Autumn 2006

The alchemy of interpretation

Neither downloading, promoting nor selling, Seemusic is about the age-old quest to experience sound as vision

Web technology has had a huge, impact upon music, but most of the discussion centres around fandom and sales: digital distribution and sales. With Seemusic (, Maria da Gandra of Mwmcreative has taken a different tack, using her site to interpret music with graphic means: colour, symbol, type, illustration and movement. Her aim is ‘to visually communicate a complex subject area in its most simple, accessible and abstract form,’ given the audience’s familiarity with music.

Da Gandra began Seemusic while still a student at Central Saint Martins, and developed it further for her MA. The website pulls together research into the equivalence of eye and ear throughout history: a series of short essays links composers to scientists, philosophers and other thinkers who have attempted to correlate sound and vision.

Seemusic’s chronology begins approximately five centuries BC with Pythagoras and Pindaro and ends in the twentieth century, making use of shapes, icons and colours that represent the ideas of each era. Principles brought into play range from the ‘Harmony of the Spheres’ through alchemy, to more sophisticated theories about colour wheels and synaesthesia.

The site incorporates twelve music extracts. A Glenn Gould recording of Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C major (from The Well-Tempered Klavier) is paired with abstract symbols based on Newton’s theories of the spectrum. Accompanying Telemann’s organ piece Concerto per la Chiesa in G major are coloured organ keys in enhanced perspective, inspired by Louis-Bertrand Castel (inventor of the Ocular Harpsichord).

The most recent composition is the fifth of Messiaen’s Sept haïkaï. This is the sort of work, performed by the Cleveland Orchestra (cond. Pierre Boulez), that is conventionally described as ‘colouristic’. Here, the intricate score is traced by a posse of pastel lozenges whose tints are based on the ideas of Adrien Bernard Klein (aka Adrian Cornwell-Clyne, 1892-1969), whose Colour Projector (1921) controlled multiple carbon-arc lamps from a keyboard.

With Seemusic, Da Gandra is laying groundwork for a kind of multimedia work that explains itself though the use of real-time information: there is a symbol for each note. Though this might be described as a ‘graphic score’ (see Eye no. 26 vol. 7), it is not so much notation as annotation – a colourful torrent of information alongside the streamed recording.

Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1533) developed a ‘Harmony of the Spheres’ scheme by ascribing colours and emotions to the planets. A century later, Robert Fludd and his contemporary Michael Maier were similarly fascinated by such unscientific puzzles as alchemy and astrology: Fludd decided that colour came from the elements. Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens (see Eye no. 37 vol. 10) – described as the first work of multimedia – links music to alchemy, poetry and art. Da Gandra traces Maier’s Fugue XIX with icons that represent earth, water, fire and air.

Da Gandra’s 2500-year overview – using symbols that range from coins, through stained glass, mythical creatures, prisms and beakers to pure colour – has led her to believe that ‘the world of sound and the world of vision are naturally interlinked.’ Yet it seems unlikely that universal criteria could exist to equate sound and vision. The theories seem largely subjective, closer to art than science.

But for Scriabin, who ‘suffered’ from synaesthesia (an involuntary fusion of the senses) there was no choice: sound was vision.