Scriabin’s Spectrum — The Cheap Inside Scoop

The World, a terrific NPR show, had a segment tonight about the genius and whack job  Alexander Scriabin. If you’re a pianist, you know his fantastic (literally) passionate piano music, passionate and psychedelic. Almost literally — Scriabin had a rare condition that translated keys into colors. My two favorite pianists, Vladimir Horowitz and Glenn Gould had almost nothing in common except their brilliant technique, mental illness and monk-like devotion to Scriabin. Scriabin wan’t monk-like — the mayors of both New York and Chicago wanted to deport him because he traveled with a lady who wasn’t his wife.

Scriabin thought keys had colors, and he wrote for the big spectrum, tonal and visual. (As The World emphasized, there is an actual condition where people do see keys as colors.) Here’s Alex’s spectrum:

By chromatic scale
Note Colour
C red (intense)
C# violet or purple
D yellow
D# flesh (glint of steel)
E sky blue (moonshine or frost)
F deep red
F# bright blue or violet
G orange
G# violet or lilac
A green
A# rose or steel
B blue or pearly blue

OK, here’s the fun part: I’m married to a pianist, a Scriabin devotee and someone who’s let’s say, artistic. He disagrees with his idol about the colors, almost without exception. He’s sitting next to me on the couch yelling:” C major is rhinestones! Then you go to C sharp and it’s hard, like steel grey. D major: Maybe brown. D flat E minor is  golden. E flat major is a lush green. E major is a steely green, except in Mendelsohn. Then you go to F, which is hard — it’s kind of blue. F sharp major is really hard — neutral and brilliant. G is calm and light yellow, A flat is rose. Alexander was wrong: the A keys are red. B flat major is sunshine. Now we have B — it’s not a color it’s a texture: it’s hard. E minor is black mourning — sad beyond belief. D minor is just explosive.”

He was getting a bit off topic, describing the power, not the color. But the fun of hearing a mortal so passionate about an abstruse topic is big fun. But as I write this, he’s yelling: “Bach did this! Don’t forget the Well-Tempered Clavier, and how he just moved the keys a smidge off-center so they worked. And tell everyone they have to listen to Scriabin’s Preludes!”

I would add that erotic, passionate, poetic “Vers la Flamme.”

Scriabin was a weird modern genius, but he’s not the reason I’m writing this. It’s all about the ravings of another musician and how, for nothing, for zilch,one can be transported by someone else’s passion.

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9 Comments

Filed under Free, History, Into the Mystic, Music

9 responses to “Scriabin’s Spectrum — The Cheap Inside Scoop

  1. NONONONONO!!! F tastes like the black drops of pine tar on a Fifties telephone pole!!

    And E minor is bitter lemon, with just a little grain of sugar trying to coax it from despair, though the tongue-tingle does mostly taste of tears.

    But good old G is strawberries, and that’s something.

    To know they’re colors, as well—oh, my. That takes listening to a much-higher plane, knowing that the notes have even more dimensions than I knew.

    I’m not one to shout at the screen, or avidly correct another’s comments, but in this case, I think I’d best never listen to music with y’all—I don’t know if it would be revelation or altercation.

  2. PeterG

    Very cool. When I was ten I went to see Liona Boyd at Massey Hall. It was the first time I heard someone talk about this phenomenon, and it was the beginning of a very long crush.

  3. This was really fascinating-I was supposed to be cleaning my oven and finding a neat pizza recipe for dinner tonight, and instead I have been running to my piano and doing my scales to see if I could see the correct colors-alas I am color blind as well as tone deaf-I then spent the rest of the morning on you tube listening to great pianists playing this astonishing and mesmerising music.

  4. Dean

    Is this a form of synesthesia? Iris gave me a very good book about it, http://www.amazon.com/Mango-Shaped-Space-Wendy-Mass/dp/0316058254 . I recommend checking it out from the library.

  5. I didn’t think of it in reference to music, but Dean’s link just triggered a haven’t-thought-much-about-since five thing that’s always intrigued me.

    When I was very small, time had shapes. An hour was shaped like a banana; a minute was a Vick’s coughdrop (a triangle, as opposed to Luden’s little lozengy-platter shape). Seconds were the best of all—they were the tee-ninecy sparks which flew off a sparkler as I smelled the cordite and felt the infinitesimal, nanosecond pain of the burns on my arms.

    Days and weeks and months were of not much consequence—they just got me to a year, which was a vast clothesline, hung with white sheets billowing, and flapping cloths—most with stripes.

    I was a STRANGE little kid.

    I’ll bet you’re re-thinking that morning stroll, now, aren’t you?

    • Nope, the morning stroll will be even more fun. I understand exactly what you and the heroine of the book Dean recommended mean — associating the ineffable with a shape, color, or sound is something I’ve done all my life. Even on a mopey day, writing looks like a big red Rorhshach blob.

  6. Kim Shook

    I am sending this post link to Mike, who plays (not much lately, but trained) and I know he will find it fascinating. I am woefully ignorant of music and don’t even know one note from another.

    My owned contribution is something that is even odder than Rachel’s time personification. Any word spelled with an ‘ae’ instead of an ‘ay’ (like Mae/May or Sundae/Sunday) looks buck-toothed to me. Meaning I literally see in my mind a cartoonish bucktoothed character (a bit like an Al Capp drawing). I am completely embarrassed by that admission, have no idea why it is so and am wondering if I’ll even hit ‘submit’.

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