07/26/2013 05:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Many Shades of 'D'

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

I'm in the middle of composing a violin concerto these days so it's not really surprising to me that I'm living in a world where the pitch of "D" is the center of gravity. After all, a good number of the great violin concertos of the past from Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Brahms to Prokofiev and Stravinsky are in "D". It's not a surprise considering how sympathetic the key is to the resonance of the family of bowed orchestral stringed instruments. But for me, pitches, tones and keys are more than just about sympathetic vibrations, open strings and other technicalities of physics and orchestration. A pitch suggests a color and an atmosphere. It even has a temperature entirely of its own.

"D" has always been a blue pitch to me with the key of D Major representing a bright azure blue and d minor being more of a twilight purple. So it's not a coincidence that the first movement of my violin concerto is inspired by the story of Abbas Ibn Firnas, the great Arab Andalucian polymath who, in the 9th Century, took to the skies in the first successful human attempt at flight. But beyond the presence of sky colors in my choices of tones, there's a lot more in my first movement to illustrate the rush of flight. A key element of the music is its audacious and frenetic speed recalling the poet Mu'min Ibn Said's account of Firnas "flying faster than the Phoenix in flight when he dressed his body in the feathers of a vulture." There's also orchestration: the sound of an oboe playing "d" has a different hue than the same tone played by the clarinet. Then of course there's register: a very high "d" played by the piccolo has a different shade than a low "d" rumbling in the double bass section. Also, let's not forget dynamics: an extremely loud "d" strikes me as a different color (or variant of the same color) from a soft, muted "d". Of course it's the combination of all these things and more that make the infinite variety of music possible.

Above all is how all of these elements are combined to serve the narrative, story-telling goal of the music: how the structures are deployed, whether abstractly or with an explicit program, to say what the music needs to say. It's maybe because music (and it's primary ingredients: the energy of sound) is my first language that this is so deeply interesting to me.

The colorblind artist Neil Harbisson uses a cybernetic device implanted in his brain to hear colors but not in the subjective way that a synesthete would. His "eyeborg" is a helpful device that allows him to experience an objective relationship of color to sound in a condition which he calls "sonochromatopsia." He has even created artworks that interpret famous musical scores into the colors that he hears in a series called Color Scores. Of course, these pictures are more like spectrographic analyses of the openings of these scores than a more subjective "artistic response." After all, like most analyses, they leave out the most interesting elements of these works: the narrative thrust and drama of the music. In Harbisson's series, Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" looks to have the same structure as Beethoven's "Für Elise."

In his TEDTalk, Harbisson also mentions that he anonymously displays his representation of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech side-by-side with a speech by Hitler. Most people, he says, change their preference once they learn which image represents which speech. Again, the issue is that the visuals do not represent content. MLK and Hitler seem to have the same structure to their speeches. So it should come as little surprise that Hitler's heightened tones and impassioned dynamic of delivery results in a colorful visual representation despite the vile content of his message. Content, Harbisson would rightly argue, is not the point. But as a composer, I know the power of titles and Harbisson seems to be actively seeking the reactions of his audience with the titles of his artworks as well as the way in which they are being displayed.

The larger issue here is the integration of technology in our everyday lives and even our bodies as a way to enhance our standards of living. Harbisson's "eyeborg" allows him to decipher colors despite being colorblind. In that sense it's not so different from an artificial pacemaker or any artificial device that improves our health and quality of living. It's also not a new concept that we can use technology in this way and we should expect to see more and more of this in years to come. The "eyeborg" can help Harbisson see the colors in front of him but it doesn't illuminate much about "The Rite of Spring" or the "I Have a Dream" speech. For the time being at least I, with my irrational human instincts, will be composing a violin concerto about the wonder of flight and reacting in that profound, undefinable way to the exulted ideals of Martin Luther King's dream.

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