The Red of His E String

Inside a studio at the camp he runs for gifted young musicians on New York’s Shelter Island, virtuoso violinist Itzhak Perlman keeps a huge jar of pretzels and a huge jar of jelly beans for the kids to nibble on. It occurred to him a couple of days before speaking with me to open the jar of jelly beans and ask his charges at The Perlman Music Program to each pick the bean which matched the color of the sound they were about to play. The class would then have to guess the color each one chose. For Mr. Perlman, music has not just sound but color, shape and texture among other identifying qualities. To teach the young people to play more subtly and artfully he wanted them to imagine what color it might represent. They all chose different colors, speaking to the great diversity of humankind and how music affects people uniquely.

I’m glad Mr. Perlman was thinking of me and our upcoming interview that day with the jelly beans – what a touching image for him to start with.  I’m imagining what it is like sitting in his Long Island classroom, a young girl just aware of her colors. I imagine the dappled light and the calm waters of the sound and how it is not far from where F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote synesthetically of the “yellow cocktail music” that played there in the Gatsby era.

It hasn’t been easy getting him to talk; he’s carefully protected by layers of people as an international treasure should be. I spent many weeks sending letters and making phone calls to gatekeepers to see if the longstanding rumor in the synesthesia community that he also has the condition were true. It became so symbolic to me in a quest for beauty and light in my life. Could he help me understand this mystery through his own experience of it?

While I wait I fill my house with his music and find it soothing beyond belief. Finally, I prevail and learn he will speak when he has a break teaching at his prestigious camp for children.

When the day arrives, some of the adrenaline I knew at dangerous levels in my previous life as a breaking news reporter kicks in, but I notice it’s a better kind of nervousness. I'm interviewing Mr. Perlman as part of a book project on a quest for the beauty that is synesthesia. When I hear his voice, I realize I can listen to his rich baritone as long as his violin playing. It is like James Earl Jones or as one might imagine the voice of God. His conversation is melodic, with bold statements in places and at other times sweet flourishes, cadenced beautifully throughout and with a rich vocabulary. I realize the reason he is the finest violinist in the world. He is the violin.

Mr. Perlman was relying on the jelly beans as an associative teaching device to get young people to see music more fully, from many sides. But they might not have known, for him these are also sometimes literal associations. That revelation he has saved for today.

Born in Israel in 1945, Itzhak Perlman studied initially at the Academy of Music in Tel Aviv. He appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1958, which raised his profile internationally. He went on to Juilliard, studying with Ivan Galamian and Dorothy Delay, then won the respected Leventritt Competition in 1964, launching his career. In recent years he has also appeared as a conductor. President Reagan honored Mr. Perlman with a “Medal of Liberty” in 1986, and in December 2000, President Clinton awarded Mr. Perlman the “National Medal of Arts.”  He serenaded the nation at the inauguration of President Obama. The legendary performer is a testament to the many abilities of the physically challenged, having been struck with polio at the age of 4. Mr. Perlman is devoted to those with such differences. And perhaps it is that part of him who speaks to me now.

The humble maestro hasn’t even talked about his synesthetic associations with other musical friends, but he opens up when I speak with him:

“I know that I can describe certain sounds with color. It’s not music - it’s notes, it’s single sounds,” he begins. “So if I hear a particular sound on a particular string on the violin I could associate that sound with color.…It’s not like I play a piece and I see sparkling blue things.” He begins the song slowly, tentatively. I, too, don’t want people to think I walk around like someone on an acid trip all the time. I’m careful who I tell things to and he wants to be, too.

But I understand that inner knowing, as well. Sometimes I don’t “see” my synesthetic associations out in front of me or in my mind’s eye, but rather “know” inside, that, for example, Tuesday is golden. I want to share so he won’t feel so alone or strange or on the spot. So I tell him about my inner golden Tuesday and he laughs. “That’s just because Monday is over.” We are both laughing now.

“If I play a B flat on the G string, I would say that the color for me is probably deep forest green. And if I play an A on the E string, that would be red. If I play the next B, if I look at it right now I would say that it’s yellow. The bright colors are the upper strings of the violin - for me I associate it with bright colors of the spectrum.” To share one’s personal associations is currency in the synesthesia world and I am so grateful to know his personal palette. We are not all the same. I think how my musical notes are simply colored by the letters representing them and don’t have a separate rainbow like his. There is great diversity within the synesthesia realm.

I try to isolate the individual notes in his songs in my mind. They dance in my mind’s eye on a golden staff notation. I set them there for all time, the way one might put a favorite memento in a glass case. Synesthetes are known to have eidetic (photographic) memories due to the added information of the cross-associations. When I’m recounting his story later, I instantaneously retrieve them from the staff, where they will live for me forever in a jumble of neurons either sitting too close to one another or with less chemical inhibition between them than “normal” people.

In grouping bright or dark colors into high or low octaves, Mr. Perlman is like many people. I remember reading how a mild degree of synesthesia is very common according to Alan D. Baddelay in the book, Essentials of Human Memory. “Most people have a slight tendency to associate high-pitched sounds with bright colors and low-pitched sounds with more somber hues,’’ he writes. And Bulat M. Galeyev noted it in his paper The Nature and Functions of Synesthesia in Music for Leonardo, the MIT journal: “C. Debussy relied upon the effect of that common synesthesia when he transposed the familiar motif in The Lullaby of the Elephant Call into the lowest register.” However in linking specific colors to the notes in those groups, the maestro is unique.

Mr. Perlman explains that “One of the languages that one uses in teaching in describing what is missing from a [musical] phrase is, ‘You need to give some color to these phrases. That phrase didn’t have enough color. Or change colors.’

He says that has to do with variety and that shading is an even more precise description – certain colors can be more pastel, more bold, and so on. And that’s very much associated with the sound that one produces, he explains. When he teaches he uses that analogy to describe what he wants. I realize it is common for musicians or even writers to talk about coloring a phrase.  And people without synesthesia can understand the sentiment of various colors: Paint the town red, in a blue mood, green with envy, black-hearted, purple with rage. Iconic writers from Emily Dickinson in Dying to Pablo Neruda in Poetry have used cross-sensory pairings as metaphor. And yet, synesthesia is that and more.

Dr. Oliver Sacks wrote of synesthesia and music in Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.  “For most of us, the association of color and music is at the level of metaphor. ‘Like’ and ‘as if’ are the hallmarks of such metaphors. But for some people one sensory experience may instantly and automatically provoke another. For a true synesthete, there is no ‘as if’ – simply an instant conjoining of sensations.” (Italics mine)

Dr. Sacks gets at the heart of the matter here. If I wanted to be metaphorical about Mr. Perlman’s friend Yo Yo Ma playing Bach’s Prelude in G, I would pick something lovely, such as it like the sound made by Spring’s first flowers emerging from under the last winter snow. In truth, though I love this piece and it makes me want to wax poetic as much as anyone, it is for me a less bucolic image of ribbons of coffee coming from his strings in the shape of those glossy Christmas peppermints that fold back on themselves like waves. It is not a metaphor to me, it is a real image. And synesthetes know the difference.

But there is overlap between synesthetes themselves and metaphor. Dr. V.S. Ramachandran of the University of California at San Diego says that synesthesia is as high as eight times more common in creative people: Poets, writers, musicians and artists of various kinds. “If you assume that there is greater cross-wiring and concepts are located in different parts of the brain, then it’s going to create a greater propensity toward metaphorical thinking and creativity in people with synesthesia,” he said in a TED lecture. He told me he believes the gene for synesthesia is actually expressed more diffusely throughout synesthetes’ brains than just the known hotspots, providing pathways that create an environment for linking seemingly unrelated things. If connected neurons live in concentrated groups in some minds, the synesthesia brain may have a wider fishing net of interconnected nerves.

So Mr. Perlman has both literal synesthesia and a propensity for metaphor – they seem to go together. And he says the young people – none of whom are synesthetes - get it when he goes at music metaphorically. “I think that people get it in their own way. Everybody has a particular association with what you describe. Teaching, and it’s very interesting because it is even more obvious when teaching the voice, is unless you are really in the person’s body, the way you describe what you want is extremely important. So language is really very, very important as to how you can say something to somebody and have them translate it in a particular way.”

He doesn’t remember how old he was when he noticed his particular note to color associations. “I just felt that it was an obvious thing... because it’s not like it’s a gift that you can do tricks with or something like that. It’s just something that you can associate with.”

But I think you can do tricks with it. I want to show him the beauty of the condition to repay him in some small way. So I ask if it comes in handy as a mnemonic device given the huge amount of memorization he must do for his profession. For example, I ask him if he ever plays a piece of music and knows some red is coming up ahead in the song? And he says yes, that is the case!

Mr. Perlman has another revelation now that he’s thinking about the hard-to-verbalize experience. I feel a comfort level growing between us. “Besides colors I see shapes,” he admits. “Each note has a shape. I would say that if you play a D on the G string, for me that’s round. But if you play an A on an E string for me, that’s much more flat, the shape of it. I hope not the intonation, but the shape of it.”

After hearing the association of colors and shapes from Mr. Perlman, I take this question to a top neuroscientist and author of Sum: 40 Tales from the Afterlives, Dr. David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “The short answer is that the brain areas involved in color are next to—and in fact continuous with—the areas involved in form and texture.  And this is why color synesthesia quite often involves more than just color.” This explains my “prelude in coffee” strangeness. Perhaps the note G lives in my brain next-door to the color tan as well as Christmas peppermints. But then why do all the tests for synesthesia, including Dr. Eagleman’s Synesthesia Battery, rely on custom color bars alone, leaving translation of the fuller experience wanting?

“Interestingly, we cannot answer how rare it is to have more than color, because none of us have rigorously studied that so far,” explains Dr. Eagleman. “And that’s because it’s easy to set up a color palette for consistency testing, but very difficult to set up an exhaustive form palette or texture palette to confirm synesthesia.”

Mr. Perlman says music is shape, it’s feel and it’s color – it’s everything. “It’s everything that you can use to describe the note. The important thing is the way that it’s helpful in identifying the sound, and in sort of being involved with the sound, to actually have a feel about what the sound does to you. It does to you with shapes, it does to you with intensity, it does to you with colors. And then you can really associate yourself with the sound. But sound, when you hear anybody play an instrument or sing, the first thing that you hear, the first thing that you’re struck by, is a sound. You’re struck by the sound without even wanting to be struck by the sound. It’s just there, it’s the first thing that meets your ear.”

He points out how if someone has an amazing sound, your ears perk up right away. And if someone does not have a good sound or play with caring about the sound, that’s also immediately evident. This instantaneous judgment goes on within all of us before we think the first thought about it, it seems. “This is the first thing that hits the listener, is the sound,” explains Mr. Perlman.  I think about how people’s musical tastes vary so much but there is still often a consensus of what is beautiful. Perhaps there is another hidden, more universal quality to music. It could be the way people all respond, almost subliminally, positively to the most symmetrical human faces on tests of what is attractive. The individual traits of the faces can be very diverse, from skin to eyes, to the shape of the nose – but the symmetry triggers a positive response.

Notes on a violin are not the only things that trigger the color centers in Mr. Perlman’s mind. He also associates color with singing voices. He remembers somebody talking about singers one day. They were talking about Pavarotti and Domingo and other wonderful singers and voice, the sound, was the first thing that came up. Then someone mentioned a third tour de force in the singing realm that Mr. Perlman was not as well acquainted with and he later took the opportunity to sample his music. “…the voice was not the most… it didn’t catch you. The presence was fine but not the quality of the voice. I remember this guy and for me the sound of that voice was like yellowish-beige. I don’t like yellowish-beige in my sound. I like, well if you want to describe Pavarotti’s sound, for me that is like metallic blue. It is amazing, there is a metal there, and I could describe it that way.” He is right; Mr. Pavarotti had a presence like steel heated by the hottest flame.

Mr. Perlman says his young people feel the music in ways other than just color.  His camp featured a master class where he and another teacher were talking about Brahms. The teacher asked the kids to describe the sound of Brahms. They didn’t use color to describe it, but texture. “One word that came out was thick, another word was heavy, another word was full, and concentrated, as opposed to something like Mendelssohn which was airier. So there are a lot of ways to describe music, not just colors.’’

Those ways are as varied as there are people playing music, he points out. And we are also individually moved differently by the music we hear. When he talks with the kids he teaches, he has a question. “I call it ‘The Goose Bump Moment.’ In particular music what gives you ‘The Goose Bump Moment?’ ” Mr. Perlman finds it interesting because when you ask people to isolate a piece and in this piece find a moment that absolutely slays them it will not necessarily be the same moment. It’s all affected by what harmony does to the senses, he says. “And so I can listen to something Brahms wrote or Mozart or whomever it is and absolutely start to cry.’’

When he thinks about it that way, he says he feels very lucky that he responds that way and knows not everyone does. “If you pick up 10 people walking down the street, you cannot be guaranteed that everyone will listen to Brahms and be totally moved. So it’s all very, very individual.” He points to people who are moved to tears at the age of four or five before they develop their taste in music. They may not understand what they’re listening to but react to it nonetheless.

What is that, I wonder? Is it the music resonating with each person’s own inner tuning fork? I have cried as well with music sometimes, and not always at the lyrics but a beautiful instrumental. And how about the chills we all get sometimes? I think of Lara Fabian singing Adagio in Italian and how I always shiver listening to it despite not being fluent in that beautiful language. I remember Dr. Mehmet Oz telling me in an interview once how he plays recordings of the wooden ney flute (used by the Sufi dervishes of his Turkish heritage) in his operating rooms to help stabilize surgery patients and how effective it is. Perhaps we don’t play music, but it plays us.

Mr. Perlman notes another magical happening in a teacher’s experience – encountering the prodigy. “Sometimes when you hear somebody do something that the colors are so vivid, it’s not necessarily that they’ve studied it, it’s that it comes naturally,” Mr. Perlman explains. “And that doesn’t happen very often. But every now and then among kids, young kids sometimes, they do it naturally, and that you cannot teach… If that’s the case then you don’t have to do anything.” He says that he has learned that great teaching, what a good teacher is all about, is that when you hear something that you like you should just let it happen and not over-teach. He always says the secret, or the element of being a very good teacher is not knowing what to say but knowing what not to say. “You leave that gift alone. Words can be destructive or constructive, they can be both, and that’s a fine line you have to be able to know.” I wish by now every child could learn from Mr. Perlman. He is a careful gardener. And his words about this ineffable experience are helping me find my own.

If there is a spirituality to synesthesia or music to Mr. Perlman, it’s in the vast diversity of human experience with it. “There’s a very personal aspect and everybody, I believe, is truly an individual. And each individual, the process they do and how they hear is totally individual. I always feel that, say for example, how does harmony move you? What gives you a particular response? And why is it that when we hear certain things we cry? That’s not explainable.”

Perhaps one of Mr. Perlman’s most memorable performances was on the 1996 Academy Awards ceremony broadcast, when he played John Williams’ Theme from Schindler’s List. He told the film critic Gene Shalit at the time that he didn’t hesitate for a moment when asked to bow the heart-rending song, so realistic was its melody and important its meaning. “I couldn’t believe how authentic [Williams] got everything to sound and I said, ‘John where did it come from?’ he told Mr. Shalit. Mr. Williams explained that he’d had some practice with Fiddler on the Roof and it all seemed to come naturally. “The subject of the movie was so important to me and I felt that I could contribute simply by just knowing the history and feeling the history, and indirectly, actually, being a victim of that history.”

When I ask Mr. Perlman what colors that now classic composition elicits, he pauses. The song that so embodied the spirit of the film resonates with him still, but the associated emotion has created a void. “I didn’t think of colors there,” he says quietly, reverently. I think about how the darkness of events can blot out one’s synesthesia or make you overlook it. It certainly was the case for most of my life.

I thank Mr. Perlman for many goose bump moments over the years, most importantly, the one I’m having now. “Very nice,” he says softly, the last pull of his voice’s bow during our interlude.

The red of his E string is like a long-awaited transfusion. I’m alive.

MAUREEN SEABERG is a New York City-based journalist working on an agented book titled Grace Notes: A Journey Into My Synesthesia about her quest to discover the meaning of her own blended senses. She has colored numbers, letters, days of the week, months and music. She was awarded a scholarship in 2009 to workshop the book at the inaugural Norman Mailer Writers Colony. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Daily News, ESPN the Magazine, Irish America and others. She lectured on synesthesia and spirituality at the Toward A Science of Consciousness Conference at the University of Arizona at Tucson in April. She is a graduate of Penn State University and holds a certificate in superior-level Spanish Language from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid.