Ramblings of a Possible Synestetic

I often mix certain pieces of music that I’m singing or listening to with other senses such as smell or with particular feelings or even with works of literature. I realize that crossing all of these wires together may put me into the odd ball camp but finding odd people in the arts is so common that it’s almost not worth mentioning.

My possible synesthesia probably began in 1978. I was three and living with my grandparents in Victoria with my mom and my half-sister while my dad and my brothers were stranded in Nova Scotia trying to sell the house. The family was separated by a continent for what was supposed to be three weeks over Christmas but due to finances, turned into nine months. Sometime in the winter or spring of 1978, my mom bought the Fleetwood Mac album “Rumors” and she would dance with me in the living room while my grandparents were at work and my sister was at school. I don’t remember dancing with my mom but every time I hear the song “Second Hand News”, I can almost smell the clean and vaguely leathery, perfume laden smell of my grandparents’ house and I have a feeling of something nearly forgotten, like a fragment of a song or a memory left somewhere behind in the flotsam and jetsam of my early childhood consciousness. During that year, in April or May, I remember waking up one morning and I had a sense of being, of becoming, as if my small life was starting from that moment. I knew who I was, where I was and that I had a mother, grandparents and a sister. Everything I remembered from before, of my life in Nova Scotia, of my dad and my brothers were just dreams that I had the night before. I know that it was spring because the air smelled clean and that I wore a sweater outside. I don’t think that I have ever had such a sense of being since that scrubbed morning when my true sense of personhood began. “Rumors” is associated with that sense of being, of becoming. I still enjoy the album.

Specific genres of music, composers or pieces can “feel” specific ways. Vivaldi’s choral and instrumental music feels clean and elegant. Early German Baroque composers such as Schütz and Praetorius, feel warm and cozy like apple cobbler full of cinnamon and cloves, a fire on a cold, rainy night or drifting into sleep under an eiderdown duvet when you are exhausted. I think that German Baroque music has these associations for me because Laudate has only ever performed this genre of music around Christmas. The harmonies are simple but the sonorities of the viol de gamba, theorbo, violins, violas, recorders, sackbuts and choir are so rich and overtone laden, like the delicious foods that abound during the Christmas season. On one or two occasions, I have had the experience of understanding beauty and the interconnectedness of it all while singing Bach. Therefore, Bach feels like perfection and if you disagree, you are wrong. Mahler’s vocal and instrumental music feels heavy in a good way, like bratwurst or a delicious stout beer. Except for Kindertotenlieder; I can’t listen to or sing those.

Is the text important in choral music? It is and it isn’t. I hear the texture of the music first before I pay much attention to the words, whether as a singer or as a listener. This is partly due to the synesthesia and the genres in which I work. Often, the text is not in your first language or even a language with which you have even a passing familiarity. I usually have a general idea of the subject matter about which I’m singing but I rarely understand every word if it’s not in English. Inferior text can work if the composer is skilled; however, most composers know the difference between good and bad poetry. Finances can be a factor in that composers have to pay for the permission to use poetry that is copyrighted. Many composers wind up using text that is public domain or they write their own. In my experience, composers who are also good at writing text are rare but fortunately, choral music is very forgiving. Choral music is often more about creating colour with a collection of human voices and ranges, thus using the human voices together like an orchestra. When you are singing words which are often broken up from the original poem and disjointed, you don’t have time to figure out the meaning of the words. You have to trust in the visions of the conductor and the composer, in their ideas of shaping and phrasing. If everyone buys into their visions, something wonderful can and often does happen. If a good composer knows what they’re doing, they can merge the text and the music in a way that fits with the meaning of the words. If a good conductor knows what they’re doing, they can get a motely collection of musicians to bring the composer’s ideas to life. The reverse is true though. If an inferior composer who is more familiar with instrumental music sets a Shakespeare sonnet by slapping the text onto the notes with little regard for the vocal ranges and vocal textures, the music will be not be well executed and the text will be diminished, no matter what ensemble performs it. In choral music, the music usually takes precedence over the text but having good text and good music is certainly ideal for the aural enjoyment of the singers and the audience.

Solo vocal music, such as popular, folk, art song, or musical theatre, can be less forgiving when it comes to text, mainly because those idioms are often more text driven than choral music although there are exceptions. I still hear those genres in similar ways that I hear choral music. I couldn’t tell you what the lyrics are to most of Radiohead’s songs nor do I think that the lyrics are that strong; however, I enjoy the band’s music, especially “Hail to the Thief” and “In Rainbows”. Radiohead’s music feels cool, remote, like the Englishmen that they are, I suppose. I still have no idea what the words are to “Second Hand News” or to most of the songs on Rumors. All of the songs in The Sound of Music are expertly constructed. The words and the music merge beautifully and that is a testament to the skill of Rogers and Hammerstein. The same is true with West Side Story. Sondheim and Rogers and Hammerstein actually use the music to underscore the meanings of the lyrics. As a result, each individual song reflects the feeling of the subject matter. “Somewhere” feels terribly sad and melancholy – and it is. Words still matter because a really bad, clunky lyric with poor syntax and rhythm will stand out and no amount of texture in the music can save the poorly written lyric from standing out.

Right now, Laudate is working on a program called “Music of the Human Soul” with the duo Couloir, consisting of cellist Ariel Barnes and harpist Heidi Krutzen. The concert is at 8:00 pm on Friday, March 18th at St. Andrew’s United Church in North Vancouver. I can hook you up with discounted tickets too! I mention this concert for shameless promotional reasons and because this program feels very specific for me. We are currently rehearsing a new commission by our composer in residence, Chris Sivak called “Where the Moon Goes” and an older commission by our former composer in residence, Bruce Sled called “To Name the Moon”. The combination of choir, cello and harp feel like the moon itself on a icy winter’s night: hard, cold, bright and remote. This would seem to be rather negative but it is not. My favourite moon is a full winter moon. At that time of year, the sight of her makes me appreciate the wonder, beauty, enormity of space, our utterly insignificant place in the cosmos and at the same time, our extraordinary ability to actually perceive and to see this distant celestial body, to witness her beauty. We also have two commissions by Stephen Chatman called “Hush, Hush” and “Whisper Me”. As the titles suggest, these pieces are very gentle. The text and the music with the combination of choir, harp and cello should give a sense of impressionism and maybe they do as a listener. To me though, and this is something that I really don’t understand, “Hush, Hush” feels Edwardian, particularly certain phrases in the alto line. That may be because I was reading a passage out of E.M. Forster’s novel “Howard’s End” last month which coincided with first receiving the piece or maybe it’s my addiction to “Downton Abbey”. I have happily sung many pieces by Chatman over the years. He is quite prominent in Canadian music, especially choral music. He is extremely skilled and an expert orchestrator. Most of his music feels a similar way: clean yet lush at the same time, perhaps my perception of an “Edwardian” feel, even when he setting visceral poetry. A few years ago, we performed his setting of texts from the Rubiayat of Omar Khayyam with the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra. The final movement is very dark, driving and almost menacing, especially given that the text is about avarice. The movement ends with two percussionist driving towards an abrupt end. That one movement is the possible exception to the “clean, Edwardian” feeling of Chatman’s music.

Everyone perceives music and art in slightly different ways. I am not sure if the “synesthetic” is the ideal way but it is my way. It makes for an interesting life of the mind, especially for an introvert. Here’s to perceiving art – in all sorts of forms!