Sunday, July 3, 2016

On Synesthesia

Michel Paul Guy de Chabanon (1730-1792) was a French violinist, composer, and writer on music theory and literature.  His experience as both a writer and a musician gave him a unique viewpoint on the links between music and language and in developing a philosophy of music.  As explained by Claude Levi-Strauss, Chabanon claimed that although the various forms of art engage each perceptional sense separately from the others, the mind uses the artistic experience of one sense to engage the others.  At its highest level, art encourages and enables this cross-sensual perception.

Chabanon was apparently also interested in spiders and played the violin for them to see what kind of music they liked.  He noted that "the spider, sitting at the center of its web, corresponds with all its threads, living, as it were, in each of them; and (if, like our senses, the threads were animate) the spider would be able to transmit to each of the threads the perception given to it by all the others."

A similar image, Indra's net, describes the interconnectedness of all phenomena. As explained by Timothy Brook, "When Indra fashioned the world, he made it as a web, and at every knot in the web is tied a pearl. Everything that exists, or has ever existed, every idea that can be thought about, every datum that is true—every dharma, in the language of Indian philosophy—is a pearl in Indra's net. Not only is every pearl tied to every other pearl by virtue of the web on which they hang, but on the surface of every pearl is reflected every other jewel on the net. Everything that exists in Indra's web implies all else that exists."

Setting aside for now the lyrics in songs, music consists of sounds but not words, and the sounds are not explicit representations of other things.  A C-sharp note does not carry any significant meaning separate from, say, D-flat.  Each sound is more or less empty and has neither its own meaning nor character.  Musical sounds do not have a precise, agreed-upon vocabulary the way words and writing do, and thus cannot explicitly articulate an idea or describe a scene.

No other art works this way.  To Chabanon, a poem, a painting, or a piece of sculpture were all more or less depictions of other things and conveyed some level of meaning.  Chabanon lived before the age of impressionism and abstract art, so to him all painting functioned as photography does now.

Music does not faithfully reproduce the natural world the way photography or a natural sound recording does.  Chabanon wondered why the charms of music did not require it to have to imitate our sense impressions in the way that poetry, painting, or sculpture were required to provide faithful images. "If music," he asked, "is not an imitation of nature, then what is it?"

To answer his question, he reasoned that the ear found its own innate pleasures, which could be enjoyed independently of the other senses.  Music acts on a sensual level and specifically on the sense of hearing alone, but if it appears to have meaning for the listener, it must be because the mind becomes involved.  Unlike words, sounds have no intrinsic meaning, but the mind "seeks to establish relations or analogies with different objects, and with various impressions produced by nature."  The slightest analogies, the weakest relations are sufficient for the mind to find an corollary. In this way, the mind takes the spider-web thread of hearing to inform the threads of thought, memory, and the other senses.

Knowing that the mind creates analogies and corollaries, composers create multi-sensual impressions using elements of rhythm and tonal scale.  For example, waves on the sea can be evoked not by trying to produce the sound of the ocean the way a tape recorder might but by melodies that rise and fall in roughly the same rhythm as swells in the ocean, and it's the mind of the listener that associates the rise and fall of the music, that slightest analogy and weakest relation, with the rise and fall of the sea. From there, it doesn't take much imagination to feel the sun on one's skin, smell an ocean breeze, and visualize surfers bobbing up and down on their boards waiting for the next set of waves.  That formula has served Brian Wilson well.

Chabanon noted that a weak, continuous oscillation of two notes could render the murmuring of a brook; a cascade of rising or falling notes express a clap of thunder, a flash of lightning, or a gust of wind; numerous basses playing in unison and rolling the melody evoke the sea; and so on. Prokofiev's Peter And The Wolf presents a veritable catalogue of these effects, as does Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite.

Musical impressions can go far beyond mere representations of nature.  Music can capture emotional states ranging from joy to rage, from loneliness to ecstasy.  Modern musicians convey the psychedelic experience by composing music with multiple layers that each function on their own and reward individual attention, so that the listener gets "lost" among the various levels and loses sense of time and forgets which level they're "supposed" to be listening. The Miles Davis Quintet understood this well and were masters at musically evoking the sensation of marijuana use:

Animal Collective understood this as well:


In the spider web of our consciousness, the thread of hearing informs the threads of feeling and sight and emotional/cognitive experience.  The mind orchestrates our sensory experience and uses smell to interpret taste, sound to inform sight, and so on, and no sensation stands alone apart from all the rest of sensation, just like the pearls in Indra's net reflect every other pearl in the net.  We're all synesthetic to some degree or another, and the pleasures of music come in part from what our minds do with the sounds presented to us.   

No comments:

Post a Comment