In his new project Colours, composer and conductor Dimitri Scarlato journeys through an aural landscape awash with the emotional tones and tints triggered by the colour spectrum. Human beings make all sorts of unconscious colour choices every day. Colours lodge deeply in our minds and can add intuition and awareness to our actions. They can evoke emotions such as serenity, urgency, remorse, trust, hope, melancholy. They can convey the feeling of being warm and safe inside while a storm blusters outside. But is it possible to experience the tug of emotion conveyed by colour in the absence of light? What is the sound of the purple light of dawn breaking? How do you express the ‘feeling’ of green to someone who is blind? Can we make anything significant of the fact that there are seven colours in a rainbow just as there are seven notes in a musical scale or is it all just a matter of coincidence? It isn’t difficult to imagine black as being the colour of silence, and white as the noise of all sounds vibrating simultaneously, essential musical notations nonetheless. How has Scarlato negotiated these challenges in this new work then?

“I’m a very instinctive person,” Scarlato says. “Take the colour purple, for example. What do I imagine for the colour purple when I’m composing? Purple for me is the colour of wisdom. It’s associated with the highest chakra, which is the one above your head. It’s a colour people feel really strongly about. For me, it’s a really warm colour and productive too. In films you often see purple used in very lush settings. It’s the colour of attire for royalty or tarot card readers. It can also be a colour of passion.”

Scarlato’s Colours falls within the broader reaches of a synaesthetic frame of reference. Synaesthesia is a neurological condition in which the stimulation of one sensory experience involuntarily and consistently triggers another. This inter-sensory mash up occurs when the brain uses the resources usually used for one sense for other senses, as if the two parts were conjoined.  So synaesthetes can taste colours, see musical sounds, hear colours, among other kinds of synaesthesia. This extract from his poem Vowels clearly suggests that Rimbaud had grapheme-colour synaesthesia:

Black A, white E, red I, green U, blue O – vowels,

Some day I will open your silent pregnancies:

A, black belt, hairy with bursting flies,

Bumbling and buzzing over stinking cruelties.


Pits of night; E, candour of sand and pavilions,

High glacial spears, white kings, trembling Queen-Anne’s lace;

Although he wasn’t generally considered to be a synaesthete, it’s interesting to note that Henri Matisse described the same rich, cobalt blue that he used in his Blue Nudes as affecting the viewer like “a vigorous stroke of a gong.”

People have been making an association with sound and colour for centuries. The artist Wassily Kandinsky said, “Colour is the keyboard. The eyes are the hammers. The soul is the piano with its many strings. The artist is the hand that purposely sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key.” Germany’s Blaue Reiter group (of which Kandinsky was a member) explored the emotional and perceptual dynamics of colour, sound and other senses. Around the same time, visual artists began using musical terms such as ‘composition’ and ‘tone’ to describe art. According to Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran, a neuroscientist well known for his work in behavioural neurology and visual psychophysics, “Synaesthesia is seven times more common among artists, novelists and poets, and creative people in general. Artists often have the ability to link unconnected domains, have the power of metaphor and the capability of blending realities.”

It’s this ability by artists to use metaphors to bridge the gap between dissimilar images, ideas, and perceptions that enables the synaesthetic experience to become communicable, revealing precise aspects of human consciousness with great clarity. Although he does not acknowledge this directly, or maybe hasn’t thought of what he is doing in terms of synaesthesia, a synaesthetic experience is in fact what Scarlato has achieved with Colours. He says, “There’s no visual component as there is when you’re watching a film with a soundtrack, but I believe there’s a story in the music that can be visualised. For the track inspired by the colour green, for example, I visualised rain falling on trees. When you think about it, the colour can be quite grey, which is not too far from green because each colour has so many shades.”

Listening to a sample of the lone piano of ‘Green’ on Scarlato’s Soundcloud page, I’m taken to somewhere pensive, tinged with a touch of melancholic nostalgia. It is indeed akin to the feeling I’ve had many times when looking out of the window on a rainy day. The track ‘Blue’ starts with a lugubrious cello and then, perhaps counter-intuitively given the associations with the colour and sadness, picks up speed and volume that somehow evince…hope…before slowing down again to bring that moody cello back to the fore. I am reminded, very emphatically, that Scarlato also composes music for films. The music is doing what the best film soundtracks can do – it’s giving the listener extra (and sometimes subliminal) information about the emotional content of a scene that isn’t contained in the visual or dialogue aspects of the film.

The cross-over between music and colours seems to occur more than other senses and arts. Perhaps it’s something to do with emotional responses that are common to both music and colours? It’s certainly not a new idea. Classic philosophers asked if colour in music was a physical quality that can be qualified. Looking through a list of known synaesthetes, there is a striking number of pianists and a lot of composers too. Scarlato is both of these, but is he a synaesthete in the true sense of the word?

Of Colours Scarlato says, “I want the audience to be touched emotionally. Different colours have different interpretations. Yellow is the colour of jaundice, disease. On the other hand, it’s also the colour of the sun which is full of energy. Yellow roses are for friendship, for instance. “

The philosopher Kendall Walton, in a scholarly article on the ‘physicality of music’ suggests that such emotional intimacy with respect to music arises when the listener imagines a certain experience of the emotion, and his/her imagination then becomes the experience of the emotion. He describes this as automatic mimicry.

The phrase “synaesthesia in art” has traditionally referred to a wide variety of artists experiments that have explored the co-opting of one sense to represent another in the genres of visual music, music visualisation, audiovisual art, abstract film and intermedia. But when discussing synaesthesia in art, a distinction needs to be made between two possible meanings:

  1. For a natural born synesthete, synaesthesia is an integral part of his/her sense perceptions. Musicians such as Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams and Stevie Wonder (how does this work given his blindness?) all claim to be synaesthetes. Here’s Tori Amos, a pianist and singer/songwriter, on subject of her synaesthesia from her book Piece by Piece:

“The song appears as light filament once I’ve cracked it. As long as I’ve been doing this, which is more than thirty-five years, I’ve never seen a duplicate song structure. I’ve never seen the same light creature in my life. Obviously similar chord progressions follow similar light patterns, but try to imagine the best kaleidoscope ever.”

Meanwhile, the avant-garde artist Neil Harbisson was born with an extreme form of colour blindness, meaning that he sees only in grey scale. He developed a sensor that transposed colour frequencies into sound frequencies which he wears as an antenna permanently implanted in his skull. It allows him to hear the light frequencies of the spectrum including invisible colours such as infrared and ultraviolet. He is officially recognised as a cyborg by the British government with a passport stating as much.

  1. For an artist who is not a natural born synaesthete (ie. who is not born with the neurological condition), synaesthetic art is the result of an artistic intention, what the artist is trying to make you feel. Edvard Munch’s The Scream (of which he said: “I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”) or those unsettling, suspense ratcheting, plucked violin strings in the shower scene of Hitchcock’s Psycho approach this meaning. Meret Oppenheim’s Fur Breakfast sits in the intersection between the visual, the tactile and the lingual. And although it’s not ‘art’ per se, the iTunes visualiser is another example of an attempt to make the aural visual. This meaning is also where Scarlato’s work Colours sits. Colours then is the work of a pseudo- synaesthete. These distinctions are not mutually exclusive. Art by a synaesthete might also evoke synaesthesia-like experiences in the viewer but not all “synaesthetic” art necessarily and accurately reflects the synaesthetic experience.

“The initial idea for Colours eight years ago was far from being poetic”, says Scarlato. “Because I like artists like Ryiuchi Sakamoto and Yann Tierson and because some of my music resembles the cross-over style that is not classical music, but comes from that tradition, I wanted to compose music for cello, accordion and piano which are three instruments I really love. My agent at the time suggested that I find a theme that would link all the instruments. I’m really receptive to colours so I started with three tracks – blue, yellow and brown – as a kind of showreel to send out. Each of the individual tracks are inspired by a specific colour but because of my passion for film, I also wanted the work to be a journey without interruption with each track to be a different experience for the listener to go through informed by each colour and its mythology.”

“Going back to rain falling on trees, there is more than just a visual sense. It also gives you a sense of sound and a sense of touch as well. In the music there is a constant repetition of sound pattern that is light but not heavy that made me imagine grey days of constant rain while I was composing.”