’, ‘Shorter Beethoven’ and ‘Oddments’, a collection of mostly piano music ranging from Bach to John Adams which just seems to fit together nicely. and is enjoyable and stimulating to listen to.
One of the best features of iTunes is that you can purchase a single track, rather than a whole album. So I bought Sheila Chandra’s ‘Ever So Lonely’, hit the Genius button, and hey presto! there was an hour of mostly ‘ambient’ music which seems to suit the late evening when everyone’s had one too many glasses of wine and wants to chill on the sofa. Brian Eno’s ‘An Ascent’ (from the ‘Apollo Atmospheres and Soundtracks’ album) threw up an even more laid back mix via the power of Genius.
So, maybe the compilation is not really dead; its format may have changed with the times, but its purpose and intent remain the same. And still, perhaps, a vehicle for unexpressed emotions……
The Langdon Down Centre, formerly called Normansfield, is a Grade II* listed building, and is tucked away between Teddington and Kingston. It is the former home and medical centre of Dr John Langdon Down, the Victorian physician who first identified Down’s Syndrome. Attached to the modestly-proportioned house is a hidden gem: a purpose-built private entertainment theatre, complete with minstrels’ gallery, vaulted ceiling, pre-Raphaelite panels and painted scenery which is an exact facsimile of the original. The theatre was used by Dr Langdon Down and his family for entertainments, as well as providing a space for his patients to enjoy. Indeed, Dr Langdon Down was an early advocate of drama therapy. Today, the theatre is used for various events and as a location for film companies looking for something a little different. Earlier in the year, Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang used the theatre for a video promotion. The hall is equipped with a medium-sized Yamaha grand piano and a good acoustic. http://www.langdondowncentre.org.uk/
There are many hidden gems in and around London which serve as music venues. Last summer, I discovered Sutton House, a fine Elizabethan building in Hackney, managed by the National Trust. It boasts a charming, intimate and friendly recital space, and in the interval you can enjoy drinks and strawberries and cream in the pretty courtyard. I was impressed not just by the space but by the audience when I visited last summer: a very different crowd from the Wigmore, and one sensed a great deal of support and enthusiasm from the audience throughout the performance.
Across the river, at Walton, is Riverhouse Barn, a converted 18th century barn, which retains many of its original features. It hosts music events, as well as exhibitions and other arts and drama activities for children and adults.
The Red Hedgehog in Highgate looked so unprepossessing the first time I visited it in winter 2006 that I walked straight past it: from the outside, it looked like a kebab shop! (It has since undergone considerable restoration.) Once inside, it is a little like visiting Schubert’s salon (it is in fact named after the coffee house in Vienna which Schumann, Mendelssohn and especially Brahms and friends liked to visit). It offers a variety of music, poetry and drama events throughout the year and has been host to some eminent performers, including pianist Peter Donohoe and actor Simon Callow.
The great thing about attending a musical event in places such as these is that one can get up close and personal with the performers in a way that is impossible in a bigger venue. Watching the Fitzwilliam Quartet playing Haydn, Shostakovich and Mozart last summer was fascinating: how the players interact with each other, and the soloist (my piano teacher), see the sweat on their brows which are furrowed with concentration, and all the other gestures, big and small, which go into producing music. It reminds us that so much of the music that was written before circa 1850 was meant to be enjoyed in this way: it was salon music, to be played for friends and amongst friends.