More On The Secret Lives of Colour by François Houle 

“Colour, just like shapes, textures, is yet another bridge between the real world and the imagination”   

This series of compositions is inspired by Kassia St Clair’s book The Secret Lives of Colour. The stories and historical facts surrounding colours made me think immediately about how colour plays a significant role in the way musicians describe music. The music for this project therefore draws from the history of colours to convey a sense of what I hear and feel when I read these stories. 

What do I hear when I experience nature, look at a painting in an art gallery, or simply moving through everyday life? Like so many musicians, colour has always played a significant role in my compositional process; it’s often how I visualize sound. Chromesthesia or sound-to-colour synesthesia is a type of synesthesia in which sound involuntarily evokes an experience of colour, shape, and movement. Synesthetes who perceive colours while listening to music experience the colours in addition to the normal auditory sensations. When I was a young, I came to understand this after reading Olivier Messiaen’s writing on music modes, and his rare ability to see very specific colours upon hearing certain pitches. Although I do not experience this to the same degree as some of my musical colleagues, I do see abstract shapes that evoke faded shades of Absinthe, Obsidian, and Saffron, triggering fleeting thoughts of modes, rhythms, and melodic fragments. 

From the caves of Lascaux to the Caravaggisti, the Gladzor Gospel to Cambridge’s Dr. Dee, St Clair reveals a hidden universe that is surprising and sometimes unexpected. Reading her findings makes one appreciate even more the complex wonders of our life on this planet. The compositions for this suite do not aim at creating portraits, like Mussorgski’s approach in Pictures at an Exhibition, but rather at making connections with the moods and spirits of the colours, then poetically conveying the sense of mystery held in their secret lives. For me, in music, colour, just like shapes or textures, is yet another bridge between the real world and the imagination.  

François Houle. October 2022. Vancouver, BC.

Tickets & concert info: The Secret Lives of Colour – November 4, 2022 at ANNEX.

Support for The Composer Essay Project is generously provided by SOCAN Foundation.