Mar. 7/09: The colour of music

When I make improvisational music, I don't know what the other musicians will play. We start and it's a discord of sound created in the moment. I listen for patterns to give form to the chaos. I look down at my instruments: a PVC tube, a duck call, a transistor radio, a bullhorn and scissors. I grab the scissors and snip in syncopation to a sputtering saxophone and erratic drums. I'm listening, listening hard. In the pitch-blackness of my mind, I have to be decisive and open and not think too much, because thinking makes me second-guess myself and by then, the moment is gone.

Black is the colour I see when I squeeze my eyes shut and concentrate too hard. When I can get beyond the chatter of my critical inner-monologue, the blackness lifts to clarity and I’m finally free to play.

As a radio-and-television broadcaster by day, my job is to listen to music and interview the artists who create it. Here, too, music is crystal clear. It's the never-ending supply of clear plastic CD cases that protect the music people send me. Each week I receive at least a dozen of them--everything from the latest major-label-manufactured pop star to the struggling diehard artist living in his parents' basement.

Some music is so soul-wrenchingly beautiful; the little hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Other music comes across like an audio assault that has me reaching for the mute button. A random rotation of songs yields an array of sounds: roadhouse rockabilly from Alberta's heartland, a 30-second blast of amphetamine-induced hardcore, a Japanese girl locked in her apartment sings an out-of-tune melody to her cats, the clear righteous voice of Patti Smith cutting to my core.

When I sit down to interview a musician, the window that separates us from the studio technician twiddling knobs behind the soundboard is clear. So is the water in the Styrofoam cup on the table between our microphones.

When the musician is stumped by a question, she fidgets, because sometimes it’s impossible to describe the experience of music with words. She nervously picks bits of Styrofoam from the cup, and then takes a gulp of water to soothe her parched throat that's hoarse from singing ten concerts in a row.

Clear is the quality of the afternoon, many years ago, when my best friend, Julie, and I pretended to be French showgirls (even though we didn't speak French). We took turns singing gibberish songs that got louder and louder until the neighbours complained. Still, we sang our guts out, in the childlike spirit of joyous improvisation that becomes harder to access when you grow up and step onto the stage.

To me, music is as clear as the creative impulse. It's as transparent as the CD case that becomes a door to a musician's psyche. It's as clear as a cloudless afternoon in childhood, when I believed anything could happen.

Like glass, music lets the light in, offering a window to all colours.

(Originally published in Chatelaine Magazine, March 2005, as part of the series, "The Colour of…")

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Previous Comments (5)

"I'm was just really shy"

sorry you're JUST mentally disturbed young lady

Hard Truth, March 7, 2009 6:31 PM

Re: Colour:
Loved the interview with the artist from Portland,OR re Flesh colour. Very interesting. I would love to see her expand the theme by using flesh colours of people other than herself. Maybe she will do that some day.

I had an extremely intense course in colour at the Art Institute of Chicago years ago. After I moved to Toronto (1968) I taught Colour at a number of places (Univ. of Toronto, OCA (now OCAD), etc based on what I had learned.

As a way to show students that our memory for colour is lots worse than our memory for music, etc. I gave them choices of many red papers, and asked that they choose the colour used in Coke ads. They were 90% wrong!

Re Flesh colour, my guess is that people who are prejudiced against 'people of colour' are more comfortable with the 'lightest' people of colour. Sadly, I think that prejudiced people will be with us for a LONG time.

This was one of my favorite editions of
DNTO. Thanks!


Alexandra Hall, March 7, 2009 8:03 PM

Ålthough this show is dealing with intriguing themes, it really isn't cutting it for me (at least this one on "colour"). The essays are better than the interviews, but the music selected sounds (except for the Buttons) as if it were predominantly composed and sung by 12-year olds. When done well, idea and concept programs can be fantastic (e.g. Radio Lab - which struggles with its own self-referential cuteness at times). I'll keep listening to see how it evolves.

LISA SMITH, March 7, 2009 9:03 PM

I enjoyed the show today. And I am so relieved! One commentator said that sometimes the white community says "I don't see people in colors, I see people as people, no matter what color they are". The commentator went on to say that if a white person only sees 'people' and not 'people of color', then they are discounting a huge part of that person's history and makeup (paraphrasing here).

I am relieved to know that "persons of color" are also looking at me and seeing the struggle of my Irish ancestors as well as struggle of Christians over the centuries. What great turnabout! All this from just seeing my lily white skin.

I hope I can keep up with the every-changing tides of political correct speech as it relates to race. I thought it was okay to see beyond a person's skin. I guess not.

Kristen, March 7, 2009 9:04 PM

Sounds like Synesthesia?
I wrote about it... at www.victoriarodriguez.com

Victoria Rodriguez, March 7, 2009 9:48 PM
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