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The Red of His E String

Itzhak Perlman's synesthetic musical associations

When I heard Itzhak Perlman's voice during our interview for my book, Tasting the Universe, I realized I could listen to his rich baritone as long as his violin playing. It is like James Earl Jones or as one might imagine the voice of God. His conversation is melodic, with bold statements in places and at other times sweet flourishes, cadenced beautifully throughout and with a rich vocabulary. I realize the reason he is the finest violinist in the world. He is the violin.

Wiki Commons Image
Source: Wiki Commons Image

The humble maestro hadn't even talked about his synesthetic associations with other musical friends, but he opened up when I spoke with him. A portion of our interview, which first appeared in The Adirondack Review, follows:

"I know that I can describe certain sounds with color. It's not music - it's notes, it's single sounds," he began. "So if I hear a particular sound on a particular string on the violin I could associate that sound with color....It's not like I play a piece and I see sparkling blue things." He started the song slowly, tentatively. I, too, don't want people to think I walk around like someone on an acid trip all the time. I'm careful how I describe this and he wants to be, too.

But I understand that inner knowing, as well. Sometimes I don't "see" my synesthetic associations out in front of me or in my mind's eye, but rather "know" inside, that, for example, Tuesday is golden. I wanted to share so he wouldn't feel so alone or strange or on the spot. So I told him about my inner golden Tuesday and he laughed. "That's just because Monday is over." We were both laughing then.

"If I play a B flat on the G string, I would say that the color for me is probably deep forest green. And if I play an A on the E string, that would be red. If I play the next B, if I look at it right now I would say that it's yellow. The bright colors are the upper strings of the violin -- for me I associate it with bright colors of the spectrum." To share one's personal associations is currency in the synesthesia world and I am so grateful to know his personal palette. We are not all the same. I thought how my musical notes are simply colored by the letters representing them and don't have a separate rainbow like his. There is great diversity within the synesthesia realm.

In grouping bright or dark colors into high or low octaves, Mr. Perlman is like many people. I remember reading how a mild degree of synesthesia is very common according to Alan D. Baddelay in the book, Essentials of Human Memory. "Most people have a slight tendency to associate high-pitched sounds with bright colors and low-pitched sounds with more somber hues,'' he writes. And Bulat M. Galeyev noted it in his paper The Nature and Functions of Synesthesia in Music for Leonardo, the MIT journal: "C. Debussy relied upon the effect of that common synesthesia when he transposed the familiar motif in The Lullaby of the Elephant Call into the lowest register." However in linking specific colors to the notes in those groups, the maestro is unique.

Mr. Perlman explained that "One of the languages that one uses in teaching in describing what is missing from a [musical] phrase is, ‘You need to give some color to these phrases. That phrase didn't have enough color. Or change colors.' "He says that has to do with variety and that shading is an even more precise description -- certain colors can be more pastel, more bold, and so on. And that's very much associated with the sound that one produces, he explained. When he teaches at his prestigious camp for young people on Shelter Island he uses that analogy to describe what he wants. I realize it is common for musicians or even writers to talk about coloring a phrase. And people without synesthesia can understand the sentiment of various colors: paint the town red, in a blue mood, green with envy, black-hearted, purple with rage. Iconic writers from Emily Dickinson in Dying to Pablo Neruda in Poetry have used cross-sensory pairings as metaphor. And yet, synesthesia is that and more.

Copyright Expired/Public Domain WikiCommons
Source: Copyright Expired/Public Domain WikiCommons

Dr. Oliver Sacks wrote of synesthesia and music in Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. "For most of us, the association of color and music is at the level of metaphor. ‘Like' and ‘as if' are the hallmarks of such metaphors. But for some people one sensory experience may instantly and automatically provoke another. For a true synesthete, there is no ‘as if' - simply an instant conjoining of sensations."

Dr. Sacks gets at the heart of the matter here. If I wanted to be metaphorical about Mr. Perlman's friend Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach's Prelude in G from Cello Suite #1, I would pick something lovely, such as it like the sound made by spring's first flowers emerging from under the last winter snow. In truth, though I love this piece and it makes me want to wax poetic as much as anyone, it is for me a less bucolic image of ribbons of coffee coming from his strings in the shape of those glossy Christmas peppermints that fold back on themselves like waves. It is not a metaphor to me, it is a real image. It's that and more. I'd really have to create it in molten, moving glass to give you a full sense of its dimension and sheen and beauty.

But there is overlap between synesthetes themselves and metaphor. Dr. V.S. Ramachandran of the University of California at San Diego says that synesthesia is as high as eight times more common in creative people: poets, writers, musicians and artists of various kinds. "If you assume that there is greater cross-wiring and concepts are located in different parts of the brain, then it's going to create a greater propensity toward metaphorical thinking and creativity in people with synesthesia," he said in a TED lecture. He told me he believes the gene for synesthesia is actually expressed more diffusely throughout synesthetes' brains than just the known hotspots, providing pathways that create an environment for linking seemingly unrelated things. If connected neurons live in concentrated groups in some minds, the synesthesia brain may have a wider fishing net of interconnected nerves.

So Mr. Perlman has both literal synesthesia and a propensity for metaphor -- they seem to go together. And he said the young people - none of whom are synesthetes -- get it when he goes at music metaphorically. "I think that people get it in their own way. Everybody has a particular association with what you describe. Teaching, and it's very interesting because it is even more obvious when teaching the voice, is unless you are really in the person's body, the way you describe what you want is extremely important. So language is really very, very important as to how you can say something to somebody and have them translate it in a particular way."

He doesn't remember how old he was when he noticed his particular note to color associations. "I just felt that it was an obvious thing... because it's not like it's a gift that you can do tricks with or something like that. It's just something that you can associate with."

But I think you can do tricks with it. I wanted to show him the beauty of the trait to repay him in some small way. So I asked if it comes in handy as a mnemonic device given the huge amount of memorization he must do for his profession. For example, I ask him if he ever plays a piece of music and knows some red is coming up ahead in the song? And he says yes, that is the case!

Mr. Perlman had another revelation now that he was thinking about the hard-to-verbalize experience. I felt a comfort level growing between us as he revealed more of the impressions he gets when bowing his priceless 1714 Soil Stradivarius. "Besides colors I see shapes," he admitted. "Each note has a shape. I would say that if you play a D on the G string, for me that's round. But if you play an A on an E string for me, that's much more flat, the shape of it. I hope not the intonation, but the shape of it."

Mr. Perlman said music is shape, it's feel and it's color -- it's everything. "It's everything that you can use to describe the note. The important thing is the way that it's helpful in identifying the sound, and in sort of being involved with the sound, to actually have a feel about what the sound does to you. It does to you with shapes, it does to you with intensity, it does to you with colors. And then you can really associate yourself with the sound. But sound, when you hear anybody play an instrument or sing, the first thing that you hear, the first thing that you're struck by, is a sound. You're struck by the sound without even wanting to be struck by the sound. It's just there; it's the first thing that meets your ear."

He pointed out how if someone has an amazing sound, your ears perk up right away. And if someone does not have a good sound or play with caring about the sound, that's also immediately evident. This instantaneous judgment goes on within all of us before we think the first thought about it, it seems. "This is the first thing that hits the listener, is the sound," explains Mr. Perlman. I think about how people's musical tastes vary so much but there is still often a consensus of what is beautiful. Perhaps there is another hidden, more universal quality to music. It could be the way people all respond, almost subliminally, positively to the most symmetrical human faces on tests of what is attractive. The individual traits of the faces can be very diverse, from skin to eyes, to the shape of the nose - but the symmetry triggers a positive response.

Notes on a violin are not the only things that trigger the color centers in Mr. Perlman's mind. He also associates color with singing voices. He remembered somebody talking about singers one day. They were talking about Pavarotti and Domingo and other wonderful singers and voice, the sound, was the first thing that came up. Then someone mentioned a third tour de force in the singing realm that Mr. Perlman was not as well acquainted with and he later took the opportunity to sample his music. "...the voice was not the most... it didn't catch you. The presence was fine but not the quality of the voice. I remember this guy and for me the sound of that voice was like yellowish-beige. I don't like yellowish-beige in my sound. I like, well if you want to describe Pavarotti's sound, for me that is like metallic blue. It is amazing, there is a metal there, and I could describe it that way." He is right; Mr. Pavarotti had a voice like steel heated by the hottest flame.

Ed Sullivan congratulates young Itzhak Perlman upon his American television debut on his show.
Source: Copyright Expired/Public Domain WikiCommons

Born in Israel in 1945, Itzhak Perlman studied initially at the Academy of Music in Tel Aviv. He appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1958, which raised his profile internationally. He went on to Juilliard, studying with Ivan Galamian and Dorothy Delay, and then won the respected Leventritt Competition in 1964, launching his career. In recent years he has also appeared as a conductor. President Reagan honored Mr. Perlman with a "Medal of Liberty" in 1986, and in December 2000, President Clinton awarded Mr. Perlman the "National Medal of Arts." He serenaded the nation at the inauguration of President Obama. The legendary performer is a testament to the many abilities of the physically challenged, having been struck with polio at the age of four. Mr. Perlman is devoted to those with such differences. And perhaps it is that part of him who shared this most personal gift.

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