For the Soundhub showcase concert on 22nd June, I’m going to be writing a piece for Lorenzo Iosco (Bass Clarinet) and David Worswick (Violin), both players from the London Symphony Orchestra. The work is largely growing as a response to Josef Albers’ seminal book Interaction of Color. If you have not yet read Albers’ work I do highly recommend it, but you will not need to have read it to interact with the thoughts here.
The fundamental assertion of Albers’ book is that one almost never sees a colour ‘as it really is’ because colours interact with one another in ways that deceive our eyes continuously.
My work, Interaction, was conceived to explore some ways that this line of thought and reasoning resonates and interacts with music. I am not, here, talking about questions of synesthesia. Instead, I am interested in whether or not the interactions that Albers draws out can be equally applied (and aurally observed) within musical material, and also in the relationship that exists between players in performance.
As a composer, I am far more familiar with the technicalities and terms involved in music than in the visual arts. To adequately think about how these parallels might be built up, I want to begin by defining some of the technical aspects of colour that are involved in their interactions. This is, of course, only a surface-level overview but is necessary for any real interaction with Albers’ material.
Colours are described in three primary ways: name, purity, and lightness. There are a number of terms that come into play when discussing these three concepts.
Hue is effectively the ‘name’ of the colour. Technically, ‘hue’ refers to the wavelength of the light.
Finally, tints and shades are two familiar ways of creating ‘new’ colours from a pure hue, by adding black or white to the original colour, and changing its lightness.
Also interesting is a brief discussion of how colours are produced. Colours can be created either subtractively or additively. In the physical world, the colour we see is reflected light. When we see the colour red, it is because all the wavelengths that render other colours have been absorbed by that object. The colour is created by removing wavelengths. As more colours are added to this system (as we subtract fewer wavelengths), the overall colour gets darker, until we are left with black. This is known as CMYK:
In the digital world, colour is instead created additively (because there is no light entering your computer screen). In this system, we begin with black (no light) and more and more colour is added. However, in a (digital) additive system the opposite of the physical system happens: more and more colour moves us toward the colour white. A consequence of this is that the physical primary colours (Red, Yellow, & Blue) are different to the digital primary colours (Red, Green, & Blue). This is why this type of colour is known as ‘RGB’.
I’m sure that any musician reading this is already making a wealth of connections and observations about how these various ideas might translate into composition. The most natural parallel for ‘colour’ in music is pitch. Yet pitch might only really cover the aspects of colour described by ‘hue’. In the same way that a number of different colours are called ‘red’, a number of significantly different pitches are all called ‘C’.
More importantly, almost any sound heard in live music is actually a collection of frequencies. The most prominent frequency is identified as the ‘pitch’, while other frequencies would change the timbre of that pitch in the same way that adding white or black to a pure hue changes the tint or shade (respectively). Is there also a sense in which a pitch could be thought of as ‘saturated’ or ‘unsaturated’?
From the next post, I’m going to proceed by addressing the particular ways I translated Albers’ ideas into the composition of my own work. I’ll follow Albers’ exercises, sometimes translating these into musical exercises, and will show some concrete examples of how this is coming to bear upon the piece.
Where one actually sees a colour when a pitch is heard. I’ve been told (anecdotally) that Messiaen described pitch as giving the colour (e.g. ‘red’), while register would then effect how dark or light that colour appeared to him.
 This is known as a ‘pitch class’. Serialism (as a theory) goes so far as to treat every member of a pitch class (regardless of register) as being the same.