Toward a Theory of Synaesthetic Composition: A Case Study of Messiaen’s Sound-Colour and Bedazzlement
Messiaen is likely to be the only synaesthete-composer of canonical stature to have written about his perception, theorization, and utilization of sound-colours in great details. Until now, Messiaen’s claim as a synaesthete has not been studied by neuroscientists specialized in research on colour-hearing, although he fits surprisingly well the criteria laid down in standard texts of neuroscience. As the urgency to capture sound-colours in music comes into play in full strength, Messiaen expands his colour resources beyond the modes of limited transposition to complex sound blocks that can accommodate all twelve possible transpositions. In this paper I delve into Messiaen’s colour-hearing with recourse to the seventh volume of his Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie (2002), the only source in which he formally and systematically discusses the colour effects of distinct pitch structures. Messiaen’s orchestral works from different time periods are analysed for his use of sound-colour materials with a view to investigate how theory works in practice. Music with programmes that are explicitly religious in tone are prioritized, since the sound-colour materials are purportedly most conducive to the arousal of religious experience, or, what Messiaen alludes to as a breakthrough to the Beyond.