Hearing Colors in the Music of Michael Torke

Colouring pencils


Javelin…Michael Torke (b. 1961)

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When you listen to music do you hear colors?  The idea of musical color may seem like a strange mixing of the senses, but color is an important element of music, along with motion, energy, flow and fabric.*

For violinists, color is synonymous with timbre.  We often choose between playing the same pitch in a lower position on a higher string (creating a bright tone) and playing in a higher position on a lower string (creating a darker, thicker and sometimes more veiled and velvety sound).  It all depends on what color the music calls for.

This month I’m excited to introduce you to a piece called Javelin by contemporary American composer Michael Torke.  In my own listening, I find myself drawn to Torke’s music.  It unfolds in a deeply satisfying way and captures the rich, sonic color pallet possibilities of a full symphony orchestra.

Most of us perceive musical color as a metaphor, but Michael Torke experiences it literally and involuntarily.  He has a neurological condition known as synesthesia. Dr. Oliver Sachs, author of Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, defines synesthesia as “an immediate, physiological coupling of two sorts of sensation.” Michael Torke experiences each musical key as a different color.  Here are some interesting interviews where Sachs and Torke discuss synesthesia.

Javelin was commissioned in 1994 to celebrate the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as well as the 50th anniversary of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Listen to Javelin and enjoy any musical colors you may hear.  Is the music bright or dark? What feelings does it give you?  Does any particular moment in the music conjure up feelings that are real but hard to put into words?  What kind of energy does the music have? Notice the way it flows, evolves and unfolds. Does any visual image beyond color come to mind?

Take a moment and leave a comment with your perceptions.  Feel free to site specific moments in the music with the track time.  If you have the involuntary sensual associations of synesthesia, please describe your experience. Also, continue to listen to the other music we have explored so far.  The more times you listen, the more you will hear.  In the middle of the month we’ll get together again with additional thoughts about Javelin and I’ll share another piece that highlights musical color.

(*The Musical Elements: Who Said They’re Right?, Robert A. Cutietta, Music Educators Journal, May, 1993, pg. 48)