Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.
We may owe the history of modern art to the condition of synesthesia, which causes those who have it to hear colors, see sounds, taste smells, etc. Wassily Kandinsky, who pioneered abstract expressionism in the early 20th century, did so “after having an unusually visual response to a performance of Wagner’s composition Lohengrin at the Bolshoi Theatre,” the Denver Museum of Art notes. He was so moved by the moment that he “abandoned his law career to study painting at the prestigious Munich Academy of Fine Arts. He later described the life-changing experience: ‘I saw all my colors in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.’”
Kandinsky never heard Coltrane, but if he had, and had access to 3D rendering software, he might have made something very much like the short animation above from Israeli artist Michal Levy. “Roughly 3 per cent of people experience synaesthesia,” writes Aeon, “a neurological condition in which people have a recurring sensory overlap, such as … envisioning letters and numbers each with their own inherent colour.”
Levy’s condition is one of the most common forms, like Kandinsky’s: “chromaesthesia, in which sounds and music provoke visuals.” Where the Russian painter saw Wagner in “wild, almost crazy lines,” Levy sees the “rollicking notes” of Coltrane’s Giant Steps as a “kinetic, cascading cityscape built from colourful blocks of sound.”
After visualizing her experience of Coltrane, Levy created the animation above, Dance of Harmony, to illustrate what happens when she hears Bach. During a maternity leave, working with her friend, animator Hagai Azaz, she set herself the challenge of showing, as she describes it, “the cascading flow of emotion, to make the feeling contagious, by using only color, the basic shape of circles, and minimalist motion, assigning to each musical chord the visual elements that correspond to it synaesthetically.”
It is fascinating to compare Levy’s descriptions of her condition with those of other famous synesthetes like Vladimir Nabokov and, especially Kandinsky, who in essence first showed the world what music looks like, thereby giving art a new visual language. Levy calls her synesthesia art, an “emotional voyage of harmony,” and includes in her visualization of Bach’s famous prelude an “unexpected elegiac sidebar of love and loss,” Maria Popova writes. Read Levy’s full description of Dance of Harmony here and learn more about the “extraordinary sensory condition called synesthesia” here.