Spectrum: The Colour of Music; Precision and Impression

spectrum:  the colour of music; precision and impression

Welcome to Spectrum!  

"Spectrum is a unique marriage of art and science, a stunning audio-visual spectacle, giving the audience a true and personal insight into the creative mind of the synesthete."          Dr. Julia Simner, Professor of Neuropsychology, University of Sussex

"Shirley Elias has maintained an exceptional and respected career as a pianist, visual artist and educator who makes cross disciplinary connections. Her paintings take their inspiration from music, but this project integrates a unique approach to visual and sonic connections."                                          Angela Birdsell, Executive Director, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra

A Multi-Media Experience                          

Anna and I designed Spectrum with the goal of sparking audiences' imaginations as they are introduced to a globally rare connection between the time honored traditions of symphonic music and an art exhibition - the world of synesthesia. 

This project is in essence a Rosetta Stone, as audiences will discover a brand new language that literally interprets the sound of music through colour. A language that starts with familiar systems in music and color, and then melds them to create a brand-new language that is unique to one individual in the world (every synesthete has their own palette of harmonies). And what better soundscape to make this discovery than the magical journey of Scheherezade. The music and colour simultaneously flow by in real time.

We are delighted that the project is resonating with all walks of life.

I've never listened to music with the same attention, and intention, than when I was looking at the art in real time to the music. Definitely a unique experience.    - Geraldine De Braune, Integrative Coach

What is Synesthesia?

Synesthesia is a blending of the senses. It's a phenomenon experienced by approximately 4% of the world's population. There are many versions (combinations of different senses) of synesthesia, and Spectrum focuses on chromesthesia, where the 2 blended senses are sound and colour. Simply put, hearing music triggers specific colors.

Every synesthete has their own core colour palette, based on tonalities, all the major and minor keys are a specific colour. However the hues and scope of that palette can expand depending on instrumentation, volume, the range of the pitch, etc. 

The Music

Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade, is a fairy tale adventure. A fantasy soundscape filled with incredible orchestral colours.

The composer is renowned for his orchestration, a "maverick" as Maestro Raiskin describes him. So it might be not a coincidence that Rimsky-Korsakov himself was a synesthete, a surprising and pleasant discovery we made during the research process.

It was important for us that the music for this project was symphonic. Why? Because the orchestra's vast sound palette of textures, timbres, range of pitches, dynamic possibilities, etc, augments Anna's synesthesia experience. For example, if a certain pitch produces a yellow when played by the oboe, the same pitch played by another instrument will probably elicit a different shade of yellow, and change the "texture" of the colour. 

As much of the music is influenced by stories of the sea, it's probably also not a coincidence that Rimsky-Korsakov wrote the piece in the key of E. What's the connection? For him, the pitch "E" was the colour blue, the colour of the ocean. For Anna "E" is yellow. But Anna's huge palette of textures, the music elicited a world of waves. Big waves. Small waves. Jagged waves. Fascinating!

Four movements, approx. 42 minutes in total

About the Art

There are 8 paintings in the Spectrum Exhibition. Four for Anna. Four for Shirley. "Anna's" are the Precision component of the exhibition. "Shirley's" paintings are the Impression component. All were created by Shirley. Keep reading on how the 2 sets of paintings are connected to each other, and to the music. 

PRECISION  ("Anna's" paintings - the stripes)

The Precision paintings ("Anna's") are the core of the exhibition. Together they span almost 17 feet, and are mesmerizing to look at. They are a literal representation, in a primal language, of her brain's "language" when she hears Scheherezade. They represent a "freeze frame" image of her brain in action. A "score" of her brain listening to music. 

There are 4 large canvasses, one for each movement of music. Each canvas has been custom built to size in relationship to the timing of the music. For example, the total length of all 4 canvases is 16 feet and 7 inches, which represents 40 minutes and 55 seconds (for the recording we used). The length of each single canvas was then determined by keeping the same relationship of size to time. 

These paintings are filled with stripes - 537 to be exact. With 269 unique colours (based on the Benjamin Moore palettes). The stripe represents the colours Anna experiences, in sequence as they appear. On average, the colours change every 3-5 seconds. Those changes are of course based on the music, but I find the "average" numbers interesting, as it is similar to the average number of seconds that a person's thoughts change. So keep in mind, that Anna's brain is processing this music in addition to her own thoughts. 

To document all this information, Anna and Shirley shared a large excel spreadsheet, which contained columns for each colour, the time stamp they occur, the number of seconds each colour stayed, the texture of each colour, whether there were multiple colours at one time, the mathematical calculations for the size of the stripes on the canvas, etc... a lot of information!

Anna identified the colours using the Benjamin Moore palettes, so that I had access to the exact hue and intensity. In addition to the colours, almost every stripe also has a texture. Anna's descriptions, which we had to keep short, included jagged, swirling, pastorale, barklike, prickly, shimmering, misty, cloudy, waves, bold palette knife strokes, raindrops, and on and on. I had no idea these existed! Fortunately I work in a lot of gel mediums in my art practice. So I developed a consistent language to represent these, using different tools with the gels. 

How does an artist get over 100 stripes on each canvas perfectly parallel, when many of them measure 2 mm? This was a definite challenge. When I sketched out the first canvas stripes, I was out 4 mm at the end...... the artist in me said, who is ever going to know?! The musician in me (as we strive for perfection), said I needed to start all over. In the end, I ended up using a music technique to make the process easier. All orchestra music has Rehearsal Letters/Numbers imbedded in each musician's score. This allows the conductor and orchestra to each quickly identify specific starting points for rehearsing.

I used that same premise to organize the stripes. I calculated the time/length measurements of each rehearsal letter, marked them on the top and bottom of each canvas onto a piece of green painter's tape. Once those lines were in place, I then had a much more manageable width to make sure I didn't miss a single colour. Very time intensive. But it worked! 

IMPRESSION   (Shirley's paintings)

My 4 paintings, each 40x40, is where I had the creative space to give my Impressions, using the Anna's palette colours for each of her movements. 

My goal here was to bring a bigger voice to Anna's experience in combination with the inspiration of the music. This is where I simultaneously resourced both the musician and artist in me. 

See below for a complete overview of the connections and representations of each movement that I've used in an abstract manner. (This is also explained on the documentary)

Big Screen on Stage - Documentary

Audiences follow along to high definition still images of insets from the Precision (striped) paintings, projected on a big screen over the orchestra. There are 27 images during the performance, each representing 1 to 3 minutes of music. A piano score with time changes is available to facilitate ease of presentation.

Educational Opportunity

I've created a 1.5 hour presentation, zoom access or in-person, that explores a complete overview of this project, Introducing the composer, the Scheherezade story, the music, the art, and the world of synesthesia that brings this all together.

meet the team

the premiere performance of Spectrum:  The Colour of Music

shirley elias

Visual artist, pianist

Photo credit Chronic Creative

anna schwartz

Pianist, composer, conductor, synesthete

Photo credit Chronic Creative

winnipeg symphony orchestra

Maestro Julian Pellicano

Photo credit Chronic Creative

project of a lifetime!

Combining my worlds of making music and creating art under one umbrella was an incredible experience. Discovering the world of synesthesia, or specifically chromesthesia (when someone experiences colours in response to hearing music) fired up my creative energies to new heights. 

Anna Schwartz is a vastly talented musician, a pianist, a composer and a conductor, and part of my piano studio at Canadian Mennonite University. Together we created this project, Spectrum, that brought a visual language through my art to Anna's colours when she hears music.

 When we were designing this project the orchestra was our dream partner as this multi-instrument platform augments Anna's colours and textures. We were thrilled to have the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra partner with us on this first presentation.

The music that Anna chose was Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade, a tour-de-force orchestral suite that takes listeners on a fantastical musical journey. Rimsky-Korsakov is renowned for his colourful orchestration - and was himself a synesthete. 

The central 4 paintings from this project are filled with 537 stripes with 269 specific colours. The width of each stripe was calculated to reflect the amount of time each colour is experienced in context of the length of the whole piece. The end result is a primal visual language, a "score" of the brain listening to music. 

  IMAGINE a new way of listening

Prior to the concert I presented the audience with the following analogy to help them imagine the magic of Anna's experience,

ANALOGY  Each musician has a black and white score on their music stand. The music is filled with neat little lines and dots and it reads like a book from left to right. When musicians come together and each perform their own "book", the music, audiences are transported into a moving, emotional sound scape, seemingly light years away from a piece of paper filled with lines and dots. Similarly, these striped paintings are a score to Anna's world. Like the music, her world is seamless, enveloping, layered, transparent, textured. She doesn't see these concrete lines. These are just a gateway for our understanding and audiences are encouraged to use their imaginations as they listen to the music and follow the "score". A discovery path into the world of synesthesia.  A completely new way of listening. 

meet the music

Rimsky-Korsakov,  Scheherezade, Op 35

telling the story from a completely new perspective

Scheherezade is probably Rimsky-Korsakov's most popular work, and is essentially a story about a story teller, Scheherezade. 

It's based on "One Thousand and One Nights", also known as "The Arabian Nights", a collection of oral legends and tales that go back to 9th century Persia, The stories were aurally passed from generation to generation and eventually documented. They contain many of the well-known stories such as Sinbad and the Sea and Aladdin's Magic Lamp. For 1001 nights, Scheherezade entrances her husband the Sultan with these tales, leaving each on a cliffhanger, in order to save her life for another day. 

We are excited to continue telling that story from a completely new visual perspective, based on Rimsky-Korsakov's creation.


The sea and sinbad's ship (1st movement)

Precision 01

impression 01

IMPRESSION 01:  The design for this movement is based on my Carpe Diem series, a series that was initially inspired by sound. Sound that "starts" at the center of the canvas and then flows off all 4 corners of the canvas, like music filling a room. My intention here was to give a bigger voice to Anna's textures, like the "pastoral greens" (seen in the bottom right hand corner), or "big palette knife gestures" (seen in the bottom left hand corner), or "misty blue/greys" (background), the "waves" of the winds in the orchestra (blue and green fan on the left side of the canvas), etc. The big red sweep represents the musical climax of this movement. Red is not one of Anna's tonal colours, but instead shows up when the emotional intensity increases and overrides the usual colour changes that occur for her. You can see this on the Precision 01 painting - several large bands of red. Other references in my Impression 01 are the ivory circle that appears in the background, is the colour of Scheherezade's first theme appearance. This is relates to the 4th stripe in Precision 01, a band of ivory over blue in the bottom. The ivory is the Scheherezade played by the 1st violin, and the blue is the harp's accompanying chords. In my painting, the big circle band of orange/yellow waves over the dark blue background represent the big brass section close to the end of the movement. 

This movement is in the key of E. For Rimsky-Korsakov, the key of E was blue, and as much of the music depicts the sea, it is probably not a coincidence that he chose this key to reflect the colour of the ocean. For Anna, E is yellow. While the colour is different, a reoccurring texture for her is waves. Small waves. Big waves. Ripples. 

the tale of prince kalendar (2nd movement)

precision 02

impression 02

IMPRESSION 02:  This movement is a real showcase for various instruments in the orchestra, in music that is rhythmic and highly energetic. You'll notice in Precision 02 that there are several stripes divided in half - this is when there is a solo over the orchestra and Anna sees these colours together. The colour of the solo instrument(s) is always on top. Sometimes the solo is an individual instrument, like the flute or oboe, and sometimes it is a whole section, like the cellos. In my painting, I decided to use a cubist approach, with a boxed grid, to give an angular voice to the rhythmic energy of the music. Within this grid I've sketched 7 instruments, and each instrument is painted only in the colours that appear when they are being featured. See if you can find the cello, trombone, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and french horn.

Rimsky-Korsakov described Scheherezade as "a kaleidoscope of fairy tale images". I loved this description as that imagery kind of described this project for me. Many of us can probably relate to that childhood experience of looking through a kaleidoscope and having an image fractured into colours. That's how this project resonated for me. I was grounded in my understanding of music and art, but like the kaleidoscope, when I tried to picture them through the synesthesia lens, my foundation in these 2 art forms started swirling together. Mesmerizing me.

The middle of my Impression 02 painting is a reference to that kaleidoscope. The lines of the boxed "grid" of the canvas do continue in the middle of the image, however they start to wave before they meet up on the other side. Creating that kaleidoscope swirling movement.

the young prince and princess (3rd movement)

precision 03

impression 03

IMPRESSION 03:   This is the love story, a young prince and a young princess. You'll notice in the striped painting that there are very few half lines, like there were in the second movement. That's because in this movement there aren't as many solos from within the orchestra. This movement is in the key of G, which for Anna elicits purples and magentas. As stated above, Anna's colours don't present themselves in these orderly stripes. They blend from one to the other, in layers, swirling, shimmering, and very transparent. So in this impression, I wanted to give a voice to that part of her experience. No delineated sections. Layers of colours. Swirls of colours. A vibrancy in those warm pinks and purples.

festival at baghdad. the sea. 

the ship goes to pieces on a rock. (4th movement)

precision 04

impression 04

IMPRESSION 04:   This final movement is full of energy from the very first note. So much so that within the first few seconds, Anna experienced the colour black, which is not a tonal colour for her, but rather a recognition of musical tension. Of course I was pretty happy about this as I love to use black! For the first 3 Impressions I felt restricted without black, and was definitely excited to bring that dynamic into this movement, where the music is filled with drama. The image I chose to play with here was "waves". Brain waves and ocean waves. The latter, the ocean waves, play a central role in the music, which depicts a big ship wreck in the final climax of the work. And of course brain waves is kind of what this whole project is based on. The uniqueness of Anna's brain activity. In Anna's colours/stripes, there were reoccurring threads of blue, so I used that colour to highlight/outline swirling lines, similar to brain wave imagery. I augmented the energy by overlapping layers and layers of waves, 

I was fascinated how Anna's colours completely coincided with the fading energy of this movement's ending. Unlike most large symphonic works that culminate in a grandiose finale, Scheherezade fades away to silence over the last few minutes. In the story line, it's been said that Scheherezade finally falls asleep, after 1001 nights of story telling. And the last few minutes of music is the only time that Anna experienced very soft pastel colours - so different from the rest of the musical colours. The movement started with the bravado and tension of reds and blacks, and after going through the eye of the storm, the music ends peacefully. Quiet sounds. Quiet colours. 


Documentary link coming soon!

CMU Media Centre, May 2022

    CMU student (Anna Schwartz) and instructor (Shirley Elias) make music come alive through music and art. 

CBC Radio March 2022

   A unique concert with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra combines sight and sound.

Classic 107 Radio, March 2022

    Seeing the colors of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade..... literally - with host Chris Wolf

Bring it to your orchestra

If you're interested in presenting Spectrum, please contact me directly at shirleyelias.art@gmail.com


  SHIRLEY ELIAS    Visual artist, pianist, faculty CMU     

Shirley Elias has divided her career between creating color as a pianist, with multiple piano concerto premieres (some written specifically for her and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra), and creating color on canvas. Over 500 original paintings are hanging in private and corporate collections around the world, in 8 countries. 

    ANNA SCHWARTZ  Pianist, composer, conductor.  Synesthete.

Anna Schwartz is a multi-talented artist, pianist, composer and conductor. Despite still a student, her orchestral work has been performed by orchestras, she recently conducted the premiere of her first opera, she's presented at an international conference, is scheduled for her first full concerto appearance - and completed her MCAT exam. She is currently a performance major and piano student of Shirley Elias. 

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