Sunday, July 18, 2010

Synesthesia City

"A neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway." (Wikipedia)

I can remember "seeing" music for the first time when I was only about seven years old. My parents were listening to a symphony on the radio one Sunday afternoon and I was just dreaming away the time when I became caught up in the sound as waves from the string section alternately broke over the rocks of the percussion with competing waves from the brass and winds. I picked up a knife and fork and began weaving them through the air in imitation of what I perceived the music doing.

Some people say they see colors in music, while others feel only emotion. For me it has always been structures and shapes, three dimensional forms that erupt and soar and collide. Even years later, after I had learned to hear the notes and keys, to understand the formalism of music and to appreciate all its subtlety of tone, I'm still able to hear the shape of it. Perhaps the closest anyone has ever come to showing what I see is the version of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor as it was visualized in the original film of Fantasia. Those great rolling waves of abstract form, both surreal and tangible, struck me as being just about right.

The experience came to me again the other night while listening to -- and watching -- a recital by pianist Awadagin Pratt. I'd seen him once before and had been impressed enough to leave the performance with two of his CD's clutched in my hands. (We picked up another one this night.) As my wife noted, "He's a Big guy!" Large enough to play on the line in the NFL, Pratt uses his powerful frame to cause the piano to thunder. But of course it's not only a matter of pounding. He can evoke the tinkle of chiming glass in the topmost register, and soar from end to end of the keyboard with perfect grace and control.

This ambitious program began with Beethoven, Bach, and Schumann and concluded with Chopin and Liszt. The long suffering Bösendorfer at his command showed it was equal to the task, and Pratt seemed as full of energy at the conclusion as he was in the beginning. Along the way tens of thousands of notes must have been struck, and all to good effect. The Liszt sonata in particular produced the above mentioned effect of synesthesia most powerfully -- I found it best to close my eyes, the better to see the towering shapes that seemed to emerge from the strings, totter and collapse in pieces, only to rise again, wrenching and twisting at the dual demands of composer and performer.

Mr. Pratt is also an educator, who instructed us in the history of the Schumann variations on a theme of Beethoven. This was a work that never achieved a final definitive form in the composer's lifetime, though different versions of it were published. Pratt took it on himself to arrange the variations in a novel sequence, starting with those most free formed and farthest from the theme, and progressing through those more similar to it, then ending with a statement of the theme itself. He let us listen for it ourselves so we could experience what he called an "aha moment" somewhere in the middle. I'll spoil it for you: the theme is from the second movement of the Seventh Symphony, the funeral march, though there was nothing funereal about what Schumann did with it. It has to be one of the most virtuosic pieces he ever wrote, easily rivaling the calisthenics of Franz Liszt.

And speaking of Liszt, my favorite quote attributed to him is his reply to Georges Sand when she told him he played the piano better than anyone had ever played it. "But," he said, "I want to play it as well as it can be played." Which is something else again. Supposedly late in his life he began revising some of his more difficult compositions, fearing that after his death his music would be forgotten if no one else could play it. He needn't have worried so much. Just turn Awadagin Pratt loose on it and tell him it's impossible to perform.

You can see him in action through his website which has a video from his performance at the White House last year. He's playing what the New York Times called "his herculean transcription" of Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. This is the same piece he played for us the other night (though without the addition of "Hail to the Chief" at the end) and demonstrates what Bach might have done if the concert grand piano had been invented in his lifetime.

Like to experience synesthesia yourself? Have a look at this ...

The link to the White House video is no longer on his website, but here it is straight from YouTube --

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