The Big Picture


For The Big Picture, a new work commissioned for the opening of Aberdeen Art Gallery I felt it was pretty much incumbent on me to explore the relationship between colour and sound. I decided to tackle this by wondering whether, as is sometimes suggested, different keys suggest particular colours to the listener. I don’t have perfect pitch, and am certainly not a synaesthete (I’ve noticed moreover that the one or two people I’ve ever met who describe themselves this way have very equivocal impressions of the colours they ‘hear’, which can’t be simply summed up.)

I searched my brain for any immediate key+colour combinations. What came up first was a bright, electric green. What key was ‘bright, electric’ ? E major, I thought - the sound of open strings and my memories of the clumps of silvery keywork you needed to cover this scale on the oboe. Henry VIII’s poem Green Groweth the Holly seemed ok for this movement – though possibly he meant a dark gloomy green. My next pairing was a sombre dark blue, somehow linked in my mind with D minor – maybe all those famous Requiems, deeply embedded. It seemed faintly ridiculous to use just the first few verses of Wallace Stevens’ enormous poem The Man with the Blue Guitar, but the blue in the background of Picasso’s Old Guitarist was just right.

Following these two experiments, I reverted to a more obvious kind of word painting – though word painting about colours is an interesting idea. For the gold in Robert Frost’s Nothing Gold can Stay (what a wonderful poem to set) I asked the community chorus to bring along some bright metal-y stuff to shake. I wasn’t expecting much, but the sound (marshalled by Lisa Nicol, a superb percussionist based in Aberdeen) was thrilling. I wonder if I can use this sound again somewhere ?! Likewise, a chorus of whispering (for the white in John Boyle O’Reilly’s A White Rose) resonated much more substantially than imagined. As ever, by the end I was off on a new, unrelated tangent – dreaming about a bigger and better exploration of these unexpected, accidental results in the future.

Pictured – The Big Picture keyboard score (performed by Jeremy Coleman) with, in the background, who else but Tracey Emin and Michelangelo.

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JUDITH WEIR

Composer

© Judith Weir, 2020