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Interview with Michael Torke

Fred Child: So we're putting together this hour long show about Synesthesia and music.

Michael Torke: Wow. A whole hour? Good for you.

FC: So you know, there'll be some Rimsky-Korsakov and some Messiaen and some Scriabin.

MT: So you'll use music.

FC: Oh yeah yeah yeah. It'll be mostly music, just a little bit of talk here and there, but mostly music. We could talk to Rimsky-Korsakov and Scriabin and Messiaen, but we could talk to you.

MT: Well I'm delighted.

FC: Now I know, especially. Well, ever since the "Colors" CD came out, In some circles you've been kind of pegged as the Synesthesia Guy. And you know, we don't want to do that. But I imagine in that time, you've had to come up with sort of the Cocktail Party version of the answer to, Oh, Synesthesia, what is that? I wonder if you could maybe start with the Cocktail Party version of your answer, but then go on from there, how is that different from your real experience of it.

MT: Well, that's an interesting way of asking that question. I don't think that my story differs from my experience. As it appeared even in Oliver's book, I started taking piano lessons early just before I turned 5 years old. And my teacher was somewhat experimental, in that when she saw that I would change pieces of music around, instead of being recalcitrant, she saw that as being creative. And so I began to write pieces from the very beginning. And I think I started talking about the pieces in terms of color. Oh, that D Major piece, I mean that — see there, I even made the error of mixing up D Major with blue. I meant to say that blue piece. Because to me there was a one to one correspondence between color that I experienced with the piece that I was playing and the music.

So ever since an early age, keys, sometimes pitches had a correspondence which was involuntary to color. When I would experience the music, either thinking about it or listening to it. And later on I found out that this occurs in some more primitive part of the brain that might be mixing up the senses. I think Oliver Sacks himself did research in more detail on that. This led to when I just began composing professionally, getting out of school writing a series of pieces for orchestra named after colors. And the reason I did it was I had musical idea to solve.

I thought, wouldn't it be interesting if a piece of music never modulated. In school you're taught that once you establish a key the thing that you ought to do is move away from the key. Go to the fifth scale degree, go do something contrasting. And I always thought, well why is that so necessary? If you're at a great party on a Saturday night, the minute it gets good, do you say now we have to leave? Presumably, you would want to stay where things are good.

So my idea was to write a piece of music, 8 minutes, 10 minutes long, that would never modulate. Could it be done and sustain our interest. And the fact that it stayed in a certain key where I had strong color associations, it seemed fitting that the title should be that color. The very first one was called Ecstatic Orange, from 1986. Excuse me, that was written in 1984, finished in 1985. Then Bright Blue Music was 85, Green was 86. And more followed after that.

What happened was when the pieces were recorded and some of them got performed, people clued in, much to my surprise to the synesthesia, which seemed very interesting, as opposed to the formal problems I was trying to solve.

At first that kind of irritated me, and then later on I kind of got a little wiser. In my old age, realizing that look, if anyone responds to your music in whatever way, that's a wonderful thing. And if this is a way that brings them into a kind of an understanding of what Iím doing, all the better. So, in the past 10 years there has been more of a scientific interest in synesthesia, and so requests for interviews have gone up in just the last 5 or 10 years.

My interest in using synesthesia as a creative impulse has waned. So sometimes it does feel like I'm talking about an earlier time in my life. But I'm certainly happy to do so.

FC: Going back even to the very beginning. You said when you were 5 years old, you have that experience with your music teacher where you said, oh, that blue piece. Oh the D Major piece. You had that involuntary, automatic association when you heard D major, you had that association with blue, immediately. But I wonder if you could describe your sensory experience. When you hear D Major, how does that blue manifest itself for you?

MT: Well, it's in the mind. It doesn't take any form except as this bright and rich blueness, that's just, it's hard to describe. It's washing through your brain, but it's not attached to anything. And it's not like a screen. It's just blue. To me, it's kind of the essence of it. It looks blue. It just doesn't have any dimensions I guess. It isn't two dimensional or three dimensional.

FC: Sounds like the platonic form of blueness.

MT: Yeah, in a way.

FC: Is it only one way or is it two way? If you have that idea of blue, can you conjure up the sound of D major?

MT: No. it's just one way. We live in a visual world, and if I look up to the sky, I don't hear a D Major chord struck on a piano. No it doesn't, it just goes the one way.

FC: Can you tell me about some other associations? D major is blue, what about some other keys or pitches?

MT: E major is green. And it's a kind of a spring green, very very warm. E minor gets slightly more blue added to it. But it's not a blue green, just a colder green. G major is yellow. Whereas g minor gets to be kind of a burnt yellow or an ochre. G-sharp which is the third scale degree of E Major, which is green, but if I isolate g-sharp, that becomes this almost kind of pumpkin orange. So G-sharp Major would have that kind of sound. And E mixolydian, which uses the g-sharp of the E major scale, but has the flatted 7th degree, d natural, is in fact the mode the Ecstatic Orange is written in.

FC: Those are so specific. I mean, that's kind of amazing to somebody like me who doesn't have this association. And Oliver Sacks mentioned this too, he was really taken by how specific you were in describing the colors. That a usual, general word like yellow is just not enough. There's more to G Major than just the word yellow for you.

MT: Yeah. I mean, it might be my attempt to try to describe things as accurately as I can. If I weren't a composer, I always thought that what I would want to do in my life is be a novelist. There might be some aspect to that. But just trying to be really honest with the experience, is maybe where that comes from.

FC: You've had a chance in recent years to talk with other synesthetes. Do your colors match.

MT: No. A general rule is that these associations seem to be completely arbitrary. And so, no two musical synesthetes ever agree on anything. And when you hear them talk it sounds like a lot of bunk. Which is one of the reasons that I got very shy about doing interviews. But I thought this was a subject that was kind of bordering on indulgence. Who cares if this is what my experience is. And yes, it had an influence on those pieces, but to my mind, a somewhat superficial influence. And there is a kind of a touchy-feely aspect about a roomful of synesthetes, who all seem terribly proud of their spiritual experiences. And that kind of cottonness and fluffiness repels me. And that's why I was so happy with Oliver Sack's book, because I think he really did a wonderfully responsible job in trying to describe this phenomenon.

FC: I was reading a paper about synesthesia written by a woman at MIT, and she describes interviewing you in 1998. And said you were really reluctant to talk about it at first.

MT: Yeah, I don't remember that interview, specifically.

FC: Greta Berman, I think her name is.

MT: Yeah.

FC: Ah, there've been so many synesthesia interviews...

MT: Well, I don't mean to suggest that. [laughs.] Yeah, and maybe it was the way the questions were asked, because it just seemed like the emphasis was on the wrong thing. I mean to me, if someone — here's a good example. In order to see these colors, you have to be able to identify what pitches your hearing. Therefore you need perfect pitch. And it's been debated through the years whether perfect pitch adds anything to a musician. Are you a better musician because you have perfect pitch? I think that the answer is no. It's one of convenience. If you're rehearsing, you can say to the violinist, that g sharp, without knowing that they had played a g sharp. Because you can identify it. But it's nothing more, it doesn't give any qualitative thing, I believe. It doesn't have any added benefit, I'm not quite sure the economic term. And so that's maybe why I've played kind of light about this over the years.

FC: So it's really just a simple fact of your life, that when you hear certain sounds, certain musical sounds, you have the experience of color. But that in and of itself doesn't have any extra meaning for you. It just is what it is.

MT: Yes. When I was in second grade, I remember being asked to write a story or a paper or something, and I wanted to, my idea was to invent a machine that could explicate how everyone would taste a banana, for example. And I remember telling this to my parents and they said well, a banana tastes the same to every one and I said well how could that be? Because I figured everyone's experience was their own thing. And so that was kind of a growing up experience, that this subjectivity resides in me and that there is a kind of observable world out there. And I think that that emphasized also, anything that's subjective like that I think get's in the way of what we're trying to achieve as musicians. Is trying to express something that can be a little bit more universal. If my cat dies, that might be terribly important to me, but it's not important to anyone else. So I don't think, in my opinion, in my humble opinion, it should be the basis of some grand symphony.

This has been debated and I have gotten a little bit less forceful on this idea, but I think that one falls into a trap, when one's subjective emotions are the basis of what you're trying to say artistically.

FC: Well even though there are so many of us who don't have this synesthetic association between music and color, almost everybody who loves music can talk about color in music in a metaphorical way. We talk about a blue note in Jazz or if we talk about something being very bright, a musical passage being very bright. I mean, that's a visual word, but it has meaning to pretty much everybody.

MT: Well, and that should be discouraged. Because music is so abstract, we hunger for these kinds of associations, which is another reason maybe I was as shy about it. Because I thought, well, maybe all synesthesia is just a hyper-associative response. And it's nothing magical, it's nothing even scientific. And even Oliver and I talked about that.

FC: Well for you, color is more than just metaphor, in music. You have that association, that sensory experience. So I wonder if it's different for you to write blue in music, than it is to write, say, Forest Fire, in music, which you also have done.

MT: Yes, because that piece After the Forest Fire evokes a something very particular in our imaginations that one can point to a visual scene for example. If I'm speaking about a shade of blue, bright blue, in a way that still is abstract. That's the interesting thing about naming those pieces colors, is that they, it's very concrete for people, but it still maintains that wonderful abstractness that I think music embodies.

FC: That abstractness, that very abstractness of instrumental music, music without words, when you put a title like purple on a piece of music, that has clear meaning for you. Because there's this color association with this key, this sound world. But I wonder if anyone's come up to you afterwards and said, that's not purple! I distinctly saw pink in that.

MT: That doesn't happen that often. And if it did happen that would be the start of a maybe very interesting conversation. Because that would show that somehow that listener were engaged with the music and we can't take that for granted. But I've found that there is this thing in Art where if the creator says or points to an intention, people tend to follow that. And so, OK, if they didn't experience purple, maybe they should have. And they tend to go with. It's kind of amazing, the power of art.

FC: Musical sounds trigger this experience for you. Do everyday sounds ever trigger it?

MT: No. Everyday sounds like a glass breaking on the floor is such a complex series of vibrations. A musical pitch is a focused series of vibrations. And it's much more organized than the sounds, the everyday sounds around us. And therefore, if any color would be associated with these sounds it would be grey. Because it would be all the colors mixing up. And so I don't have color associations.

FC: So many people like me who don't have this synesthetic experience are so curious about it, and pepper you with questions about what it's like, and what do you see? There was an interview in which you said you've given up trying to make the experience real for your audience. Why?

MT: Well, there I again, I don't know that I was ever trying to make it real. If I say this piece is called Bright Blue Music, I guess I'm encouraging them, or inviting them to experience blue, but not demanding that they should have that reaction, and not, of course saying that they should come close to what I experience. I would never even dream of doing that. Music experience should never be fascistic in that way. I think that a piece of music is presented to the world and people bring what they can to that experience, and I welcome the variety of reactions to it.

I don't know what I meant by, "I'm done with making it real." There must have been some context.

FC: And actually, I think I misphrased my question a little bit too. I'm so curious, and I think people who don't have the experience are so curious about, and in a way wish we could have it sometimes. Now of course when you write a piece called Bright Blue Music, I know I'm not going to have the same experience that you have. But there's a way in which I want to. And I wish I could get at that, or I wish I could learn it or acquire it in some way.

MT: Well then, maybe music is the right medium to try to make this as real as it can. Because again there is something magical about these vibrations in the air making human beings respond even at all. It's kind of bizarre, why we should have emotions when we hear music, why we should enjoy it, why we can even remember it. And that maybe in a sense — I'm going around to the other side — that by putting this experience in musical terms might come as close as I can for an audience to experience what I do.

FC: Does your synesthetic experience of experiencing color when you hear music evolve over the course of your life, or is it always the same?

MT: Those colors that I experience don't change. But have noticed that something does change. And that is with age — I'm 47, so one foot in the grave maybe, but there's still, I hope, some good years left. I've noticed though that the perfect pitch that I always took for granted is starting to waver a little bit. And I'll be surprised, I be in rehearsal, and I'll think it's in d-flat, and then I look down, and I realize that the score says D major, and I'm thinking, I'm a half step off, what's happening, I'm losing my hearing. And I'm wondering whether the brain does kind of get demented over time. And hence, if I'm not hearing accurately, I'm experiencing the wrong color! And then it's kind of like, well, OK, what does that mean, that's just part of growing old and having all your faculties fall apart and disintegrate, which I guess is part of life. What we gain with life is wisdom, and what we lose is everything else.

FC: Including synesthesia.

MT: Yes. Of course, I never depended on it too much, so it doesn't seem like much of a loss if it indeed is a loss. But that's yeah, that's just part of aging I guess.

FC: You raise that issue hearing maybe a slightly different key than you thought you were hearing. The fact is, people play in different tuning systems too. I mean, what if, our standard is a 440, if an early music group is using A 412, which is significantly and noticeably lower, and they're playing in D major, then what do you see?

MT: Well then, I mean — remember that I had to make adjustments because my record player, which was ancient when I was a kid in the 1960s, I think actually spun a little more quickly than I should, and so that things were on the sharp side. And so I had to make those allowances. And then you would go to someone's house where their piano was slightly tuned flat. And you had to be a little flexible about it. But with those strange tunings, which I didn't have that much exposure to growing up, would present a problem, yes.

FC: So, an early music group plays in D Major. Do you still see blue?

MT: If however the true vibrations are lending more of a d-flat center, then no I wouldn't. And d-flat is a strange kind of silvery-pinky-pinkish kind of color. It's hard to even put words to it. And so yes, the experience would be completely different.

FC: Silvery-pinky, wow. And if we go up just a tiny bit, does that slide into blue somehow?

MT: Somehow it comes into focus — Djroom! And we're there, you know?

FC: Are you pulling my leg, or is that really what happens?

MT: That sounds ridiculous, but yeah.

FC: It's like the color comes into focus.

MT: Right, right.

FC: See, now, there again, you're describing this sensory experience, I hesitate to even call it a visual experience, because it's just a sensory experience of color. When you hear music and when you hear shifting keys like that — I love music. I mean, music is one of the things that gives my life meaning. And yet I don't have that intense experience that you describe, and than in a sense you take for granted.

MT: Well, and what's weird is that that experience for me isn't what I enjoy about music. The intense emotions that I experience with music, and it is my life, I don't just write it, I enjoy it, and it fills my soul, it's the meaning of my life. That color stuff is less than a half of point zero zero zero one percent of what it is that gives my life enrichment from experiencing music. And maybe that's why I'm coming off this way. It doesn't inform all the great emotions at all! It just seems to be there, you know?

FC: Oliver Sacks suggested that maybe we all have this capacity at birth and in the early months of our lives and then we lose it, either through socialization or our brains grow out of it for some reason. Do you have the sense of it always having been there for you?

MT: Yeah, that it the feeling and the sense that I have. It always was there. And I like that idea, because I think that happens in a lot of areas of like. I think that human beings in general are far more creative than we give ourselves credit. We learn not to be creative with children. I think that we have the capacity for a lot of things that we are socialized out of, or grow out of.

FC: And then the trick is how to get it back.

MT: Which may be impossible. And maybe it's good that we grow out of certain things. Then we focus on other things. You know, it's not necessarily a doomsday response.

FC: Yeah. When you're hearing music, and involuntarily having these sensory experiences of color — is it ever overwhelming, do you ever wish it would just go away?

MT: No. It's not like that either. Thatís the way one could feel about certain emotions where you become particularly sad over something, where it's so overwhelming you can hardly function. I know what that feels like. But again, the color thing doesn't take up space in that way. Doesn't take up energy. It just is.

FC: Just part of the background of your experience. Just like all of us who have sight have this visual field and we look around and there's a bunch of different things and for you there's one more field there, at least when you're listening to music.

MT: Yeah. I think that's right.

FC: Now it seems like, I just sort of have this gnawing feeling in the back of my mind, that there was one more question I wanted to ask you.

MT: Do you, well let me ask you, do you have all the music over there that you might need from me? Do I need to send you anything?

FC: We have the complete Ecstatic catalog, as a matter of fact. Plus the Argo recordings.

MT: Do you have Blue Pacific, the piano piece which is actually in D Major?

FC: We do as a matter of fact. Not only do we have the CD but we have it cued up, actually.

[Blue Pacific]

So, as we're hearing this music, are you having that synesthetic experience yeah.

MT: Yeah. I mean, see how the chords underneath are kind of deep? And it's just that pure, D Major piano sound. I mean, I was really aware of starting this off like in that way of just embracing it, in kind of a pure way, having that melody that winds in and out. Yeah, it was very intentional to embrace it.

FC: Michael Torke, thank you so much for taking a few minutes to talk with me about synesthesia.

MT: My pleasure, thank you.